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Sumatran reflections

Encouraged to share his literary secrets with a sharp-suited British diplomat, John Mateer admits that he finds it difficult to trust other people’s work. ‘I am forced into the present, to write in the present tense,’ he says. ‘This is why I am interested in reportage, writing that takes the details of daily life and personal experience as the evidence of unfolding history.’

Readers would be misled if they approached this account of Indonesia after Suharto’s fall as journalism, or reportage. While author Timothy Garton Ash has called his essays on European communism a history of the present, Semar’s Cave is closer to a prose poem.

In late 1998, Mateer left for Sumatra to become the inaugural writer-in-residence at the Australian Centre in Medan. Stricken by bouts of sectarian violence and the impact of collapsing economies across south-east Asia, Indonesia provided the stuff of history in the making, but none of this is examined at great length in Semar’s Cave. Rather, the South African-born writer says his reason for going to Indonesia was a curiosity about the origins of Afrikaans, the ‘kitchen Dutch’, or Creole, used in the Dutch East Indies.

‘This fascinates me, because not only does it undermine the official history of Afrikaans,’ he says. ‘The idea that Afrikaans was a language with its origins in Europe, belonging to ‘white Africans’—the Afrikaners—but it also reflects the secret history of the language.’

Such reflections sprinkled throughout the book are its greatest strength. Few are fully developed (little is heard of this theory following a bracing exchange with a historian who recommends Mateer learn Dutch before embarking on this research), but in a world full of instant experts, this reticence may not be such a bad thing.

Semar’s Cave is hard to characterise. On one level it follows a stranger-in-a-strange-land trajectory. (The poet arrives in exotic Medan with its ‘tropical, volcanic scent of the earth, its monsoonal freshness and its spice of exhaust fumes’, travels to tourist sights such as Lake Toba, on to Java, and then flies home.) Along the way Mateer encounters a range of English-speaking expats and a few barely sketched Indonesians. On another, it is a self-portrait of the artist as a young man.

It is written in a deceptively straightforward style. Very little happens to the author-narrator, or more generally, but this stasis appears intentional: ‘I don’t write to present an objective account or a truth, but to interrupt norms of storytelling, travel-writing or even history by giving more detail than opinion; real images instead of my thoughts.’

And yet Semar’s Cave is highly opinionated (and frequently fierce—white Australians with their ‘overstuffed, ungainly, monstrously pale’ bodies have a particularly rough time in the book). Occasionally Mateer allows himself a more visceral response, and whenever these unruly emotions—disgust, shame, anger, alongside desire for ‘mythical Javanese prostitutes’—spill onto the surface, the narrative is revitalised, but such self-exposure is fleeting.

Critic Michael Heald says that Mateer’s suspicious world view manifests his South African background (he fled the country as a teenager, after experiencing a ‘state of emergency’, and settled in Perth) and this is why he resists conventional ways of meaning. ‘Mateer is at pains in his work to scrutinise processes of thought and feeling as they form into attitudes, motives and actions,’ Heald says.

Whether reflecting the author’s anxiety about being an Australian in Asia, his heightened sense of self due to his Zen Buddhist practice, or his prickly persona, Mateer’s self-consciousness ensures that there is little engagement with Indonesia’s socio-political situation, or the complex reality of Indonesian lives. This is reinforced by the decision to write in the present tense about events that happened seven years ago, which necessarily creates a sense of dreamy timelessness. Towards the end of the book, Mateer records his response to the Australian troops landing in East Timor, while the title refers to an earlier appeasement of the Suharto dictatorship by the Whitlam government, but these more political reflections are presented in a similar style.

During the conversation with the British diplomat, Mateer admits that he lacks faith in his authority to write. This may be behind his decision to use pseudonyms for certain characters. Two years ago an extract from Semar’s Cave appeared in a literary magazine that included a pointed characterisation of an Australian poet. It is reproduced in the book, but cloaked under a false name, which renders it meaningless.
Semar’s Cave is best appreciated for its lyrical reflections and vivid detail. Other cultures have been greatly enriched by the willingness of their poets to engage with the world around them through extended pieces of prose. Even if Semar’s Cave lacks the overarching ambition, or ego, of Octavio Paz, or Czeslaw Milosz, it is to be welcomed on that basis alone.   

Semar’s Cave: An Indonesian Journal, John Mateer. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2004. isbn 1 920 73114 8, rrp $24.95

Madeleine Byrne is a former SBS journalist. She is a fellow at OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank.


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