Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Portrait of a Javanese Village

Book review of "A Shadow Falls" by Andrew Beatty

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 27/04/09

Andrew Beatty describes travel writing, with its inherent risks of oversimplification and misinterpretation, as “a strange and remarkable art.” He prefers the alternative: instead of ranging widely and treading lightly, the author stays in one place to observe it closely, producing the kind of book filed on “travel” shelves only because of its exotic locale. These books can, of course, be every bit as banal as the traditional travelogue — as countless tales of years in Tuscany, Bali and Provence attest. But Beatty’s new non-moving travel book, “A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java,” is anything but banal — it’s one of the most sensitive and insightful books on Indonesia in recent years.

In the 1990s Beatty, a British anthropologist, made two long stays in a village he disguises with the pseudonym Bayu, on the lower slopes of Ijen volcano near Banyuwangi, East Java. This area has always been Java’s Wild East, the last part of the island to convert to Islam, and for centuries a refuge of renegades and rebels. Even today it has a sinister reputation for black magic. But for Beatty, who previously lived among the sometimes troublesome tribes of Nias off Sumatra, it was a place of dreamy mildness – “a featherbed so soft one was hardly aware of its sustaining presence.”

His time in Java produced an important academic book, “Varieties of Javanese Religion.” One of the book’s key assertions was that the familiar arbitrary division of Javanese Muslims into staunchly orthodox santri and avowedly non-practicing abangan was at best an oversimplification. Most people, Beatty pointed out, were somewhere in between. And it was the classic Javanese art of compromise that allowed people from both extremes — as well as those from the middle ground — to coexist happily within one community.

The most striking thing about “Varieties of Javanese Religion” was how readable it was. Rare among books of serious anthropology, this work was rich with color, anecdote and character. It was hard not to conclude that here was a talented travel writer itching to burst out of the confines of academic convention. Now, a decade later, Beatty has returned to the same material to write “A Shadow Falls,” not for students of anthropology this time, but for the wider public.

The same subject matter — the striking diversity of belief and practice among people, all nominally Muslim, in one small community — the same incidents, even the same dialogues, are revisited here. But in this book, Beatty has been free to exercise his considerable descriptive talents to the full. The result is a remarkable portrayal of the rhythms and the rich religious mosaic of a Javanese village.

Clearly no detached observer, Beatty threw himself into the life of Bayu, learning the local Javanese dialect, bringing his wife and young children to live in the village, hosting his own prayer meals and even being initiated into a mystical sect. But Beatty has resisted the populist urge to make this, like so many “living abroad” books, all about himself and his family. The book is principally about the people of Bayu, not the foreigner who lived among them.

Too many books on Indonesia by outsiders descend into cheap exoticism — all wayang kulit and beautiful maidens. But Beatty avoids patronizing his Javanese subjects, or hyping their foreignness. Presented largely through their own words — meticulously recorded as part of Beatty’s original research — the cast of cerebral mystics, simple traditionalists and zealous reformers all appear very much as ordinary people.

For most of “A Shadow Falls” there is little narrative — not much happens in a Javanese village. But the richness of the scene-setting and the strength of the characters make conventional narrative unnecessary. Beatty captures the atmosphere of rural Java very effectively. The taste of sweet black coffee, the women’s gossip over onion-peeling duties in bamboo kitchens, the late-night motorbike trips to smoky pool halls in town and the bleary-eyed wait through the long hours of village dance-dramas for the terrifying moment of spirit-possession that comes just before dawn; all of it appears here in clean, clear prose.

Occasionally the sheer complexity and variety of traditional belief in Java may baffle some casual readers — the old abangan-santri designations could have been better explained, as could the Sangkan Paran mystical sect that Beatty joins, and the endless round of slametan prayer meals that the villagers hold. But without delving into academia you’ll find no other such comprehensive account of religion in Java.

In the last hundred pages, a narrative suddenly emerges. When Beatty and his family stayed for their second time in Bayu in 1996, they found a country where old political certainties were unraveling, and a village where old compromises between traditionalists and Islamist modernizers were themselves being compromised. Mosque prayer-calls were getting ever louder, more girls were wearing headscarves and the mystics and traditionalists were losing ground to the orthodox — defeated, Beatty seems to suggest, by their own passivity and instinct for compromise.

Given its deeper, older complexities, attempts to make sense of Indonesia as an “Islamic country” usually come badly unstuck. Beatty was no passer-by with a phrasebook and a set of preconceived notions, and he fell into no such trap in his academic work. So it’s hard not to suspect an editorial influence in the occasional attempts in this book to hammer Java’s square peg into the round hole of global resurgent Islamism.

But for the most part Beatty avoids making too many definitive statements of his own about such matters. For this book is really just a vivid, non-judgmental portrait of one small village in Java. It gives a voice to the people of that village . In doing this, “A Shadow Falls” is a triumph.

© Tim Hannigan 2009



Patung said...

Only seems to be available in UK at the moment which is a shame, can't even pre-order it on Incidentally can you give a ballpark figure for what papers like JakGlobe pay for this kind of writing?

Rhona said...

I saw this guy being interviewed on BBC World a few weeks back around the time of the elections. The book looks really interesting. Looking forward to reading it when I get back.

Mr.Lizard said...

nice one mr!