Book review: The Year of Living Dangerously by C.J.Koch
I’ve taken a step back in time for this read as it was first published in 1978, not long after the real-life events that form the backdrop for the story take place. Set in Indonesia in 1965, it details the unrest that culminated in an attempted coup by the Communist Party of Indonesia in September of that year. Koch’s inspiration for the book came from his brother Philip’s experiences as an Australian journalist in Indonesia during that period and Koch himself had first-hand experience of Indonesia when he was based there in 1968 for UNESCO.
This certainly accounts for the detail in the book that very quickly plunges you into the story; not just of the scenery, towns, bars and people living in poverty but the political situation at the time. There is a real sense of unease across the board, a country spiralling out of control and set against it is a love story and a classic case of clashing loyalties and broken trust. This makes it sound like there’s too many threads for one book but Koch’s writing is seamless – you barely realise until the end quite how much he has weaved in to its relatively modest length. It packs a punch in every sense of the phrase.
The narrator, ‘Cookie’, himself a foreign correspondent for a news agency, is telling the story retrospectively from his confessional position as a father figure to a wider group of foreign correspondents who all base themselves at a particular bar, the Wayang. The ex-pats cluster together along with various embassy staff against the worsening anti-imperial anger directed at them and among it all, Australian radio reporter Guy Hamilton manages a love affair with Jill Bryant who uses her position at the British Embassy as a cover for being a spy.
But the most important character of all is a cameraman called Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian dwarf who basically puts Guy Hamilton on the map through his connections and, as he puts it, ‘creates’ him. Billy has a very high moral standpoint, is very intelligent and has the ability to manipulate people while all the time blending in to Indonesian society. He is certainly intense, confirmed by the files he keeps on everyone, but it is his intensity that lends so much to the wider tension that builds throughout the book. Without him, it could even be quite predictable and we certainly wouldn’t learn so much about Indonesian culture without his insights.
At the time the book was written, these events were relatively recent occurrences in Indonesia (the book was banned there for a while, it was so recent) and you might, as I did, need to read up on the situation first for a more informed read but it certainly won’t detract if you don’t.