James Franco’s “In Dubious Battle,” and John Steinbeck’s

James Franco clearly has a high regard for 20th-century American literature, having directed himself in a biopic about Hart Crane and Josh Peck in one about Charles Bukowski, and adapted not only As I Lay Dying but The Sound and the Fury to the screen. Until I saw his adaptation of In Dubious Battle, I thought that, like John Huston, his literary taste exceeded his directorial grasp.

It’s been half a century since I read the 1936 strike novel In Dubious Battle, and I doubt I understood the politics when I read it for an 11th grade term paper on Steinbeck’s writing, though I retained a vague respect for the least well-known of “the Dust Bowl trilogy” novels (the better known ones are The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men).


The movie looked really good (credit Bruce Thierry Cheung, who also shot “Bukowski” and “The Sound and the Fury” for Franco and directs him in the forthcoming “Kill the Czar”), sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty. Franco had a very strong cast including himself as Mac, the unionizing agitator, Nat Wolff (who was in Franco’s “Palo Alto”) as his protégé who goes beyond Mac in ruthlessness, Vincent D’Onofrio as the bearish leader of the local workers, Robert Duvall (who played Franco’s gay character’s father in “Wild Horses”) as the owner whose apple orchard is being struck, Sam Shephard as a hard-bitten small grower who agrees to let the strikers stay on his land, Ed Harris as a punchdrunk labor activist, Bryan Cranston as the sheriff (in one scene), and Selena Gomez as the new mother and love interest whose baby Mac and Jim deliver upon arrival at the fruitpickers’ camp.

Book and movie can be labeled “agit-prop,” but the villains (Duvall and the thugs he employs) are not fantasy bad guys but representations of the rapacious industrial agricultural elite licensing goons to campaigns and acts of terrorism against workers seeking to make a living (and not just during the Great Depression: see the would-be strikebreakers in 1972 in “Harlan County, USA”).


Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle is the story of an experienced labor organizer, Mac, and Jim, a trainee who proves himself more cold-blooded in sacrificing individuals to future victory than Mac. They latch on to a strike against apple growers who cut the pay they advertised in half after fruitpickers made their way to the orchards.

I thought the location might be in Oregon, in that the California Central Valley is too hot for apples, but apparently the main model was a 1933 peach-pickers’ strike in Tulare County (south of Fresno) and a cotton-pickers’ strike. Steinbeck himself went on record that “as for the valley in In Dubious Battle—it is a composite valley as it is a composite strike.” (The movie looks pastoral, but not Californian; it was filmed in Bostick, Georgia and Yakima, Washington, the latter being real apple country.)

He also did not specify “the party,” though his initial intent was to write about a communist organizer. There is reference to early IWW (Wobbly) actions in ways that seem to me to make it another, more specifically laborer organization.

Franco’s movie stuck quite close to Steinbeck’s story though the first three quarters (though adding a female sympathizer), and deviates most in the ending (particularly in whom is killed). The movie dramatizes incidents that are told about rather than directly narrated by Steinbeck, and the philosophical discussions between Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton mostly were left in the source material. It’s not clear to me how much Steinbeck accepted treating particular working people as means rather than ends in the larger struggle against capitalist agriculture. Over the course of the novel and of the strike, Jim is hardened, Mac somewhat softens, and Doc expresses skepticism about what would happen if the party triumphed (the Soviet show trials were only beginning in 1936, when the book was published; presumably it was written before them).

The title from Milton indicates that the struggle is doomed to failure, but what seems dubious to me is that success in overthrowing one set of oppressors creates new ones, as in the Soviet Union. But the clear and present danger in the book is the encouraging by the overlords, the three families that run the valley, of vigilante violence against those seeking a living wage to provide for the families. Mac has plenty to say about the bullies and chicken hawks, notably American Legion members who were in the armed services but not in WWI combat.

(on earlier adaptations to the screen of Steinbeck fiction see here)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Robin Sloan in San Francisco in 2008

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was the “On the Same Page” selection in San Francisco for March and April [2008]. On the last day of that reign, its author Robin Sloan appeared at the San Francisco Public Library. Having enjoyed the book and its prequel, I was predisposed to like the author, and indeed found him charming, speaking without a lectern, casually dressed, and exerting himself to find the questions in what audience members said (some asked real questions, but…).


