“The Java Enigma” by Erni Salleh

Borobudur (photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, via Wikimedia Commons) Borobudur (photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, via Wikimedia Commons)

To some extent, all one needs to know about The Java Enigma is that it has been called, more than once, “Da Vinci Code”-like. This will either intrigue or repel, depending on how one feels about Dan Brown’s genre-creating blockbuster. Neither reaction would however be entirely warranted, for—while there are certainly similarities—Erni Salleh’s debut novel is quite a different animal. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter.

The Java Enigma, Erni Salleh (Epigram Books, October 2020)
The Java Enigma, Erni Salleh (Epigram Books, October 2020)

Starting with the similarities, protagonist Irin Omar is not a symbologist but, only superficially more prosaically, a librarian (as is—entirely coincidentally of course—the author): Irin works not just in any library but as part of a UNESCO project at Borobudur and is privy to such arcane knowledge as may be needed should the situation arise.

The secrets which pervade the book and drive the plot are religious in nature, but hail not from dark recesses of Christianity but the origins of Buddhism. There’s a lot of history, much of it here around the sinking of an early 16th-century Portuguese treasure ship—the Flor de la Mar. There is considerable rushing from place to place, some of it underwater. There are codes and puzzles, the solution of one just pointing to another, ancient scripts to decipher and obscure writings to interpret. The right bits of technology show up when needed; when they don’t, the protagonists improvise. There’s a secret society. Both plots require a considerable amount of suspension of disbelief and can on occasion be a bit hard to follow.

Unlike the Da Vinci Code, however, there is no violence to speak of, and the book unrolls at a relatively leisurely pace. Irin has an actual life with parents, a step-mother and a brother: it is her father’s death that sets the plot in motion. Many of the discoveries come from rummaging through rather ordinary cartons. Salleh tosses in quite a lot of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu into the dialogue, most of it untranslated (and even my almost non-existent Bahasa Indonesia suffices to know that the English glosses she provides, when she does, are approximate). Coffee (or kopi), and its various varieties and permutations are a subject that percolate through the novel.


Asia has more than enough history and mystery of its own to yield good stories. Salleh has hardly scratched the surface. The Java Enigma is not heart-pumping, but it’s pleasant, even erudite in places: just the sort of thing to read by the hotel pool or airport departure lounge when one is able to do that again.

And yet it doesn’t quite click in the way which even paid-up members of the anti-Dan Brown club might admit that the Da Vinci Code does. It may be simply that the macho nerd thing is incompatible with a female protagonist. But it could be that Borobudur, whatever its merits (and there are many), can’t compete with the Vatican, Inquisition, Opus Dei, Knights Templar, Freemasons, Illuminati and the like as a source of conspiracy theories.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.