Archipelago - Asian Studies Review 2017

Few books evoke the magic and sense of beguilment I felt when I first visited Indonesia. I knew next to nothing about the country or its people when I signed up for an intensive language program in Central Java in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis. It was not that I felt I should learn about Indonesia. Australia’a economic future and the importance of understanding our Southeast Asian neighbours were far from my mind. Nobody was talking about the Asian century yet. Instead, Indonesia compelled me with its complexity, its diversity, its smoldering volcanoes and its complicated histories. I could capture neither its essence nor its appeal in a single sentence, but I was hooked.

It is for these reasons that Ian Burnet’s new book, Archipelago: A Journey Across Indonesia should be welcomed. Burnet offers a combination of wonder, warmth and information, drawing the reader into an engaging adventure through Indonesia in a way that neither a guidebook, with its focus on logistics and practicalities, nor an academic text, dense with theory and footnotes, can. His perspective is uniquely Australian. Despite the ups and downs of the bilateral relationship, Burnet’s affection for Indonesia has not diminished since he first visited there in in 1968 as a young geologist. His previous publications, Spice Islands (2011) and East Indies (2013), focussed on early histories of Indonesia. Archipelago departs from this model by taking a more personal approach in which learning about history is a by-product of his travels rather than the main focus.

Burnet starts his journey in the Malaysian port city of Malacca, which acts as his entry point to Jakarta. Moving eastwards “by bus, plane, train, ferry, boat, car and motorcycle”. Burnet explores Java before island-hopping his way through Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores, Solor and Timor, both West and East. The final four of the seventeen chapters in Archipelago are dedicated to East Timor (Timor Leste), including the enclave of Oecusse. Timor Leste has not been part of Indonesian territory since the popular consultation of 1999, and its inclusion indicates Burnet’s interest in this new nation rather than a strict adherence to precise definitions of “Indonesia”. Along the way, he shares his appreciation and knowledge of Indonesia’s landscape, food, people and history. Religion features prominantly too, although politics and economics are set aside. The result is eminently readable.

Burnet enjoys many of the quintessential Indonesian tourist experiences. He watches the sun rise over Borobodur temple, marvels at Java’s active volcanoes, and visits Komodo and the eponymous “dragons”. He evokes Paul Theroux in extolling the virtues of travelling alone. While Burnet’s writing is sprinkled with quotes from many of the standard sources - including Sir Stamford Raffles and “ that greatest of all archipelago travellers, Alfred Russel Wallace”, he also makes use of inscriptions, manuscripts and letters. The text is further enlivened by the generous use of colour images: marvellous maps, both ancient and modern, colonial-era drawings and paintings, and many of Burnet’s own photographs. These textual and pictorial sources add both historical flavour and literary depth.

Natali Jane Pearson University of Sydney

Posted on September 22, 2018 .