Saturday, September 24, 2005


The air was filled with dusty sunlight, the smell of roasting fish and the happy squeals of little girls; in front of us lay the pool, the tropical ferns, the Hindu carvings and the semi-naked bodies of the rich; sprawled on seats to our left were bronzed young men with something of the lordly arrogance of Lebanese arms dealers or Colombian drugs barons.

It was like being in one of the posher parts of Bali, but we were in fact in the restaurant beside the sparkling rooftop pool of Jakarta’s luxurious Grand Hyatt hotel, only metres above a major road junction with worryingly high levels of air pollution.

I was having lunch with Carmen, and my colleague Ian, the pallid faced lover of late-night bars and frequent opponent of Carmen in games of tennis.

"How’s Melati?" I asked Ian, remembering the girl I had once observed him meeting at a night club in East Jakarta.

"Melati? That was a long time ago. She was getting too keen on the idea of marriage." Ian kept a straight face and took a tiny sip of diet cola.

"The President’s wife died," I said, breaking a period of silence.

"Strange that," said Ian, adjusting his dark glasses. "They rushed the body off pretty quickly. No TV cameras viewing the corpse. My driver said it was suspicious."

"Indonesian Moslems like to get bodies buried quickly," I commented, remembering the death from tetanus of Min’s young brother.

"What do you think the Suharto family are worth?" asked Ian, looking in the direction of the turquoise waters and two slim girls sitting beneath some Balinese statuary.

"Many many billions of US Dollars," said Carmen, putting down her glass of Muscadet.

"How do they do it?" I asked.

"Well they own this hotel for a start," said Carmen with her usual giggle. "The gossip is that Suharto family businesses do work for the government oil company; the family make money from taking pilgrims to Mecca; they own half of East Timor and millions of hectares elsewhere."

"They’re into timber and mining," said Ian.

"Not forgetting cloves, sugar, rice, and wheat," said Carmen.

"And they’re said to be middlemen when weapons are bought for the army," said Ian.

"What about the Suharto charities that build mosques and schools?" I asked.

"That wins Moslem votes," said Ian.

"The rumour is," said Carmen, "that the charities are slush funds for the family’s businesses. The family is not poor. Property and investments all over the world, or so they say."

"I don’t imagine that people like Clinton or Bush are poor," I said.

Two plates of giant spicy prawns arrived for Carmen and myself. Ian was on a diet.

"How’s the book going?" I asked Ian, who had once told me he liked to write about his travels.

"I’ve been writing about Borneo," said Ian. "Last holiday I was in Samarinda in East Kalimantan."

"You’re brave," said Carmen, as she pulled the head off a prawn.

"Flying there in a Garuda plane, you mean?" asked Ian.

"Not just that," said Carmen. "Aren’t Borneo’s Dayaks headhunters?"

"They’re headhunters," said Ian, grinning, "but mainly Christian. I found them actually rather easy going and pretty honest."

"So what’s it like in Borneo?" I asked.

"Lots of rain forest," said Ian, sitting back happily in his chair, "except where the forests are being cleared by fires; there are tiny subsistence farms with pigs and sweet potatoes; Samarinda’s on a very wide river; it’s got some modern housing and the usual mosques and open air markets; the usual minibuses; the usual children in white shirts and red skirts."

"Don’t the Dayaks hate the immigrants who’ve come in from Java?" I asked.

"Probably," said Ian. "I imagine some Dayaks might like to hunt the heads of the Chinese timber barons who’re destroying their forests."

"Is your book non-fiction?" asked Carmen.

"Non-fiction," said Ian. "Except that writing about people always involves a wee bit of fiction."

"Always?" I asked.

"I was writing about an Australian girl called Mary," said Ian. "Met her at the Hotel Mesra in Samarinda. Now, let’s imagine Mary says, ‘Eh, Ian, what did you think of the whatsit, you know, the place with the monkeys?’ I would write that down as, ‘Clint, that was a wonderful trip to the Kutei Game Reserve, where we saw these gentle orang-utan. And weren’t these gibbons great?’ It is a fact that we went to the game reserve."

"Who’s Clint?" asked Carmen.

"I change everyone’s name," explained Ian.

"Did Mary see gibbons?" queried Carmen.

"She probably did," said Ian. "Mary’s a composite character based on Mary and Veronica. In the book she’s called Jean. Otherwise she’d recognise herself."

"So if you write about me," said Carmen, with a titter, "I’ll be a mixture of two people, and will be young and beautiful."

"My book would be unreadable if I didn’t edit my notes," explained Ian, with a grin. "I don’t take notes while I’m talking to a girl on some trip. I make notes months afterwards, when I feel in the mood. And then I do a bit of editing."

"Deconstruction and slippage of meaning," said Carmen, giggling loudly.

"What’s that then?" I queried.

"I’m not sure," admitted Carmen. "I think the supporters of deconstruction argue that words mean different things at different times, and different things to different people. This bloke called Jacques Derrida argues that there’s some slippage of meaning with words."

"Ah," I said, "Like ‘handicapped child’ means someone worthless or someone good, depending on who you’re speaking to." At the back of my mind was a memory of Ian once suggesting that I should have left Min in the street, rather than trying to rescue him.

"Yes," said Ian. "Words like ‘immigrant’ or ‘Moslem’ can mean lots of different things."

"Giant prawn," said Carmen, "means something deliciously lemony and salty to one person, and something puke-making to someone else."

"I like fish," said Ian, "but I’m going for a workout when I leave here."

"Have you heard of Jean-Francois Lyotard?" asked Carmen.

"Sounds like a keep-fit man," said Ian, smiling.

"Lyotard" said Carmen, "argues there’s no longer any religion or philosophy, like Marxism or Christianity, that can explain everything. Unless it’s a religion or philosophy that constantly changes as new discoveries are made."

"Lyotard? A writer?" I asked.

"A deconstructionist," said Carmen. "The religion or philosophy has to evolve."

"Because of scientific discoveries?" I said.

"Science now has its uncertainties and paradoxes," explained Carmen.

"Uncertainties and paradoxes," I said. "That sounds like real life."

"So Ian’s book," said Carmen, "could never be pure fact."

"My book may not be Gospel truth," said Ian, "but it’s got some relation to reality."

"Gospel truth?" said Carmen. "Mark’s Gospel claims Jesus’s last words were, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me? Luke had the last words as, ‘Father, to your hands I entrust my spirit.’"

"John?" I asked.

Carmen chuckled. "According to John, Jesus said: ‘The task is done.’"

"So it’s OK to make slight changes," said Ian.

"It seems to happen," said Carmen. "As time passes. And audiences change."

"But is there a danger that a work intended to be non-fiction develops into a work of fiction?" I said.

"Well Luke seems to have added bits," said Carmen, sounding serious for a change. "But I don’t think he was trying to mislead people. He wasn’t intending to change the basic message. He was just trying to give added value."

"The danger is if you unwittingly add bits that are fundamentally untrue," I commented.

"Scientists sometimes slightly fiddle their results," said Carmen, "when they know they’ve got a good case, and are desperate to convince people."

"Just like spiritual mediums and policemen," said Ian.