Commentaries on Islam in Indonesia—especially those attached to major political events such as the recent presidential election—often deal in simplistic binary terms: a uniform mass of apparently ascendant “conservative Muslims” is ranged against similarly uniform blocks of embattled urban liberals or rural traditionalists.
Travel-writing can sometimes seem like a genre stuck in the past. Writers are forever setting out in the “footsteps” of more illustrious predecessors, or embarking on journeys focused on the history of person, place or thing. According to some scholarly critiques, this tendency is symptomatic of travel-writing’s fundamental “belatedness”. It is, the argument goes, a genre ill at ease in the modern, globalized, postcolonial world; the figure of the travel-writer is fundamentally anachronistic. As far as critical scholars are concerned, it is in its attempts to overcome this belatedness that travel writing is sometimes guilty of echoing—unconsciously or otherwise—a colonial attitude. There is the endless quest for the “authentic” and “unchanged” in an effort to fix the places described in an exotic past; or alternatively, there is a melancholy nostalgia and a frantic hunt for the last traces of “tradition” before the shopping malls take over.
In the introduction to Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunegara I, 1726–95, MC Ricklefs notes that fifty years ago the prospect of writing such a biography of a pre-20th-century Javanese figure would have been unthinkable. That such a project is now possible is surely in no small part down to the remarkable work that Ricklefs himself has done in the intervening half-century, opening up a wealth of archival sources as one of the foremost international scholars of Javanese history.
Pakistan was once prime territory for Western travel writers. It offered an attractive combination of subcontinental color and Central Asian romance, plus a lively history and a hospitable population speaking excellent English. Geoffrey Moorhouse, Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger passed this way, among many others. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux even pondered the attractions of Peshawar as a place of retirement.
Eka Kurniawan is the Quentin Tarantino of Indonesian literature: a brash wunderkind, delivering gleeful references to pulp fiction, lashings of stylized violence, and an array of characters and scenarios that far surpass the tropes and clichés which inspire them. But as with Quentin Tarantino, one might occasionally wonder just how much substance lies beneath the indisputably stylish surface.