Sloan majored in economics at Michigan State and worked for Twitter while aspiring to be a writer, but not writing much except tweets. However, the book grew out of a tweet—not one of his but one from a friend who was in England and mistook “24-hour bookdrop” for “24-hour bookstore,” and liked the idea of the latter. As did Sloan, who thought about working in one.

Though its location on Columbus Avenue in North Beach is near City Lights, he said that its inspiration was more Green Apple on Clement in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where he lives (in the Richmond, maybe even on Clement, but not in Green Apple). It stays open until 10 PM, later than most bookstores (as we call them here!).

He wrote stories that he could finish over the course of a long weekend, developing “muscles” for more extended narration.

In 2008 he offered an Amazon (Kindle) Single story for $.99 and was delighted to make about a thousand sales. The next stage (of what he likened to Russian nesting dolls) was a Kickstart posting selling advanced copies of another book for $10 ($12 signed) that drew another thousand. Meanwhile, an agent saw and liked the Amazon Single, and sold an expansion to the literary house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It has done well critically and commercially, especially in the Bay Area where most of it (and its prequel) are set. (Asked, he said he did not foresee a sequel. I wonder if he might go a generation further back in bookstore owners. What he is writing now is also set in the past and present of San Francisco. And he thinks quiet observers, writing “history in real time” are preferable to flamboyant ones.)

He was asked if the cover design (which glows in the dark) is a code. He said not as far as he knows, and that he made attempts to try to decode it.

He also said that writers are machines for transforming old books into new books.

No one asked about influences or favorite writers or books. I asked if there really are ships buried along what was the waterfront of The City during the Gold Rush. He confirmed that crews jumped ships and rushed off to find gold and that some of the ships were turned into stores, though none, as far as he knows, into a bookstore.


©Stephen O. Murray, 2008


Sloan has a novel titled Sourdough coming out sometime in 2017.

Breaking the mould

Though I was never bewitched by Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dan Brown books, science fiction, or fantasy fiction (I’m not even sure what the distinction between the later two genres are) and don’t tweet, I was enthralled by former Twitter executive Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The bookstore, located amidst strip joints on Broadway in northern San Francisco is very long and narrow with shelves rising more than 30 feet.


After novice designer Clay Jannon loses his job with NewBagel during the Great Recession, he gets a job in the graveyard shift of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. Sales are very low, but don’t seem to be the point. In addition to the sales in the front room, there is a backroom from which some elderly “shoppers” borrow mysterious treatises (written in a hieroglyphic-like code).

I guess Ajax Penumbra is an unlikely warrior and little more conventional a wizard, but Clay and his friend from childhood who has gotten rich with an application for rendering body parts (women’s breasts in particular) and a Google Princess Leia, Clay goes to the headquarter of what seems to be a cult on Fifth Avenue in New York, and steals the cult’s secret text, to be decoded by Google’s computers.

I like Clay’s voice, ironic about his fanboy penchants. I like it well enough to have made it through a book that in many ways is outside my interests, though the contrast and tension between Old Knowledge and New Knowledge is certainly interesting and important. And the moral of the story is laudable: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”sloan2.jpg

Ajax Penumbra, 1969 is a prequel for Robin Sloan’s popular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, available only as an e-book. Ajax Penumbra is not the protagonist of the novel (that would be Clay Jannon), though an important character. In the prequel he starts as a student then junior librarian at an obscure college who is dispatched to San Francisco to try to find a copy of Techne Tycheon, last seen more than a century ago in Gold Rush San Francisco.

In addition to being on a quest and finding his way to a long, high, and narrow bookstore on Broadway in San Francisco, Penumbra is obsessed by old books and comes to be employed at the bookstore, where he is already subordinate to Corvina. Perhaps more surprisingly, Penumbra’s roommate (Claude) is a pioneer computer builder.

Though occurring decades before the story of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I think that the order of publication and of composition is the right order for reading. If I had read Ajax Penumbra, 1969 first and not known where his life was going, I suspect I would not have gone on to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a way of saying that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is better than its prequel, I guess.

