‘The Interpreter From Java’ by Alfred Birney – Review
Fiction Books, June 2020, By: Yvonne Gill
‘Him and me’, but not quite ‘us’
Wow! I am really not too sure that I am going to be able to do this piece of work the justice it deserves in my review, and I do hope that I have interpreted the inferences in the way in which they were intended. I think this manuscript would probably benefit much more from the understanding and knowledge of a literary critic, or historian, who could offer the recognition it no doubt commands.
For me personally, I would have preferred to have known which sections of the story were fiction and which memoir and factual, although I am guessing more of the latter, rather than the former. The translation was excellent on the whole, although I did find the story layout rather disjointed and at times quite rambling. I found myself having to re-read passages a couple of times, in order to work out exactly whose voice I was hearing in the dialogue, so some clearly marked chapters and more concise narrative, may have made for a slightly shorter, easier to follow journey, through what was undoubtedly a very important documentation of this period in Dutch East Indies (Indonesian) history. An emotionally draining, highly personal account, which holds nothing back in the telling and is definitely not reading for the faint of heart.
The conflict between the Dutch East Indies and the occupying Japanese army is, I have to confess, a part of World War II about which I knew little if anything at all at the start of my reading of this book. The violent, brutal treatment of a nation and its people by their invaders, is exposed in vivid detail by Alan’s father and grandfather, setting the scene for what is to become a lifelong vendetta against authority by both men, in which they don’t hold back in playing their bloody, sickening parts in what is probably in all truth, the reality of a war which had begun years previously, with the Dutch colonisation of the nation.
The atrocities committed on all sides of the divide are portrayed in horrific detail, using a vivid language which cannot be mistaken for anything other then what it is, leaving the reader unable to escape and in no doubt about what they are witnessing, if they were to simply close their eyes and imagine themselves there. Arto’s diary entries are raw and intense, not given to any finesse or literary skills. We are thus treated to the horrors and terrors first hand and laid bare, although how much of the action has been embellished slightly in the telling, as I got the impression that Arto thrived on recognition and praise from his peers and masters, I guess we will never know. Arto is ostensibly an interpreter, later assigned as a Special Services employee, although he preferred to introduce himself as a Dutch Marine, a title he perceived was more befitting of his mixed heritage. In reality either such job title seems to have given him carte blanche to become one of the most feared and violent of aggressors and interrogators, deliberately placing himself at the forefront of any military confrontation, to all intents and purposes an assassin in chief, where he strove not to take prisoners, preferring to mete out his own style of instant justice.
Having survived what was almost the massacre of a nation by the Japanese Army, one would have thought that Arto would have then come down on the side of an independence coup by the Indonesian people, to gain freedom from their Dutch colonial masters. However, the ever troubled Arto, decided that he would back the recolonising Dutch forces who were being sent into the area, turning his back on many of his friends and family, heading to what he believed to be the endless possibilities for advancement, which would await him under Dutch rule, or even in the Netherlands itself, if that transition were possible. When it became apparent that the Dutch may have to cede their colonised state to the independence movement, Arto was evacuated and repatriated as a collaborator, alongside many of the fleeing Dutch and found himself in what he had anticipated being the Europe of his dreams.
Arto however, is always striving for that elusive recognition which never really materialises, so is never going to be happy with his new found freedom, simply moving from being an outcast in his own country, to being just as much an outcast in another. He just never wakes up to the fact that he has lost that which could have been the most important thing in his life – the love and respect of his own family – perhaps that is because he has never learned to love and respect himself.
That Arto’s father had himself suffered at the hands of the Japanese Army, is never disputed, neither is there any doubt about the way those events shaped his future and mental well-being, culminating in the sustained beatings and abuse to which he subjected Arto’s mother, Arto himself and his siblings. Thus, I could see how this also begins a lifelong struggle for the troubled and badly damaged Arto, in his personal unseen war against his invisible demons, which he documents infinitely and copiously, but without ever really apportioning blame, or atoning for his own part in the impact they have on either his own life, or that of his family. That the man is shaped by his own father, I don’t think is in any doubt, however the wedge which Arto then drives between his offspring, most particularly between Alan and his twin brother Phil, is an almost unforgiveable act of wickedness, only adding to the brutal upbringing he had subjected them all to and the coercive controlling behaviour he displayed towards his wife.
