This book has one of the most enthralling opening pages I’ve read, as Alan Noland summarises all the violent actions his father Arto was involved in during his years in Indonesia in the 1940s. The rest of this prize winning novel which is translated from the original Dutch concerns Alan’s attempt to put together the true story of his father’s experiences and to understand why he was such a violent parent. He’s helped by a memoir written by his father that he’s recently been given.

This may sound like a straightforward affair but this is a long book and switches between Arto’s memoir (also sometimes called Baldy’s memoir) and Alan’s recollections of his childhood, with contributions from his Dutch mother. I found it quite difficult to keep a grip on what was going on as there is much jumping between time and places. To give some idea of the flavour and content of the book, Arto, the father, was brought up in Surabaya in Java with a Chinese mother and a European father when Indonesia was still part of the Dutch empire. At school when the Japanese invade in 1941, he soon becomes involved in various activities, informing on people working for the Japanese, then working as an interpreter for the Allied troops where his loyalty is always to the Dutch rather than his fellow Indonesians and leads to him becoming a ruthless killer. Eventually he has to leave for Holland when the country gains independence under Sukarno. In Holland he marries a Dutch woman and tries to build a new life there. He hopes to be able to integrate but finds much racial prejudice which is particularly disturbing as he considers himself as Dutch.

This racism is also experienced by his son Alan when he’s at school especially as he’s always been a nervous child and the book features some heart-breaking details about his boyhood, his father’s violence, his mother’s flight from the family home to a safe house with her children who end up in a succession of children’s homes. They have very little contact with their mother but their father visits them and Alan still finds him frightening with unstable mental states and insisting on carrying a dagger at all times, a relic from his time in Java and the dangers he faced there. Also Arto was bullied by his own father. This handing down of violence from father to son is a main theme of the book and the question of whether understanding why it happens, as Alan does, can lead to a kind of forgiveness.

But the book is also an insight into the problems, violence and turmoil that occurred in the ending of European empires. I didn’t know much about how this happened in the Dutch colonies in the Far East, and a horrific story it is. As an interpreter, as we’ve seen in recent British military incursions, Arto is particularly vulnerable and not trusted by either side. He himself doesn’t know where his loyalties lie. He feels like a Dutch subject, but seen as an Indonesian in Holland.

This is such a complex book with so many strands that I have to admire it (and the marvellous translation by David Docherty) but not sure I’d recommend it. If you want a challenging read that will reveal a lot about how the end of other empires were as traumatic as the British experience this may be for you.

The Interpreter From Java by Alfred Birney

Head of Zeus 3 September 2020
ISBN 9 781788 544320 Hardback

Review by Sue Glynn

Personal read 3*
Reading Group Read 4*