The eastern archipelagos stretch from Mindanao and Sulu in the north to Bali in the southwest and New Guinea in the southeast. Many of their inhabitants are regarded as “people without history”, while colonial borders cut across shared underlying patterns. Yet many of these societies were linked to trans-oceanic trading systems for millennia. Indeed, some of the world’s most prized commodities once came from territories which were either “stateless” or under the very tenuous control of loosely structured polities. Although individual regimes sought to control traffic, exchange between trans-regional or even trans-oceanic shippers and local communities was often direct, without mediation by overarching authorities.
The year is 1985. Durga is visiting her grandmother Mary in rural Malaysia. It’s not a particularly happy occasion: Mary is tough and sharp-tongued, and “home” sparks bad memories for Durga.
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.
Catherine Menon’s debut novel, Fragile Monsters, is a beautifully written story of one Indian Malaysian family’s history, entwined with secrets and hidden heartbreak, told through the fractious relationship of Durga and her Ammuma, her grandmother Mary. When Durga, a mathematics lecturer returns home to rural Pahang after ten years away in Canada and in Kuala Lumpur, to spend Diwali with Mary, the pair are forced to untangle the mystery of their past. “Stories twist through the past like hair in a plait,” Durga says.
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.
White women were a rare commodity in Europe’s Asian colonies, a considerable problem if one wanted to build a long-term colonial society while avoiding miscegenation. It was a matter that particularly exercised the first leaders of the Dutch East Indies.
Lisan, a humble fisherman, mysteriously disappears for eight years before returning home. Bhatia, the wife he has left behind, has remarried in the meantime, but there’s more, and something irrepressible for him to reclaim besides her. Lisan has a royal destiny to be fulfilled.