Though I was not in San Francisco in 1969, the historical detail seems plausible and well-researched. That BART has not yet opened is very important to the plot.

©2014, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Ten Best San Francisco (-Set) Novels (in chronological order of first publication)

Many outstanding movies, starting with von Stroheim’s “Greed,” based on McTeague by Frank Norris, and including John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” (from a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Alfred Hitchcock’ “Vertigo,” and Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have been set in San Francisco. Here I’m spotlighting the best novels set in San Francisco.

Both of the first two books on my list of best San Francisco-set novels were the basis of great movies. McTeague, the 1899 novel by Frank Norris, was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s butchered (from ten hours to two and a half) 1924 masterpiece, Greed. The title character is an unlicensed Polk Street dentist whose patient/fiancée Trina wins a lottery ($5K) which does not bring the couple happiness.


“The stuff dreams are made of,” The Maltese Falcon in the 1930 novel of that name Dashiell Hammett is a statuette. It was adapted into a good movie with Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez in 1931, titles “Satan Met a Lady” (actually that is the title of the 1936 version of the pre-Code movie re-release of which was barred; in 1931 it was titled “The Maltese Falcon”). The 1941 John Huston adaptation with Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart (not to mention Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Eishu Cook Jr.) is credited as being the first noir movie. It is an instance in which the movie is better than the book. It, too, could have been titled “greed,” the paramount motivation of most of the characters, though detective Sam Spade has some commitment to loyalty.


A lot of other noir movies were set in San Francisco, but as a location for fiction, there’s not much of note through the WWII and postwar times. crime/pulp novelist Charles Willeford III (best known for the 1955 Pick-Up) set Wild Wives (1956) in San Francisco.

Tales of the City was a serial (first in the Pacific Sun, then in the San Francisco Chronicle) by Armistead Maupin bound into an episode novel Tales of the City in 1978, with seven sequels, most recently, Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). The series centers on transsexual Anna Madrigal and the house o Barbary Lane where she mothers tenants, including a girl whose biological father she was, the perky gay Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the more careerist news reporter Mary Ann, and the womanizing Brian. Lord knows, there are plenty of local and topical references in the series.


Vikram Seth. Who is best known as the author of the massive A Suitable Boy (1993) had earlier written a novel in verse about San Francisco yuppies, Golden Gate (1986). Gore Vidal called it “The Great California Novel” and it is the basis for an opera that has been workshopped. (A musical “Tales of the City” recently ran at ACT in San Francisco, and three operas based on McTeague have been written.)


The rest of the books on my list reach backward in time. My favorite (and shockingly out of print) is Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory (1990), which is primarily set in 1914-16 (i.e., before US entry into the European war). The narrator recalling the love of his life might be considered a gay precursor of Max Tivoli (see below). He is also named Max: Max Kosegarten. The love, before going to college and an accident separated them was Duncan Taqdir, son of a Persian sculptor and an English archeologist (an “exotic”). Max’s mother was also having an affair with Duncan’s father. Stadler evokes not only requited first love but also the post-Earthquake San Francisco, back when the Sunset District was unpopulated sand dunes. Stadler also wrote a moving story of an expat from San Francisco to Paris family, the San Francisco born only child of Michael and Sarah Stein (who discovered Picasso before Michael’s sister Gertrude…) Allan Stein (1999) that is in print and deserves to be better known (it takes place in Seattle and Paris, btw).


China Boy (1991) by Gus Lee is an autobiographical novel that begins with Kai Ting is the youngest child of parents who fled Mao, being beaten up by a Panhandle vicinity bully Big Willie Mack. Kai Ting builds up his puny body (A Chinese American Mark Salzman (Iron and Silk)). The Tiger’s Tail (1996) is not exactly a sequel. Jackson Kan, its protagonist, like Lee went to West Point. The novel s set south of the Korean DMZ in the bitterly cold winter of 1973, with flashbacks to killing a young girl in Vietnam. Bill Lee’s 1999 memoir Chinese Playground is not a novel, but deserves to be better known an account of growing up on the mean streets of San Francisco Chinatown.


Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993) chronicles three Chinatown daughters of a sweatshop seamstress and a merchant seaman (laundryman) from the 1960s through the 90s. The suicide of the middle one is the pivot of the novel, and the other two leave The City, the oldest one for the ‘burbs, the youngest for NY. It is less melodramatic than Tan’s novels, but I would not say it is unmelodramatic!


Amy Tan’s novels The Joy Luck Club (1989) has a large cast of characters, San Francisco daughters of China-born mothers. The numbers are reduced to a mother-daughter pair (Lu Ling and Ruth) in her best novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, published in 2001.Well, the “auntie” who raised Lu Ling is also a major character (who knows where the ancient bones of “Peking Man” are), and the China parts are more interesting than the San Francisco ones. It, too, has served as the basis for an opera (by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Tan, premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2008).


Its reverse-aging gimmick kept me from reading Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli when it appeared in 2004, despite having much admired Greer’s novel The Path of Minor Planets (set on a small island in the South Pacific to which American astronomers have repaired in 1965 to watch Comet Swift). When I picked it up, I was entranced and moved, as well as intrigued by the historical detail of Max between 1871 and 1941.


I did not wait long after the publication of Greer’s next novel, The Story of a Marriage (2008) set in the Sunset District ca 1953 with frisson or racial differences and homosexuality during the McCarthy era (yes even at the western edge of the continent).


For old-time San Francisco color and a San Francisco author who wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, the series of Ambrose Bierce mysteries by Oakley Hall (born in San Diego, a graduate of Berkeley) should also be mentioned. The first and best is Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998). (BTW, Amy Tan was a student of Hall’s, as was Michael Chabon [Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boy, Moonglows.)

I also want to mention four collections of stories set in San Francisco

The People of the Abyss (aka “south of the Slot”—of the Market Street streetcar line) (1903) by Oakland proletarian writer, later turned Sonoma County gentleman farmer, Jack London

The Man With the Heart in the Highlands (1939[1986]) by Fresno-native William Saroyan

City Limits (2000) by James Toland (stories set in the Mission District)

Burden of Ashes (2002) by Singapore native Justin Chin, whose frustrations at life as a gay Asian American are also central to the performance pieces colleted in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (2005)

And a novel set in Colma, where San Franciscans are buried Alive in the Necropolis by Doug Dorst (2008). As “Colma: The Musical” which was not based on the novel notes, the population of Colma is 1200 who are alive and more than two million who are dead).

I am puzzled by when Going to See the Elephant by Virginia native Rodes Fishburne takes place, though it certainly moves around town on MUNI.

Though playing a significant part in romanticizing San Francisco as a city of refuge for nonconformists (not just “beats”) I also have to mention On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published in 1957, written some years earlier) , though it is primarily set on the road, not in the cities of the east or west coast.

Some other contenders for consideration (to read), novels that are set in San Francisco”

Caroline’s Daughter (1991) by Alice Adams, a native of Virginia who lived for many years in San Francisco

Maleficus (1999), a newsroom thriller by a former San Francisco Chronicle editor and writer James Toland

the post-punk lesbian Valencia (2000) by Michelle Tea (the Valencia Street corridor used to have lesbian bars and coffee shops; Tea, who was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for many years she hosted monthly queer readings at the San Francisco Public Library)

SoMa (2007) and The Sower (2009) by Kemble Scott

Little Brother (2008) by Torontonian Cory Doctorow

The High Ground: A Novel of Terror in San Francisco (2011) by Mark Cotter

Blood Sucking Fiends (1995), A Dirty Job (2006), You Suck (2007), Bite Me (2010) by Toledo-native Christopher Moore, who has returned to San Francisco after some years on Maui,

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan and its ebook-only prequel, Ajax Penumbra, 1969 (2013) are a little too fantasy fiction for me, but grounded in history, including ships sunk in San Francisco harbor after crews rushed up to Gold Country

(Latinos and blacks are underrepresented across this list, those of Asian descent other than Chinese unrepresented. ACT premiered an interesting play by Philip Kan Gotanda’s “After the War” in 2007, but novels?)




