I have long threatened to engage with this man’s work. He had been writing since the mid 1930s but this particular novel was published in ’56; just before Spymania was beginning to dominate the paperback shelves. I had led myself to believe that this is where Ambler’s work would reside. But from what I read here, his genre would have to be considered more political.
We begin after the Second World War with Steve Fraser, an English engineer working in one of the Dutch East Indies many provinces alongside a group of Westerners. Prior to this point in history, Indonesia was like a hot potato. It changed hands from the Dutch to the Portuguese to the Japanese and was now barely getting to grip with independence.
Fraser and his team are finishing up the construction a dam that will no doubt line their pockets.
He has a few days to waste before his flight home and accepts the offer an apartment, given to him by an Australian acquaintance who also recommends a good tailor to visit during his stay.
Added into the mix is a Eurasian woman named Rosalie who agrees to keep him company for the last days of his stay. Such was the style of the time.
Everything seems to be fine until explosions begin to be heard around the city. There is rebellion under way as the rebels of the North plan their attack on the Nasjah government. The pair has now become hostages of the uprising, held in a half captive/half protective situation by Suparto, a representative of rebel General Sanusi, who may or may not be happy with the direction of the rebels leadership.
What really impressed me here was the relaxed, matter of fact nature of Fraser. He does occasionally judge the locals very quickly but often his instincts are quite accurate.
Some really good insight, for example, is the importance of saving face. Fraser who has a good grasp of the local dialect knows it’s better not to use this and instead lets local officials speak their poor version of English, despite everything taking twice as long to do.
The commentary on the bribe culture of the area is deft in tone and something many travelers still warn about to this day, as well as the ridiculous nature of promotion within any organisation.
Another aspect of Ambler’s writing is that he moves things along very quickly. A siege or hostage plot can drag quite easily if not handled well.
Here the writer provides just about enough detail regarding the layout of the apartment as well as the simple pleasures of having enough food and water to sustain themselves. He also renders Rosalie’s sarong very well, that most durable of item of apparel. It is these themes that really make the story work. Fraser is for now no better off than the locals, and plans his life hour by hour instead of more long term.
Having lived in Jakarta a decade ago, I could easily picture the scene around the old Dutch quarter, back then. An area long since dilapidated, with its few narrow bridges to remind the settlers of home.
As I recall it was a massive sprawl of a city and when I think of the intense sewerage and water treatment difficulties even in my time there, it made me laugh when they put Fraser’s character in charge of fixing a complex generator in the basement of the apartment block.
All in all, it works quite well as a brief historical document. Those who might be offended by the way westerners take advantage of local young women might steer clear. Does it help that Fraser remains a gentleman throughout? That he is constantly looking out for Rosalie’s safety? Maybe not.
But I think it captures the state of confusion that must have been felt in this time. How after six hundred odd years of colonialism the end was in sight for the local people and the potential for different factions to start fighting amongst themselves the closer they were coming to independence.
I must say too that my knowledge of South East Asian geography did not really affect my enjoyment. During the reading of the story, I had assumed the place names and names of the factions he was using to be apocryphal.
A political thriller with a light touch, I would read more from Eric Ambler quite happily.