The Year of Living Dangerously: Context

QA & YD - Demography & Religion - The Wayang - Economy - Hotel


While there are some similarities between BR and QA, there are many similarities between QA and YD.

Both novels                              QA / YD

feature Western journalists  Fowler / Hamilton

who go from Anglo homelands  England / Australia

to major cities                         Saigon / Jakarta

in Southeast Asian countries  Vietnam / Indonesia

at dangerous historical moments  1952 / 1965

during the Cold War.

Both journalists find themselves in personal danger

because of communist groups  Viet Minh / PKI

and agents                           Mr. Heng / Kumar, Vera

who align themselves with Russia & China

against the West, especially the U.S.

Both fall in love                               Phuong / Jill

and make friends who approach the problems

of the country in a different way.  Pyle / Billy

Both ponder religion           Xty / Xty & Hinduism

and syncretism.                Caodai / Billy’s eclecticism

While they are somewhat addicted to danger,

they also escape from it by going to exclusive hotels

that cater to Westerners.  Continental / Hotel Indonesia 

Both journalists sympathize with ordinary people,

lose their detached journalistic perspective,

and become involved in the country's problems --

symbolized by pedicabs               trishaws / betjaks

and their poor, mysterious drivers.  


Demography & Religion

World population percentage by country pie chart, March 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

World population percentage by country pie chart, March 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

Marshmir, Wikimedia Commons

Marshmir, Wikimedia Commons

Java locator map by Gunawan Kartapranata (Wikimedia Commons)

Java locator map by Gunawan Kartapranata (Wikimedia Commons)

From, "Credited to:"

From, "Credited to:"

Indonesia has about 260 million people, 57% of whom live on the relatively small island of Java -- where Jakarta and the other main settings of the novel are located. According to Wikipedia's main article on Indonesia, the country is 87.2% Muslim, 9.9 % Christian, 1.7% Hindu, and 0.7% Buddhist. This makes Indonesia the country with the largest Islamic population in the world. According to the Pew Research Centre, Muslim populations in 2010 were as follows (in millions): Indonesia 209, India 176, Pakistan 167, Bangladesh 134; Nigeria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey form a second tier with Muslim populations each in the 70 millions (  

Given the pre-eminence of Islam in Indonesia, Koch makes a very odd comment: "Hindu and Muslim cultures here seemed superimposed: even the mosques were like flats on a stage" (90). Hinduism and Buddhism came to the islands about two thousand years ago, and Islam came about 600 years ago. Saying that Islam seems superimposed on Java is sort of like saying that Protestantism seems superimposed on Germany, or that Sikhism seems superimposed on India. I would take his comments here with a large grain of salt.

In general, Koch doesn't say a great deal about Islam, apart from on 91, 125b, 228m, and apart from his references to the Muslim generals and Army men. This may be because he's structuring his narrative along the lines of the Wayang, which is most obviously influenced by Hinduism.

In regard to some of his allusions to Hinduism, I also remain puzzled. I have no idea what to make of his references to "Hindu accents" (82m), the "Hindu-faced man" (192b), and "the Hindu type in the tan suit" (234b), since Hinduism is a religion, not a language or physiological type. As with Greene, what Zadie Smith wrote (in her introduction to The Quiet American) may apply here: these are isolated failures of creativity; the important aspects of the novel lie elsewhere.

Or, perhaps Koch wants to assign to his narrator a degree of ignorance or misunderstanding. This might be similar to the lack of knowledge displayed by Hamilton, or by the protagonist of Koch's novel set in India, Across the Sea-Wall (1965).  

The Wayang

The wayang is the Indonesian puppet theatre, and the dalang is the puppet master. Once you have looked at the information below, ask yourself: 

How -- and why -- is Year structured according to the wayang?

How is Sukarno initially like the dalang or puppet master?

How does he go from puppet master to puppet?

From "Wayang" (Wikipedia): Wayang is a generic term denoting traditional theatre in Indonesia. There is no evidence that wayang existed before the first century CE, when Hinduism and Buddhism were brought to Southeast Asia. This leads to the hypothesis that the art was imported from either India or China, both of which have a long tradition of shadow puppetry and theatre in general. Jivan Pani has argued that wayang developed from two arts of Odisha in Eastern India, the Ravana Chhaya puppet theatre and the Chhau dance. However, there very well may have been indigenous storytelling traditions that had a profound impact on the development of the traditional puppet theatre. [...] Wayang kulit is a unique form of theatre employing light and shadow. The puppets are crafted from buffalo hide and mounted on bamboo sticks. When held up behind a piece of white cloth, with an electric bulb or an oil lamp as the light source, shadows are cast on the screen. The plays are typically based on romantic tales, especially adaptations of the classic Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana [the great Hindu epics containing characters such as Arjuna (Hamilton is a failed version of Arjuna in the novel) as well as the struggle between two powerful forces (in the novel, capitalism and communism).] Some of the plays are also based on local happening or other local secular stories. It is up to the conductor or dalang or master puppeteer to decide his direction.

A  dalang  performing  wayang kulit  in Java, circa 1890.

A dalang performing wayang kulit in Java, circa 1890.

The dalang is the genius behind the entire performance. [Sukarno is a failed version of the dalang in the novel.] It is he who sits behind the screen and narrates the story. With a traditional orchestra in the background to provide a resonant melody and its conventional rhythm, the dalang modulates his voice to create suspense thus heightening the drama. Invariably, the play climaxes with the triumph of good over evil.

What is the significance of Hamilton's 'sort of vision' while watching the Wayang on the road to Bandung (189-196)? What is the significance of his turning away from the puppet drama?



