It has to be synchronicity, doesn’t it? Our Prime Minister Julia Gillard addresses the Lowy Institute about the government’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century and how we all need to become more Asia literate – and I discover a terrific new novel set in Indonesia which offers an enjoyable way of learning more about our near neighbour. Ruby J Murray’s debut novel is called Running Dogs, and it’s set in the cataclysm of the 1997-8 democratic revolution and the subsequent Reformasi phase. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously, (also set in Indonesia) because there is a similar sense of momentous events taking place and impacting on individuals. Things seem to be out-of-control in a way that is completely unfamiliar to readers who live in a stable society like Australia. The title foreshadows that there are unprincipled protagonists and while it doesn’t take long to figure out who they might be, the interest in this novel lies in the way that the author has used her familiarity with Indonesian history and politics to weave an intricate domestic drama that kept me reading it well into the night …
Petra and Diana are childhood friends meeting up again in adult life, and the story is structured in two time periods, Reformasi in the present and the tumultuous lead-up to the revolution which toppled Suharto in 1997 when Petra was only 12. Diana, a misfit expat now working for an aid organisation, has come to Jakarta to Do Good Deeds but also to catch up with Petra, with whom she went to school in Melbourne. Now a leading socialite, the lovely Petra is obscenely wealthy thanks to her father’s business interests, which are still thriving in Indonesia’s democracy. As the Balinese Ketut puts it, Indonesia had a revolution in 1998 to change things, but people like the Jordans still own half Indonesia’s forests. The Tan Po conglomerate (for whom Jordan is a ‘running dog’) can even get laws changed so that they can acquire more land, only to sell it back to Indonesia. And the next generation is complicit: Petra is a translator and negotiator for her father, and her brother Isaak is an economist for one of their banks. (Yes, they own more than one, and four or five private islands too.) But Diana is blind to all of this; her fascination with Petra is equal only to her naïvete. Petra holds her in thrall…
The other Jakarta, the Jakarta of Petra’s childhood, is in transition after decades of military dictatorship. Seen through a child’s eyes, the world is changing, but Petra and her brothers, cocooned by their father’s wealth, observe events without understanding them. They listen to Mbak Nana’s stories of the local animist gods and their power, and the children believe that they too can influence events if they emulate the sacred rituals they’ve heard about. Threatened at home by their violent father and at school by the bully Bill Desta, they invoke the power of Nyai Roro, and they believe that the ensuing disaster is their fault.
The atmosphere is taut and Murray keeps the novel moving with panache. There are bomb threats and the International School is closed down. Huge demonstrations clog the streets, and the Asian Financial Crisis has to be massaged. The reader learns that Petra and her brother Isaak are the children of Richard Jordan’s first marriage to an Indonesian woman who died in an accident when they were very small. We see that their brother Paul is the child of Jordan’s second marriage which is clearly unhappy. And Mbak Nana is indiscreet and the children blunder into revealing things about her that arouse suspicion when documents go missing from Richard Jordan’s study.
These events bleed into the Jakarta of the present when Paul decides to try to find M’bak Nana and learns the disconcerting truth. But when they confront the consequences of the corruption in which they have been complicit, their amoral attitudes take Diana into the same game…
John Bailey reviewed it at the SMH.
Author: Ruby J. Murray
Title: Running Dogs
Publisher: Scribe 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe
Fishpond: Running Dogs
Or direct from Scribe