Whenever disaster strikes Indonesia, as it so often does in this active seismotectonic epicenter, we scratch our heads and turn to Google maps to locate the source of the bad news. There is a reason for our vague geographical understanding--this archipelago, home to 250 million people, was cobbled together in 1945 after 150 years of Dutch colonization, followed by Japanese occupation in World War II. Spread over 3,000 land miles if arranged tip to tip (with its waters included, much longer) and encompassing countless islands, languages and customs, Indonesia is a smorgasbord of a country best tasted a bite at a time. This is exactly what London journalist and epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani (The Wisdom of Whores) does in Indonesia, Etc.
When Indonesia became independent, its brief declaration officially addressed its plan for unification as follows: "Matters relating to the transfer of power, etc. will be executed carefully as soon as possible." It is the etc. of that statement that drives Pisani's fascination with the country where she first lived in 1991, returned in 2001, and most recently revisited in 2011. For her, Indonesia is "one giant Bad Boyfriend.... It prompts laughter, produces that warm fuzzy feeling that goes with familiarity and slightly embarrassing shared intimacies. Then it forgets important anniversaries, insults friends, and tells endless low-grade lies... you know full well it will all end in tears, and yet you keep coming back for more." Indonesia, Etc. is the chronicle of her most recent visit when she packed up a duffel and traversed much of the country, island by island, dialect by dialect, meal by meal. Her story is as close as we may come to a feet-on-the-street, impassioned and amusing understanding of the fourth-largest-populated country in the world.
Containing 60% of Indonesia's population and the capital city Jakarta (the world's second-largest metropolitan area after Tokyo), the island of Java drives the politics and commerce of the country. Of Jakarta, Pisani says, "It is a vast, chaotic, selfish, stroppy monument to ambition and consumption, a city that knows no bounds... crowded, polluted, and noisy." So she lights out for the territory--by boat, car, bus, plane and foot--to check out the more remote islands: Sumba, with its rural, primitive landscape of sun-scorched rocks and fields that were covered in sandalwood before they were clear-cut for export; Lembata, where dolphin hunters armed with harpoons set out in leaky boats; the eternally rebellious and wealthy Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra, whose relentless independence movement took a breather only after the 2004 tsunami claimed 170,000 lives and $7 billion in U.S. aid arrived.
Because of Pisani's willingness to immerse herself in a local habitat ("I had only one rule: 'Just say yes.' "), we are treated to a full portrait of Indonesian culture, politics, language and commerce. One could ask for no better guide to this sprawling country where "farmers go to their rice field on a motorbike, and villagers film a ritual sacrifice on their mobile phones."
Bruce's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness on Friday, June 6.