Seen and Unseen is a collection of 29 stories tracing three generations of Australians engaged with Asia. Half the stories are set in Indonesia in the period 1984 to 2002. Many focus on cultural differences, while still others take on weightier matters of global significance. Environmental destruction in Bali, Kalimantan and Sumatra and a wistful nostalgia for what has been lost are other dominant themes.
Born in 1947, author Russell Darnley grew up in Sydney with a seafaring father who gave him an interest in what laybeyond. As a young adult he travelled the world and discovered his interests lay in South East Asia. With a background in education and tourism in Indonesia, and a long familiarity with the country, Darnley takes full advantage of the trust his informants have placed in him to spin a good yarn. He is equipped with an acute awareness about the country not found in casual travelers or many travel writers.
This entertaining and enlightening book of essays, travelogue and creative non-fiction spanning 100 years is a work of naked and unflinching honesty. The subject matter perfectly compliments the spirit of this year’s UWRF whose dictum is Tat Tvam Asi, translated as ‘I am you, you are me.” Darnley’s experiences help us understand the lives of others and recognize our common humanity. As the writer himself puts it, “Seeking meaning across cultures we each absorb a little of the other and enter a new cultural space where I am you and you are me.”
As the title suggests, the Balinese belief that our world is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen) profoundly influences this work which often explores intangible meanings, knowledge, laws and powers at work, whether they be spirits in the rainforests of Borneo or the graveyards of Bali, the intense rivalry and jealousy in a Balinese kampong, the spiritual significance of blood spilled at Balinese cockfights, the invisible maneuverings of politicians or secret machinations to involve Australia’s military in Vietnam.
*The Dream is based around the writer’s own naivety in the early days of his life in Bali as he sets up an interdisciplinary field study program for Australian students in Ubud in 1984 with cultural surprises, mystical undercurrents, sharp bends and turns pointing to a deeper story not yet untold. Often occupying an intercultural space between Indonesia and Australia, this piece is a good example his characters confronting social dilemmas and acute misunderstandings. This is Darnley’s writing at its most humorous and fascinating.
*Magic, Polygamy and Triangles, a philosophical conversation with a French anthropologist, is about a smorgasbord of subjects from polygamy, black magic to secret relationships and a love triangle that takes place in a fictional Balinese village that could be Ubud or any number of other villages.
*The Thief and the Angels explores the challenges faced by a small family when their stay in paradise is interrupted by a devastating theft, a family crisis and a lucky encounter with Australian nurses who help their seriously dehydrated toddler.
*Beyond Bhoma’s Powers looks at the critical function of the Balinese guardian god, son of Vishnu and Ibu Pertiwi (Mother Earth). The story ends with the writer’s frustration and bewilderment that Bhoma’s transformative power is not enough to stem the environmental degradation that has afflicted the island in recent times.
*Balikpapan: Looking Backwards and Forwards explores the port city’s wartime history and the ecological disaster ushered in by the Suharto regime. Enthusiasm gives way to pessimism as the writer is taken on a rainforest tour and shocked by the rampant exploitation carried out unchecked by the logging industry.
*The River Guide shows us how the rivers of Kalimantan are not only the main conduits for the movement of people and goods, but also unexpectedly serve as corridors of culture, language and ideas as a riverboat takes passengers to Longiram, the last navigable outpost of the Mahakam River.
*Siberut and the Simple Life is an account of a boat trip up the turbid Rerekit River from Muara Siberut to the isolated traditional houses (uma) of the endangered people of the Mentawai Islands. The writer bears witness to the stark environmental devastation taking place on Siberut Island during the Suharto era.
*The Pig and the Cockfight explores the inner workings and intercultural misunderstandings of a crowded Balinese desa where a complex hierarchy and conflicting social and spiritual taboos dictate the behavior of its members, causing small problems to quickly escalate. One of the book’s best stories, it reveals the writer’s modesty and sensitivity.
*A follow up story, Kanda Empat: The Four Siblings begins with an urgent and mysterious mission to carry a baby’s placenta to the father’s village of origin, the sort of errand that can only happen in Bali. Like many others, this story is full of subtle social interactions and unseen micro-emotions between family members, neighbors and Westerners.
*Kampayne: The Campaign Procession opens on the streets of central Java’s capital Semarang as the writer joins a raucous carnival-like motorcycle rally at the height of the paranoia that typified the Howard era, the differences between Australia and Indonesia amplified through fear propagated by the Australia’s mainstream news media.
*A companion piece Unspoken Realities chronicles the Eurocentric, triumphalist, anti-Indonesian and racist leanings of the polarizing Howard government, which reduced the footprint of Radio Australia’s Indonesian broadcasts and saw a huge and adverse shift in Australia’s complicated relationship with Indonesia.
*Pemilihan Umum: The General Election finds us in the midst of a grand and noisy Mardi Gras-like political procession in Jakarta in June 1999. Suppressed for decades under Suharto’s New Order regime, this theatrical and euphoric burst of energy celebrates Indonesia’s first democratic election since 1955.
*An Unusual Kind of Thunder is a riveting firsthand account of the writer’s experiences in the wards of the Sanglah Hospital in the aftermath of the October 2002 Bali Bombing as he deals with the dazed victims and their relatives. In a stupefying act of civic duty, the writer agrees to work as a translator for attending doctors, staff and victims. He describes the gallant efforts of foreign and Indonesian volunteers as they attempt to take care of the needs of suffering and dying patients amidst the chaos, confusion and fear. This and the following story are by far the most emotionally powerful in the book.
*In the aptly named The Charnel House, Darnley volunteers to work in the hospital’s morgue, an experience seared indelibly into his mind. He helps identify victims and collect their personal belongings in a room full of charred rotting body parts, melting ice and the stench of death. Darnley interviews members of an Australian rugby team who recall their rescue efforts 12 years previously as they pulled the shocked and injured from raging flames. Reading this, one can well understand why it took him so long to get over the pain and profound isolation before he was able to tell his tale.
Seen and Unseen: A Century of Stories from Asia and the Pacific, Interactive Publications 2015, ISBN 978-192-523-1182, paperback, 240 pages. Kindle and audio editions also available.
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