Martin Eden by Jack London

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick

1967 Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham

The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston

and (upriver, the Port of) Stockton

Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976) Maxine Hong Kingston

The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy (2001) by Gary Soto (and his 2006 play “Novio Boy”)

The most effective weapon of the weak may be parody, but like satire, some will take it literally

Born in Cairo of Lebanese and Syrian Greek Orthodox parents Albert Cossery (1913–2008) spent ten years in the Egyptian merchant marines before starting to write caustic satirical novels in French. He was discovered by Henry Miller and Albert Camus (not a common pairing!). His 1993 novel La violence et la dérision (Violence and derision) translated into English by Anna Moschovakis and published as The Jokers in the estimable New York Review Books series.


Though the setting is not named, it is a port city, presumably in Africa, like Alexandria. Autocrats lacking in any sense of irony or any other sense of humor rule the country. The regime crushes dissent.

As a student, Karim had been an opponent of the autocracy, but has settled down to making kits and avoids any political remarks. If pressed, as when he is hauled into the police who want to eject him from his rooftop apartment the overlooks a thoroughfare, Karim praises the regime and all its functionaries to a degree that makes even the pompous officials uncomfortable.

With his friend Heykal, Karim begins a campaign of parodying the local governor with posters of such extravagant praise that they make him a laughing stock. From that success, they go on to launch a campaign to raise a public statue of the buffoon. Mockery, ridicule, satire are among the weapons of the weak, specialties of Czechs in particular, but available to Arabs, too.

Alas, one of Karim’s former comrades in opposition to the regime, the deadly serious Taher is outraged that serious revolutionaries such as himself are being blamed for the subversive campaign of excessive adulation of the nonentity governor, so even as the central government is blaming the governor for puffing himself up, Taher is bent on conventional (violent) means to combat the government.

Ultimately, the joke is on the jokers and it is unlikely that anything will improve for the governed.

Along with the campaign of out-bombasting the bombastic autocrats, there is a poignant story of the mother of a teacher who has lost her mind, and some tenderness from a friend of her son. And kite-flying. And even hints of redemptive love for a 4-F character.


The novel is a brisk 145 pages.

John Buchan’s introduction provides an overview of Cossery’s life and works.


©2010,2017, Stephen O. Murray


Often charming, often frustrated tale of an impresario in rural Bali and the larger world: Dancing Out of Bali

John Coast was born in Kent, England in 1916. As Britain entered World War II, he left a comfortable post in the City to serve in the Coldstream Guards and then as an officer in the Norfolks. He was one of the few survivors of the Norfolks regiment that tried to defend Singapore against the Japanese invasion and then survived a Japanese prisoner-of-war slave-laborer on the Siam-Burma (Thailand-Myanmar) railroad, experiences of which he related in Railroad of Death (1946) and in the 1969 BBC documentary “Return to the River Kwai.” Coast stage-managed musical productions for fellow prisoners, including some Indonesian ones.

After the war, Coast joined the press department of the Foreign Office in Bangkok and then became press attaché to President Sukarno during the Indonesian struggle for independence, adventures he described in Recruit to Revolution (1952).


In 1950 Coast withdrew from politics and moved to Bali to write and to encourage the gamelan orchestra of Pliatin led by drummer Anak Augung. They developed some ten-year-old legong dancers and others into a dance troupe that pleased that half-Burmese (half-Javanese) President Sukarno. After endless intrigues with enemies of the president and/or of anything involving a white impresario in Denpasar (the capital of Bali) and Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia) Coast and his Javanese wife Supianti (called “Luce” throughout the book), he took the orchestra and dancers to a sold-out Broadway run after a sold-out but generally unpleasant (for him and for the Balinese) two-week run in London and then across the US to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and finally back through Phoenix to Miami in 1950. His book Dancers of Bali (1953), was published in England as Dancing Out of Bali (1954), and this title is the one used for the 2004 American edition that includes a foreword by David Attenborough (who worked with Coast on several documentaries) and photos that I don’t think accompanied the original publications (especially since the last one was taken in 2004!).

