Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet  (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)
Joseph Conrad’s Eastern Voyages: Tales of Singapore and an East Borneo River, Ian Burnet (Alfred Street Press, April 2021)

Joseph Conrad’s favored destination was Asia, the bustling transit port of Singapore, the remote islands and ports of the Dutch East Indies. It was from Singapore that he made four voyages as first mate on the steamship Vidar to a small trading post which was forty miles up a river on the east coast of Borneo. A river and a settlement which he described as “One of the last, forgotten, unknown places on earth”. His Borneo books—Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands, The Rescue and the latter part of Lord Jim—were all based on the places he visited, the stories he heard, and the people he met during these voyages.

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.

Asia has recently, and somewhat unexpectedly, been the source of some of the most exciting, and bemusing, discoveries in human evolution. In the context of the history of human evolution, or even the history of the study of human evolution, “recent” is a relative term; these developments date back to the first years of the new century when the discovery of Homo floresiensis, “Flores Man” aka “the hobbit”, put Asia back on the evolutionary front burner.

The story begins in Jakarta, a hubbub of street vendors, motorbikes, and calls to prayer from mosque loudspeakers. “Travelling is the most ancient desire”, writes Intan Paramaditha in her first novel, a choose-your-own-adventure story published this February as global mobility ground to a halt. The wandering narrator, addressed in the second person befitting the conventions of the form, travels along multiple routes to Berlin, New York, and even outer space as she faces ordeals that illustrate the privileges of going abroad and the limitations of individual choice.