Getting out of Djarkata

Rachel Ingalls

The Australian film-maker Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously is set in Djakarta shortly before the failed Communist coup of 1965. The story concerns three characters: Guy Hamilton, a half-Australian, half-American reporter working on his first big assignment for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Jill Bryant, English assistant to the British military attachè; and Billy Kwan, a dwarf-like photographer who is half-Australian, half-Chinese, and who takes secret photographs and keeps lengthy files on the other characters, especially the ones he cares about. The audience is actually introduced to Guy as Billy is typing up the dossier on him. Billy is like a stage-manager: he teams up with Guy, furthers his career by getting him an interview with the head of the Communist Party, and introduces him to Jill in the hope that the two will fall in love, which they do.

It is entirely owing to Billy’s manoeuvrings that Guy wins a respected position among the other journalists in the city. These include a lecher named Curtis, who one evening buys Guy a dwarf while Billy is sitting at the same table. A joke, says Curtis. Later on, when Curtis is given Saigon as his next assignment, the animosity is forgotten and Guy goes out on the town with him. But at the beginning, Guy’s only close acquaintance is Billy. He looks at things the way Billy teaches him to. ‘I can be your eyes,’ Billy tells him. We see Guy and Billy recording and photographing in the middle of a demonstration. Guy has his first sight of Jill as she appears in a picture taken by Billy. Billy brings him to meet her at the side of a large swimming-pool, follows them on an outing to Priok, takes shots of them when they are not aware of it, and pushes Guy into attending a reception because Jill will be there. By this time Guy is in love. He pulls Jill out of the crowd and takes her home to Billy’s house. Billy, who is supposed to be away at the time, stands outside and gently runs his hand over the bullet-holes on the car that the two lovers have driven through a curfew blockade. (This is one of the two places where you may feel got at by underlined meanings too obvious to be worth noticing. The other point is at the second entry of the Strauss song, when Billy madly types out his St Luke-cum-Tolstoy question, ‘What then shall we do?’ and Kiri Te Kanawa is boosted far beyond an acceptable decibel level, thus goading us into more emotion than the moment can stand.)

Billy too loves Jill. And he has tried to educate Guy to the stage where he is worthy of her. He has shown Guy his collection of puppets: the prince, the princess and the dwarf who is their servant. He himself has adopted a Malay woman and her young son, who falls ill from drinking and bathing in infected water. Billy’s interest is platonic, although the woman is a prostitute. He gives her money to help the child.

When a message about an arms’ shipment comes through the military attaché’s office, Jill tells Guy about it. She wanders around in the rain for a while before coming to the decision, but it does not seem to have occurred to her that he might broadcast the information. ‘You can’t use this,’ she says, and he answers her: ‘Then you shouldn’t have told me.’ She has also told Billy, who is furious with Guy, says that everyone in Djakarta will know where the information came from and that it will be a betrayal of Jill. ‘I created you,’ he claims. ‘I taught you to see things.’ He also says that he gave Jill to Guy and now he’s taking her back.

Guy goes looking for information about the shipment. After helping him to follow one lead, Kumar, his assistant, drives him to an old Dutch villa, where he encounters a glamorously transformed version of his office girl, Tigerlily. She wears a black bathing-suit and tucks her hair into a white bathing-cap. Guy sits at the side of a swimming-pool overgrown by a scum of brownish waterweeds. The girl scrapes away some of the weeds with a sign saying, ‘forbidden’, then dives into the pool. Guy goes indoors to rest. He dreams that he is swimming underwater with the girl. The scene seems at first to be innocent, but suddenly she tries to drown him. He wakes from the dream with the realisation that his office staff belongs to the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party. Kumar admits that if it came to a fight, violence would be necessary. And it is not long before the violence begins.

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[*] Sphere, 296 pp., £1.75, March 1981, 0 7221 5290 6.