The Year of Living Dangerously (novel)
|Cover artist||David Lancashire (jacket designer)|
|Publisher||Nelson, Michael Joseph|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
The Year of Living Dangerously is a 1978 novel by Christopher Koch in which a male Australian journalist, a female British diplomat, and a Chinese-Australian male dwarf interact in Indonesia in the summer and autumn of 1965. Set primarily in the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta, it also describes a partly fictionalized version of the events leading up to the coup attempt by the Communist Party of Indonesia on September 30, 1965.
The novel's title refers to the Italian phrase vivere pericolosamente. It is roughly translated into English as "living dangerously". Indonesian President Sukarno used the phrase for the title of his National Day speech of 17 August 1964.
The novel is narrated by "Cookie", a news agency reporter. Cookie is an older man who acted as a father confessor to many of the characters in the novel, and is telling the story several years after it happened. He is a stand-in for author Christopher Koch, and helps to illuminate the ways in which identity is mediated by other people's perceptions of an individual and by that individual's perception of him or her self.
Thematically, the novel explores the ways in which Australians began to conceptualize themselves differently from Europeans in the post-World War II era, and the way Eastern religions such as Shintoism and Buddhism offer new ways to approach old problems. Billy the dwarf's telling of the Indonesian wayang shadow puppet play of the Buddhist legend of Prince Arjun and Princess Skrikandi illustrates the Hindu belief that there is no right or wrong and there are no final answers—one of the ideas raised by Eastern religions.
The novel opens as Guy Hamilton, a neophyte foreign correspondent for an Australian radio network, arrives in Jakarta on assignment. He meets several members of the close-knit community of British and Australians in the city, which includes journalists and diplomatic personnel. Among them is Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian dwarf of high intelligence and moral seriousness who is a photojournalist. Guy's predecessor departed Indonesia before Guy arrived, and did not introduce Guy to any of his news contacts. Guy receives only limited support from the other foreign journalists in Jakarta, who compete for information from the Sukarno government, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and the Indonesian National Armed Forces. Believing Guy to be a moral person, Billy (who is exceptionally well-connected) helps him obtain interviews. Guy's reputation as a journalist soars. Billy keeps photographs and notes about the people he knows, recording his observations of their character and their lives and making up stories about their possible motivations. Guy is alarmed to discover that Billy is keeping a file on him, too, but decides to trust Billy anyway.
Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant, a beautiful young diplomat at the British embassy. Billy and Jill are close friends, and Billy subtly manipulates events so that Guy and Jill continue to encounter one another. Guy quickly falls in love with Jill. Jill is reluctant to begin a relationship with Guy because she is scheduled to return to the United Kingdom soon. But she relents, falls in love, and sleeps with Guy. Guy also learns that Billy is a strong supporter of the Sukarno regime, is very concerned with the extreme poverty afflicting Indonesia, and is supporting a local woman and her child with food and money.
Jill's diplomatic work is a cover for her real job as an intelligence officer at the British embassy. She discovers that the People's Republic of China is secretly sending a shipments of weapons to Indonesia to arm the PKI. Believing that a revolution is about to occur, Jill tells Guy about the arms shipment in the hope that he leaves the country before war breaks out. But Guy, now focused almost completely on his career, decides to verify the story and scoop the other journalists. Hurt that Guy put his career before their relationship, Jill breaks up with him. Billy also ends his friendship with Guy after concluding that Guy has lost his moral compass.
Guy visits central Java to cover protests there against the Sukarno regime. His car is surrounded by a hostile crowd of PKI sympathizers. Although he escapes without harm, he realizes his life might be endangered if civil war breaks out. Returning to Jakarta and but lacking the access that Billy once gave him, Guy decides to partner with fellow journalist Pete Curtis. Guy quickly realizes that Pete is only interested in drinking, parties, and prostitutes. Although Guy participates in this lifestyle for a short time, Guy is upset when Pete immorally uses the poorest of Indonesian women as prostitutes. Guy ends his relationship with Pete. Guy turns to his Indonesian driver Kumar (who is secretly a PKI member) for news tips. Kumar takes Guy to an abandoned Dutch plantation house in the hills above Jakarta, where they spend the weekend drinking and relaxing. Kumar admits he is a PKI member, but refuses to give up his beliefs despite Guy's warnings. Kumar also warns Guy to leave Indonesia as well, but Guy declines.
