Cover of Pisani's book Indonesia etc.
Reading Recommendations

Five Books on Indonesia

I recently had the privilege and pleasure to spend two months on Bali. I always enjoy reading about the places I’m visiting, so I picked up some classics and new reads. Here are five books on Indonesia I recommend:

1. Max Havelaar

Max Havelaar, or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, by Multatuli is a classic of Dutch literature. Originally published in 1860, it’s still relevant today and made newly accessible by a recent translation into English published by NYRB in 2019.

The novel, written under a pseudonym by a former civil servant posted in the Dutch East Indies, has been called the Dutch version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was written to criticize colonialism and inspire revolt and many claim the book did its job.

The novel is also a brilliant breakdown of narrative structure. There’s a frame story about a Dutch coffee merchant in Indonesia who uncovers unpublished papers telling a touching love story. Both story lines are interspersed with short essays on colonial life and politics.

When I first read the book as a teenager, its nonlinear and fragmented setup opened my wannabe-writer eyes to the possibilities of the novel as a genre. The famous Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer claims Max Havelaar is one of the most important novels of all time.

–> Read this review in Cleaver Magazine to learn more about Max Havelaar.

2. This Earth of Mankind

Speaking of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, please check out his epic Buru Quartet or get at least started with book one,This Earth of Mankind. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age novel set in the last years of Dutch colonial rule. Pramoedya wrote it while being imprisoned by the Dutch and later by the Indonesian government under Suharto on the political island prison of Buru in eastern Indonesia. Denied materials to write inside his cell, he memorized chapters and dictated them to visitors, so they could write them down.

3. The Ten Thousand Things

In the bestselling (and excellent) memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes about a book that kept her motivated on her rite-of-passage hike on the Pacific Crest Trail: The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermoût. First published in the Netherlands in 1955, Dermoût’s novel saw a new translation by Hans Koning in 2002 and was published by New York Review of Books.

The book tells the story of a young woman who returns with her baby son from Holland to Indonesia, to the house in which she grew up and what has remained a world of shimmering strangeness, where time does not follow a line and ghosts come and go. It sounds eerily like the novel I’m rewriting this month.

Cheryl Strayed wrote: “Each of Dermoût’s sentences came at me like a soft knowing dagger, depicting a far-off land that felt to me like the blood of all the places I used to love.”

4. Love and Death in Bali

Another interesting book is Love and Death in Bali, the 1937 novel by the Austrian author Vicky Braun. The book is flawed because of its dated political views and the often stereotypical way of describing the Balinese. But it does sketch a detailed and visceral picture of life on the island once upon a time. 

5. Indonesia, Etc.

One of the best nonfiction books on Indonesia is Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc., Exploring the improbable nation. As she travels from island to island, she takes you with her to meet the people and their cultural practices. The book gives you the opportunity to experience Indonesia far more intimately than the majority of tourists on a Bali beach ever will. Just the paragraphs explaining the title of her book makes this work a worthwhile read.

More reading recommendations? Please see an overview of the books I recommend here.