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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Indonesia, Etc.’ an introduction to ‘the improbable nation’

"Indonesa, Etc."

The “Etc.” in “Indonesia, Etc.” of this travel/adventure/memoir/history refers to the 1945 Indonesian declaration of independence, the second and final sentence of which reads: “Matters relating to the transfer of power etc. will be executed carefully and as soon as possible.”

There is a lot of “etc.” to Indonesia. By population, it’s the fourth-largest country in the world and the largest Muslim country. Its 13,400-plus islands sprawl across an enormous swath of the Indian and Pacific oceans, adjoining New Guinea and Malaysia and nearly touching Australia and the Philippines. Its nearly 360-some ethnic groups speak more than 700 languages. Its capital city, Jakarta, is second only to Tokyo in the population of its metropolitan area.

In terms of land mass, it’s the 15th-largest country in the world. It’s among the top three producers of palm oil, rubber, rice, coffee, cocoa, coconuts, green beans, papaya, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and vanilla. Only China produces more tin and coal, and Indonesia exports more by far.

Clearly, writing about Indonesia is a daunting task — wouldn’t Italy be so much easier? But Elizabeth Pisani was well-suited, if anyone was. Pisani considers England more or less her home country. But she has spent far more time in Indonesia: first, as a correspondent for Reuters; later conducting an HIV survey for the Ministry of Health; and most recently spending a little more than a year researching this book.

She did so determined to visit some of the places she had never been and with a mantra of “Just say yes.” She knew about the hospitality of the Indonesian people and suspected that she would say “yes” a lot.

She did, and the hospitality was real. An example:

Later, after the wedding, I sat on the floor of Tesi’s living room, chatting with her for the first time. “What’s your name?” she asked. I had shared a mattress with this woman’s daughter for two nights now. I had washed clothes at her well, grilled fish with her husband, worked in her mother’s kitchen and been to her brother’s wedding. And she didn’t even know my name. It somehow made her hospitality all the more gracious.”

Pisani has an engaging way with words, making the reader’s journey all the more fun. She compares Indonesia to a Bad Boyfriend — simultaneously endearing and repulsive. Clove trees are “moody as teenagers.” During her Reuters days, she and her Indonesian colleague “conspired to commit surreptitious acts of journalism.”

As this review can only (at best) give you a feel for “Indonesia Etc.,” the book is really only an introduction to what Pisani calls “the improbable nation.”

She doesn’t write about visiting the two places in Indonesia where I’ve been, Papua Indonesia and Bali. (She frequently mentions Papua and occasionally Bali.)

Although she mentions taking photos, the only one in the book is the strange and unexplained cover photo. She does, helpfully, include a glossary. I only wish I’d discovered it sooner.

Pisani left Indonesia, she writes, knowing “that there were thousands of other Indonesias still to discover.”

No doubt true. But she has given us a good start.

“Indonesia, Etc.”

Author: Elizabeth Pisani

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Pages: 404

Price: $26.95