In a parallel story line, Billy discovers that one of foreign journalists in Jakarta has been taking advantage of poor Indonesian men by paying them to have sex with him. At a party for Pete (who has been promoted to a posting in Saigon), Billy outs this journalist. As a result, Billy is ostracized by the foreign journalist community.
Increasingly sensitive to the poverty of the average Indonesian, Billy is outraged when the child he has been supporting dies of malnutrition and disease. Deciding that Sukarno has betrayed the revolution which put him in power, Billy decides to hang an anti-Sukarno banner from the window of a room at the luxurious Hotel Indonesia. It is this hotel at which most foreigners lodge, hold parties, and dine. Billy unveils the banner just as President Sukarno is about to visit the hotel. But security personnel break into the hotel room and shoot Billy. Billy is then pushed from the window and falls several stories to the road below. Guy and Jill witness Billy's plunge, and Guy discovers that the "suicide" was a ruse to cover up Billy's murder. Cookie later travels to Billy's bungalow and removes the voluminous files he collected on various people.
The PKI attempts a coup d'etat on 30 September 1965. Guy and Kumar drive to the Presidential Palace, where Guy attempts to gain entry by boldly walking past the guards. An Army officer strikes Guy in the face with his rifle butt. Badly injured, Guy returns to his car and Kumar takes Guy to an empty apartment rented by the British Embassy. A physician tells Guy that he has a detached retina, and must lie still for a month or risk losing sight in his eye. Guy tries again to convince Kumar to leave the party, but Kumar says he is fighting for a better Indonesia.
The novel ends as Sukarno suppresses the coup. Guy and Kumar learn from radio broadcasts that hundreds of PKI supporters are being executed. Guy decides to flee Indonesia, realizing that his love for Jill is more important than his career. He convinces Kumar to drive him to the airport. Guy's status as an Australian citizen allows the two men to reach the boarding area. Kumar must stay behind, but hopes to get a flight out of the country. Guy boards an airplane full of British and Australian citizens. He discovers that Jill, who is pregnant with his child, is also aboard. The two fly to safety in Europe.
Although not even on the short list for the Miles Franklin Award (Australia's top literary prize), the novel won the Age Book of the Year Award in 1978 and the National Book Council Award for Australian Literature in 1979. The novel turned Koch into a household name in Australia, and cemented his reputation as one of the nation's top novelists. As of 1995, The Year of Living Dangerously was considered Koch's finest work. The novel was not widely reviewed in the U.S. at the time of its publication. In one of the few reviews, Kirkus Reviews was less than laudatory, concluding that the political story required too much historical knowledge on the reader's part and dominated the story at the expense of the characters.
The novel was made into a 1982 film, The Year of Living Dangerously. The film was directed by Peter Weir and written by Koch, Weir, and David Williamson. Actress Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Billy Kwan. While the novel focuses on the political atmosphere in Indonesia in 1965 and the moral choices faced by the characters, the film focuses primarily on the love affair between Guy and Jill.
- Vernay, p. 71.
- Vernay, p. 88-90.
- McGregor, p. 163.
- Vernay, p. 60-61.
- Ousby and Abbott, p. 521.
- Goldsmith and Lealand, p. 50-51.
- Vernay, p. 73.
- Vernay, p. 59.
- Ousby and Abbott, p. 520.
- "The Year of Living Dangerously." Kirkus Reviews. 7 February 1978.
- Duiker and Spielvogel, p. 763.
- Goldsmith and Lealand, p. 50.
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