It's important to remember that the novel's about Indonesia in 1965. While Indonesia still has many poor people (according to Wikipedia's "List of countries by GDP" Indonesia's per capita income is 3,570 $US, compared to Canada's 42,210 $US), it has developed considerably since 1965. On the spatial level, the following photos underscore the economic changes from c. 1960s to today in the area around the Hotel Indonesia:




The following excerpt is from Wikipedia's "Economic History of Indonesia":

Sukarno presidency

On 17 August 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta on behalf of Indonesian people declared the independence of Indonesia. Amidst the turmoil, Indonesia issued their first rupiah banknotes in 1945. Between 1945 and 1949, Indonesia was embroiled in National Revolution. The economic conditions was plunged into chaos, especially in Java and Sumatra, as people struggled to survive the war.

In the 1960s, the economy deteriorated drastically as a result of political instability. They had a young and inexperienced government, which resulted in severe poverty and hunger. By the time of Sukarno's downfall in the mid-1960s, the economy was in chaos with 1,000% annual inflation, shrinking export revenues, crumbling infrastructure, factories operating at minimal capacity, and negligible investment.

Suharto presidency

Following President Sukarno's downfall the New Order administration brought a degree of discipline to economic policy that quickly brought inflation down, stabilised the currency, rescheduled foreign debt, and attracted foreign aid and investment. (See Berkeley Mafia). Indonesia was until recently Southeast Asia's only member of OPEC, and the 1970s oil price raises provided an export revenue windfall that contributed to sustained high economic growth rates, averaging over 7% from 1968 to 1981.[25]High levels of regulation and a dependence on declining oil prices, growth slowed to an average of 4.3% per annum between 1981 and 1988. A range of economic reforms were introduced in the late 1980s including a managed devaluation of the rupiah to improve export competitiveness, and de-regulation of the financial sector,[26] Foreign investment flowed into Indonesia, particularly into the rapidly developing export-oriented manufacturing sector, and from 1989 to 1997, the Indonesian economy grew by an average of over 7%.[27][28]

GDP per capita grew 545% from 1970 to 1980 as a result of the sudden increase in oil export revenues from 1973 to 1979.[29]

High levels of economic growth from 1987–1997 masked a number of structural weaknesses in Indonesia's economy. Growth came at a high cost in terms of weak and corrupt institutions, severe public indebtedness through mismanagement of the financial sector, the rapid depletion of Indonesia’s natural resources, and a culture of favours and corruption in the business elite.[30] Corruption particularly gained momentum in the 1990s, reaching to the highest levels of the political hierarchy as Suhartobecame the most corrupt leader according to Transparency International's corrupt leaders list.[31][32] As a result, the legal system was very weak, and there was no effective way to enforce contracts, collect debts, or sue for bankruptcy. Banking practices were very unsophisticated, with collateral-based lending the norm and widespread violation of prudential regulations, including limits on connected lending. Non-tariff barriers, rent-seeking by state-owned enterprises, domestic subsidies, barriers to domestic trade and export restrictions all created economic distortions.


The following is from Wikipedia, "Hotel Indonesia":


Hotel Indonesia first operated in 1962, inaugurated by the first President Soekarno as the first five star hotel in Southeast Asia to offer international standards. In front of the hotel, located in the heart of the capital, stands the “Welcome Monument”, intended to welcome the guests who were visiting Jakarta for the 4th Asian Games in 1962. Following the games, the hotel was used by President Soekarno to host state guests, and also official events.


During its heyday, Hotel Indonesia was the center of many cultural activities. Musical and theatrical performances were routinely staged at the hotel, serving as a launch pad for several renowned Indonesian artists to stardom, notably, among others, Teguh Karya who was the hotel’s stage manager, Slamet Rahardjo and Rima Melati. In 1969 Hotel Indonesia hosted Miss Indonesia pageant, won by Irma Hadisurya. By the 1970s, the Nirwana Supper Club on the highest terrace of the Ramayana Wing was the venue of choice for Jakarta elites to enjoy a fancy dinner, complete with live entertainment by popular musician, local and international.[citation needed]


Hotel Indonesia was designated as a cultural heritage site by the Decree of the Governor of Jakarta No. 475 dated 29 March 1993. The decree commanded that the building and all of its historical assets should be well preserved and maintained.[2]


In 2004, the government decided to completely renovate the hotel, and HI stopped operating that year. After the renovation was completed, the Hotel Indonesia became the Hotel Indonesia Kempinski on 20 May 2009, managed by Kempinski Hotels SA, the oldest luxury hotel group in Europe.


The landmark of Indonesia consists of two wings, the Ramayana Wing and Ganesha Wing. Ramayana Wing featured two types of guest rooms: Deluxe room (44 square metres) and Grand Deluxe room with range size of 58-62 square metres with total of 129 rooms. Ganesha Wing, a wing designed for premium business travelers operates a total of 160 rooms consists of 1 super secured and bullet proof Presidential Suite, 4 Diplomatic Suites, 6 Salon Suites, 90 Executive Grand Deluxe, and 59 Deluxe room complemented by a Lounge at the 7th floor.

The hotel originally boasted a large Olympic-size swimming pool in its backyard. But after the renovation in 2004, it was replaced by smaller swimming pool on the roof terrace. The Grand Indonesia shopping mall now stands on the site of the original pool. The 3,000-square meters Kempinski Grand Ballroom, opened in March 2008, has held various corporate activities, exhibition wedding and events. The historical oval shaped 1,000-square meters Bali Room, has been operated since September 2008.[citation needed]

Bundaran HI  ("Hotel Indonesia Roundabout") with Hotel Indonesia on the right

Bundaran HI ("Hotel Indonesia Roundabout") with Hotel Indonesia on the right