Eyes of God
pub. Edgeworth Press 2011
Last year, I received an email. The message was brief: "I was deported from Indonesia some years ago (under Soeharto). Inspired me to write a novel."
I read a few reviews on Amazon which had a couple of key words – Conradian, thriller. These piqued my interest. I generally enjoy what I term 'train and plane' books, thrillers which transport me to a world far from the unpleasantness of long drawn out journeys, such as across Jakarta.
I wrote back to Philip Babcock asking if he'd be willing for me to review it. He agreed, the book duly arrived, and this is my review, one of the most difficult I've ever written. Since being deported and blacklisted in 1997/8 (?) he has never returned to this country and his alienation permeates his first novel.
Babcock is now an economics professor at the University of California and has achieved some objectivity. For example, he writes, "If a nation is endowed with a valuable resource, it may never develop value-added industries. Things come too easily."
At the heart of his novel is the fallout from the IMF deal as those anxious to grab a slice of Indonesia's economic pie, including American diplomats, jockeyed for position. Pertamina, the state oil company, was seen as the ultimate prize.
A brief synopsis would tell you that in the late '90s Harry Griffin, also known as Harry, Griffin, Griff or as the young man, the buleman, the foreigner, the odd expatriate, the new guy, etc., newly graduated from Berkeley, is lured to the oil fields of Indonesia by his mentor and surrogate father, Cliff Ramsey.
Griffin expects to go to Pulau Hitam, one of the Riau islands, to work alongside Ramsey where Ramsey is working on an automation project for Amtech, an oil company.
Nothing seems simple in Indonesia, especially for a young idealistic young American lacking Indonesian, and this novel captures much of the chaos of the time. First, Griffin has to spend a short while in Jakarta where he faces the culture shock.
The city described by Babcock is well observed, and familiar 15 years later: one of the characters "arrived ten minutes early, in spite of the traffic."
He doesn't meet anyone from the Indonesian company because it's a Friday.
"Better Monday. The zoo, Mr. Harry. You see it. Yes?"
He gravitates to the hotel restaurant where a "dried-up shell" of a long-term expat dispenses his wisdom.
"The underlying Truth, Mr. Griffin, is that nobody knows anything. If anybody tells you that he knows, then he's a fraud because the fact is nobody knows. But if he doesn't know, and lets you know he knows he doesn't know, well, then, he just might know something."
At a party held by an official from the American Embassy, one of the Americans informs him that Ramsey has disappeared in an apparent suicide, so he, Griffin, has to take his place. He also meets a newly arrived journalist whose role is unclear, although he does end up with her that night at a wayang kulit show.
Shadows and light: the backdrop is of hidden matters.
It is this confusion which is at the heart of the novel, and has lead to this reviewer's difficulty. Yes, Indonesia is hard for those of us with a western mindset to grasp, but that there appear to be four – or is it five? – narrators does not make this novel a page-turner.
At the site, riven by ethnic divisions – the Batak security are derogatory about the Javanese – an explosion occurs and someone is killed, Griffin is blamed, although he has come to realise from Ramsey's notes found on a PDA that the technology being transferred would not work. He runs, he knows not to where, and through various hallucinatory escapades involving riots, beatings, interrogations, disguises and much else, ends up on the west coast in Padang, having somehow tranversed the vast island of Sumatra. By this time, he realises that he has been a pawn in the games of others.
If this novel has exorcised Babcock's demons from an obviously traumatic time, then I trust that the final two-part coda, which I won't reveal, in which Griffin eventually comes to terms with himself, is in no way autobiographical.
Ever the pedant, I found that possible factual errors interrupted the flow of my reading. For example, did we use cards in public phones back in '98? We may have in Jakarta, but in small Sumatran towns?
Then, on page 272 we learn that the "girl was a Catholic, as most Chinese Indonesians in the archipelago are." No, they're not. In Sumatra maybe, but Protestants outnumber Catholics approximately seven to three in the archipelago.
Then on page 273 a soldier is described as having "a hard face with sharp Batak features." My Indonesian family is Batak, and all of them have rounded features. Was the soldier perhaps an Acehnese?
What I found difficult is that that there are four – or is it five? – narrators; this does not make the novel a page-turner.
Neither do the various characters who are assigned labels before their names are given, often pages later. Thus 'Contact' is revealed to be 'Townsend', who had held a house-warming party in Jakarta 300 pages earlier.
Elsewhere, at various points in the narrative there is an analysis which seems out of place, as if Babcock is still working out the reasons for his abrupt departure from Indonesia. For example, in a scene towards the end of Griffin's ordeal, set in a Padang police station cell, a "technocrat", later identified as Harseno, with presidential ambitions describes the "auspicious continuity" of the "guiding principle of Javanese politics."
Indonesia is hard for those of us with a western mindset to grasp. I suspect that Eyes Of God is Babcock's attempt to finally understand why he was victimised. I an inteview (to be found on Amazon) he says that his deportation was engineered by a rival company to that which employed him.
Eyes of God hopefully repays a second and third reading. For that I'll wait for my next plane or train trip.