In some ways Coast’s book is a de facto sequel to Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali (first published in 1946), though Coast readily acknowledges a wife actively involved in the project of bringing Balinese dance/music to western attention (Jane Belo whose money made their life on Bali before WWII possible). The Coasts were able to secure the services of McPhee’s (Belo’s) cook and to feature McPhee’s protégé Sampih (who was nine years old when McPhee’s silent movie of Sampih dancing with a gemelan led by Anak Augung that can be seen an youtube was made). Coast and Anak Augung persuaded Sampih’s teacher, the legendary Mario (I Ketute Maria) to train a promising young (12-year-old) female dancer Ni Gusti Raka, who became in effect the prima ballerina.

training ni gusti raka.jpg

The traditional Balinese dances were single-sex (all male or all female, though sometimes having both male and female roles). Coast commissioned a new dance for Sampih and Raka, which became “The Bumblebee,” which is still performed (a clip titled “Lovers Dancing Like This” can be viewed on youtube with the fanwork done by the male dancer). With government sponsorship (and eventual seizure of control for a Northern European tour in the dead of winter), Coast was given the sonorous title “Technical Expert on Cultural Relations and Information for Countries Abroad” and no salary or cut of the (eventual) profits.


Given that he was making arrangements (living arrangements) for 44 villagers who had never been off Bali before going to Jakarta to perform for the president before a four-day flight to London and some of whom were pre-teens, Coast was necessarily paternalistic (in loco parentis), and was literally a patron of the Balinese musicians and dancers. His narrative does not seem patronizing, though he sounds bemused about finding London prostitutes for some of the adult males in the group and taking them to a New York burlesque show. And the envy for the group that was going abroad was literally lethal (Sampih was murdered after his return). Coast had some friends in high places from his time in the Indonesian government, but also many, many would-be saboteurs of the endeavor, especially in Denpasar (officials feeling passed over by sponsorship form Jakarta and condescending to the rural villagers while proffering Denpasar troupes that performed what Coast considered very watered-down tourist art).

Coast’s memoir of the great Balinese western adventure is bittersweet. The palace intrigues (in an ostensibly socialist and very nationalist palace—in a predominantly Muslim nation in which Hindu Balinese were regarded with good reason as “feudal” and different) dovetail with the portrayals of the new order before the New Order of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the premier Indonesian writer who was also disappointed by how little improvement of life (living standards and dignity) Independence brought Indonesia. (Pramoedya and Coast were both active in the independence movement after the attempted reimposition of Dutch colonialism.)

I don’t know if he presumed that readers would have read his two previous memoirs (his POW one was a best-seller in the UK), but it seems to me to lack introduction particularly of his consort (there were major official obstacles to marrying, though they were married before the trip to London) who is just there. Bits of his own background in the government build up. That the first word of the book is “we,” a pronoun with no antecedent is, I think, revealing of being tossed into the story of his life on Bali, though I’ll gladly stipulate that with some digressions the book pretty much proceeds chronologically from Kuta Bay (his first home on Bali) to Miami (where he saw off the troupe for its government-sponsored European tour without him and his wife).

Although I don’t think that Coast was as good a writer as McPhee, and clearly not as informed an ethnomusicologist, I think that Dancing Out of Bali is informative about Balinese worldview, what George Foster called the peasant “view of the limited good,” Balinese dance, and the perceptions of Anglophone cities by rural Balinese ca. 1950. BTW, they found Bob Hope hilariously funny and were especially charmed by Olivia de Haviland in their Hollywood visits.

There are a lot of illuminating photos. The glossary could be more helpful. It seems to me to include words not in the text and not to include some Balinese words that are in the text. The “short bibliography” was inadequate even for work in English about Bali published before 1953: including Vickie Baum’s romantic novel A Tale from Bali, but not the 1942 publication by Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, Balinese Character. Along with additional photos and captions, I think the bibliography could have/should have been augmented to include books by Jane Belo, Hildred Geertz, Adrian Vickers, Fredrik Barth, and Unni Wikan.

©2017, Stephen O.Murray

Pramoedya’s own retrospect

“We hardly know anything about the world, and the world knows nothing about Indonesia.”


Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006) is the only Indonesian writer (if not the only writer about Indonesia) with an international reputation. (Since I first wrote this review, one Indonesian novel has broken through to international attention: Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan.) Though mostly writing about the past (his own, his family’s, and further back), he was a social realist in the tradition of Maxim Gorky and John Steinbeck (both of whom he read in English). Manuscripts of eight of his books and his archives and notes for others were burned in 1965 when he was also taken away (“rescued” rather than arrested; he never was tried) for 17 years imprisonment that was followed by house arrest and a publishing ban in Indonesia that extended until 1998, after Suharto fell.

Pram (as he calls himself) fought for independence when the Dutch attempted to return to power after WWII. He was imprisoned by the Dutch, then by the Sukarno regime (also without charges or a trial, clearly for criticizing the persecution of Chinese Indonesians), and then by the “New Order” autocracy of Suharto (as a leftist, though, he insisted, he was never a member of the communist party).

He wrote The Fugitive as a prisoner of the Dutch, the Buru Quartet (published abroad 1980-88) and the pieces gathered in 1995 as A Mute’s Soliloquy on the prison island of Buru (though not allowed to take any papers, even a letter from Suharto when he left the island, copies were in the safekeeping of a church on the island).

Having read it after reading half a dozen Pram novels, there was not much new to me in the booklength interview titled Exile (for internal exile that continued even after release from the Buru prison camp to house arrest in Jakarta). After a 2000 stroke, Pram was unable to write and, his own analogy, like a gong, only sounded when struck by an interlocutor.

I found Exile not only repeating views of Pram’s with which I was familiar, especially from A Mute’s Soliloquy, but internally repetitious. He repeatedly criticizes the servility (“unthinking obedience”) of “Javanism” as proto-Fascist (while praising the resistance of the Aceh), never considers how Javanist Sukarno’s rule was. (Sukarno was IMO a very arrogant caudillo to borrow a Spanish term for a leader unbound by law and demanding personal loyalty.) Pram does acknowledge that there was some corruption in the years (through 1965) of Sukarno’s regime, though that pales in comparison to the Suharto family kleptocracy. That the US sought to topple Sukarno and supplied lists of leftists who were killed following the supposed coup attempt that provided a rationale for the seizure of power by the army (i.e., Suharto) and murders of two million Indonesians is beyond doubt, but Pram seemed unable to recognize the mismanagement of economy, the Javacentrism and lack of democracy of Sukarno’s failed state.

The dialogue is mostly about the failure of education, nation-building, and critical thinking in Indonesia. Pram said that Indonesia was better with a rule of law under the Dutch colonial regime that he worked to topple than it was at the time (2003-04), not only during the preceding decades (1965-98) of the quasi-fascist Suharto state supported by the US: “Western colonialism brought some benefits. For example, the unity of Indonesia was created by the Dutch. We learned about administration and governance from the Dutch. We learned about the rule of aw from the Dutch. We also learned about education from them? Education became a tool to apply pressure, to indoctrinate, and to extort money from students…”


There is little about his writing (either process or product). That he typed his work and did not look back at it, let alone revise anything, is not much of a surprise. (And directly connected to not attempting to rewrite the lost manuscripts: “I can write a book only once The surroundings and the mood one is submerged in during the writing can’t be recreated.”) His fiction as well as nonfiction aimed at communicating a critique of patriarchy, authoritarianism, colonialism, and neocolonialism more than it aimed at artistry. Before 1965, he was a public intellectual, working to build a national (Indonesian rather than Javanese) culture and a society of equality (for women as well as for Javanese). By the time he was allowed again to publish, his health had been destroyed.

The book is saddening in the aged social critic’s disappointment in his countrymen (and women), his feeling that his advocacy for the national language, national culture, and social justice failed. I think that Exile is a fairly good introduction to Pram’s biography and philosophy for those interested by reading his fiction.

“Today’s poor people have been impoverished by the elites. Before independence, they were robbed by the colonizers, now they are robbed by the elite…. During Sukarno’s rule, almost everybody was equally poor. If there was corruption at that time, only a small amount of money was involved. Present-day corruption involved billions and billions of dollars.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray