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As the author discloses in the prologue, "this is a book about violence, and about being afraid." Indonesia in the late '90s was a place of both startling beauty and unimaginable violence. This vast island nation was facing the end of General Suharto's 32-year reign. Would the end of Suharto mean the end of Indonesia? The answer was anybody's guess. British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry set out to witness this transformation and saw firsthand that the promise of political freedom would come only at the cost of a savagery -- one "fought according to the principles of black magic" -- that will make your blood run cold.
Reports of vigilantism and guerrilla warfare came from East Timor, the Spice Islands, Jakarta, and East Java. From Borneo came accounts of headhunting and cannibalism (yes, in the 1990s!). Jungles were burned and the economy plummeted. But it was in East Timor that the author's Conradian journey came to an explosive end. Trapped in a UN compound while a battle raged outside, he discovered just how far he was willing to go to get the story.
If ever you doubted the existence of a supernatural realm and its power to protect and destroy, In the Time of Madness will serve as a convincing corrective. Blending politics and spiritism, Richard Lloyd Parry has mixed a potent cocktail of a book.
(Spring 2006 Selection)
Between 1996 and 1999, British foreign correspondent Parry repeatedly forayed into some of the worst strife rending the islands of Indonesia, a nation emerging tumultuously from the dictatorship of General Suharto. This boldly reported, introspective account-"a book about violence, and about being afraid"-is his attempt to make sense, however incompletely, of what happened in Java, Borneo and East Timor. In Borneo, Parry saw seven decapitated heads, among other horrors, when he went to report on "an ethnic war of scarcely imaginable savagery." He witnessed the collapse of the rupiah and the 1998 mass student protests in Jakarta on the occasion of Suharto's reappointment. As the East Timorese agitated for independence from Indonesian rule, Parry ventured into the East Timor jungle to meet with rebels. And when the independence referendum soon thereafter brought Indonesia's military might down on East Timor, a Portuguese colony until 1975, Parry holed up in the U.N. compound at the vortex of the violence. He laments his self-protecting decision to leave the compound, though, comparing himself unfavorably to fearless Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski-"doused in benzene at the burning roadblocks." Holding Parry's writing to Kapuscinski's gold standard reveals it to be a little light on analysis and heavy on self-reflection, though it is clipped, vivid and honest. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
As a British journalist stationed in Tokyo from 1997 to 1999, Parry took many trips to Indonesia, which was then in a state of near anarchy, and made a habit of putting himself in dangerous situations: he covered the chaos that followed the collapse of the Suharto regime; witnessed the beastliness of the ethnic clashes of the headhunting Dayak and the migrant Madurese in Borneo; and, when living in the jungle with some Dayak, watched them bring in freshly severed heads of Madurese and devour human flesh. He was equally horrified by the brutality of the terrorist attacks in East Timor and the repressive tactics of the Indonesian army. What makes Parry's book unique is that he does not hide behind the abstract neutrality of objective political reporting. Instead, he dwells on his personal feelings and fears as he is caught up in horrifying events. "In East Timor, I became afraid, and couldn't control my fear," he writes. "I ran away, and afterwards I was ashamed." He thus makes vivid the emotional reactions of a civilized person caught up in the madness of mass violence. After what he went through, it is not surprising that he had nightmares even when sleeping in beautiful Bali.
Somber travels across the Indonesian archipelago-often a step ahead of the machete. Readers who take their view of Indonesia from The Year of Living Dangerously aren't far from the mark, if Parry's account is to be trusted-and, as a correspondent for the Times of London, he has sterling credentials. Parry's report begins in Borneo, long synonymous in the Western mind with all things savage. There seems a reason for all that: The Dayak of Borneo, the ethnic and political majority, harbor a particular hatred for a Muslim people among them called the Madurese, who are tough enough for Parry to liken them to Sicilians. As he travels through the island, Parry meets incident after incident of savagery, as in West Kalimantan, where the Dayaks had not only slaughtered the Madurese, but had also "ritually decapitated them, carried off their heads as trophies and eaten their hearts and livers." Cannibalism in this day and age? You bet, Parry replies in a passage sure to provoke bad feelings among culturally relative types, pausing to acknowledge that the Dayaks' ethnic-cleansing arguments are just modern enough to employ "the kind of consensus that has built up at various times about Romany Gypsies, or about Jews." At another turning point, Parry is on hand for the "sack of Jakarta," in which hundreds died in antigovernment demonstrations that led, in time, to the fall of Suharto-and the rise of a particularly militant kind of nationalist Islamism. The apex of the book involves Parry's nadir, when, after one too many brushes with death on East Timor, where bike-gangish Indonesian paramilitary forces energetically butchered separatists and anyone else they came across, he fled, "because I was afraidof being killed or, more precisely, of dying in fear." In such horrifying places, surely that's about the only way there is to die. A memorable book that will excite discussion in anthropological and geopolitical circles.