There are multitudinous recorded instances of abuse, cruelty, abandonment and violence against Alan’s mother and siblings, instigated by and personally recorded within the pages of Arto’s meticulously kept diaries, so much so that I needed a lot of stamina to keep ploughing through them. Who, having inflicted such terrible mental and physical cruelty on their own family, wouldn’t have wanted to hide their deeds and hang their heads in shame? So I wonder if Arto felt that by committing his acts to paper where they could be read about by others, he was in fact condemning or condoning his own behaviour? I would like to be generous and think the former, however in the cold light of day, I honestly feel that Arto wore his transgressions like a badge of honour! In fact, the many confessions almost became overwhelming in their frequency and intensity, but I felt that I owed it to Alan and the rest of the family to keep reading this important and powerful piece of social commentary, right until the bitter end.
In the final reckoning however, Phil is at least willing to consider that many of Arto’s failings were not necessarily of his own making, more a product of his own childhood and upbringing. Alan however, is unwilling to concede any mitigation for his father’s behaviour, even at the very end, when Arto’s death closes the chapter in his life and the man he grew to hate with a vengeance, no longer had the power or ability to hurt him any further.
Arto, an uncompromising, demonic beast of the cruellest kind who enjoyed meting out retribution; or a complex and disturbed individual, searching for a sense of belonging and unable to control the behaviour instilled in him by his upbringing and circumstances?
An excellent piece as a one off detour from my usual reading genres, there is no doubting the book’s merit as an important piece of social history, as well as an insight into the political machinations of a part of the world about which I knew very little, but now know a whole lot more!
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 4 out of 5 stars!
“As a young man in Surabaya, my father saw the flying cigars of the Japanese Air Force bomb his home to rubble, he saw Japanese soldiers behead civilians, he committed acts of sabotage for the Destruction Corps, was tortured and laid in an iron box to broil beneath the burning sun, he saw Japanese soldiers feed truckloads of caged Australian prisoners to the sharks, he saw Punjabi soldiers under British command sneak up on the Japanese and slit their throats, he learned of the death of his cousin on the Burma railway, heard how his favourite uncle was tortured to death by Japanese soldiers on his father’s family estate, he betrayed his ‘hostess’ sister’s Japanese lover, he guided Allied troops through the heat of East Java, where Indonesian rebels were hung by the ankles and interrogated while he – an interpreter – hammered away at a typewriter, he helped the Allies burn villages to the ground, he heard the screams of young rebels consumed by flames as they ran from their simple homes into a hail of gunfire, he learned to handle a gun and, at a railway station, riddled a woman and her child with bullets when a Javanese freedom fighter took cover behind them, he led an interrogation unit in Jember, broke the silence of the most tight-lipped prisoners, he was thrown 250 feet into a ravine when his armoured vehicle hit a landmine, he was ordered by a Dutch officer to supervise the transport of inmates from the municipal jail in Jember and, arriving at Wonokromo station in Surabaya after a nine-hour journey, he dragged the corpses of suffocated prisoners from the goods train, he found the body of an Indo friend who had blown his brains out because his girl had slept with a Dutch soldier, and, amid the chaos of Bersiap, he killed young men with whom he had a score to settle.”
“And pig headed as you are, you continued to watch those mindless American movies all your life, films in which war is for heroes and peace is for cowards.”
“The worst thing was the moment before our heads collided. In a split second you look deep into the eyes of your terrified brother. And he looks into yours. I can’t remember the last time we looked into each other’s eyes. I’m afraid we never really have, afraid we’ve avoided each other’s gaze our whole lives long.”
“In certain cases, treat your enemy as a friend. Let him feel victorious. Wait for his moments of weakness, then strike.”
“Speaking your mind is not hurtful. At most, it’s annoying for the other person. But silently excluding someone from the group with a stare and without a single word, strips them of the right to defend themselves.”
“Freedom is being able to open a door and close it behind you. It’s that simple.”
“It slowly began to dawn on me that a soldier is nothing more than an instrument in the hands of politicians.”
“Of course we have all made mistakes, most arising from the fact that error is inherent in the works of man and is therefore to be forgiven.”
“Basically, Pa was a man of feeling. But in the outside world he had to operate as a man of reason.”
“He will come to see that how we are born and the paths our lives take are not within our mortal grasp.”
On September 3, 2020, the London-based publishing house ‘Head of Zeus‘ released the hardcover edition of ‘The Interpreter from Java’, translated by David Doherty: