Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 32, 1992
Edited by Jenny de Reuck & Hugh Webb

'The Two Halves': Questions of Post-Colonial Theory and Practice in Christopher Koch's The Year of Living Dangerously

Amanda Nettlebeck

A crucial thread to post-colonial theory is that the aim of the post-colonial project is not to assert a newly defined cultural power but to make visible the relative and partial nature of all "truths"; to expose the ideological biases underwriting any ethical and epistemological system which would otherwise regard itself as definitive and axiomatic. An important question to be asked about the post-colonial project then becomes: to what extent does it disrupt or question constructions of political and cultural authority? For any post-colonial nation, however, this question is, to some extent, problematic. After all, the post-colonial project is located inevitably within a framework of political power, within which it seeks to assert the validity of an unrecognised nationalism. This seems to suggest that a gap exists between post-colonial theory, in its deconstructive sense, and post-colonial nationalism, which tends (like any nationalism) to pull towards a process of re-centering.

In defence of new nationalisms, Simon During has argued that the role of post-colonialism is to achieve, in nations "which have been victims of imperialism," an identity which is "uncontaminated by universalist or Eurocentric concepts and images". 2 Important as a sense of identity may be to a post-colonial nation, it must also be recognised that any structure of identification - even one based upon the premise of difference, as post-colonial identity is - contains an element of universalist assumptions. In other words, post-colonial identity may be deconstructive in spirit, but in establishing a form which can assert its difference from a dominant form, and so challenge a politically-specific hierarchy of power, other intra-national (or social) differences, like those of race and gender, may become obscured.

For Australian nationalism in particular, which was forged upon an imported mythology of white masculine power, the establishment of post-colonial identity becomes all the more problematic. Unlike some other post-colonial nationalities, which have been able to throw off the weight of imperial dominance to assert the validity of their own culture, political system and language, post-colonial Australia - and it is important here to recognise that this term is itself politically loaded, referring as it does to the socially, politically and economically dominant group of white Australians, who are both victims and perpetrators of different acts of marginalisation - has no pre-existing systems to reassert. Rather, it has a culture, a political system and, most importantly, a language which are grounded in a European ancestry, in imperialist imports.

So because of its cultural legacy, the discursive hierarchy determining social and political power in Australia is quite complex. On the one hand, post-colonial Australia is involved in a struggle to de-polarise the relationship between Europe and itself as sociopolitical centre to its relegated margin, to destabilise the very notions of centrality and marginality which have up until recently maintained Australia's position of subordination to Europe. But on the other hand, within the national discourse which emerges from this struggle, other centre/margin relationships have developed, regarding race and gender, which recall an imperial heritage and all its cultural assumptions.

For instance: it is the nature of post-colonial discourse to address the issue of cultural difference and so to redress the imbalance of power that is implicit in an Anglocentric tradition. Yet the relative absence of Aboriginal issues in the movement towards post-colonial identity in Australia (in as much as that movement seems to focus upon disrupting the perceived dichotomy between European centre and Antipodean edge) suggests the kind of racial power structure which can still be imbedded within a general representation of post-colonial identity. Again: its deconstructive role makes post-colonialism comparable to other oppositional practices like feminism, and there has been much interest in the nexus between these two movements in "writing back" against master narratives, in challenging the centre from a position of marginalisation. But the fact that Australian nationalism was first forged upon a frontier mythology which as Kay Schaffer has said, "takes the masculine as the norm for the self" 3 - a mythology that has had implications for our cultural future - reveals that a sexual power structure can also be an invisible element of the wider representation of post-colonial identity.

In this paper I'd like to concentrate, not just on the imbalances of power which are submerged within Australia's own construction of national identity, but on the ways in which those imbalances surface in our relationship with another nation struggling for post-colonial identity. Christopher Koch's novel The Year of Living Dangerously, [1] although not overtly tied to the theoretical framework in which I'm placing it, is interesting in its depiction of late twentieth century Australian responses to South East Asia. The novel is set in Jakarta in 1965, the climactic year of President Sukarno's trouble-torn reign, and its characters are Australian journalists whose job is to package Indonesia's domestic strife for Australian news. The Australian/Chinese cameraman Billy Kwan and the Australian/English reporter Guy Hamilton are the central figures in what becomes a complex play of personal power and, ultimately, of national dominance.

The cultural hybridity of these characters points to a contemporary Australian identity which is fundamentally ambivalent: it is an identity which calls for cultural pluralism and tolerance on the one hand, but which protects the ideals of Eurocentrism on the other. This cultural ambivalence sets the scene for a story which revolves around Billy's and Guy's shifting relationship with each other; around their equally shifting relationship with Indonesia, which is both the reflection of their personal divisions and the representation of Otherness; and around the developing love affair between Guy and the British Embassy secretary Jill Bryant, whose femaleness, curiously, means that her British (imperialist) nationality is more disabling than empowering.

There are the ingredients here, then, for several kinds of conflict, which fall into a series of interconnecting dichotomies. On one level, Indonesia's struggle against the restraints of colonialism calls into practice the kind of oppositional strategies which, in a more explicit and violent way, parallel Australia's own push for political and social self-determination. On another level, the imperialist influence which Indonesia fights is not merely documented by the Australian journalists but is actually represented by their presence. In the novel, in fact, they become known as "NEKOLIM," or neo-colonial imperialists (8). The instrument of power through which this presence is felt is language. In its capacity to name, define and limit, language operates as a means of appropriation.

This is already apparent in the power of Sukarno, whose dictatorial control of Jakarta's movement towards political independence recalls the dangers of the new forms of domination which are implicit in forging a new national consciousness. As the self-declared "Mouthpiece of the Indonesian People" (12), Sukarno has "created this country" (13) through language, and his authority is therefore that of the Law of the Father, the writer of history. But if Sukarno is writing one history of Indonesia, the Australian journalists are writing another which absorbs and re-interprets Sukarno's version. In a Derridaian sense, the written reports of the journalists take on a greater authority than Sukarno's speeches, for written language functions, as Derrida says, to replace a "present and concrete existence" with "the ideality of truth and value".4 The journalists are therefore both the users and the possessors of language, and they draw upon its power to reduce Indonesia's political and cultural strife to the "newsworthy" element suitable for Australian consumption. The language in which they write Indonesia's unfolding history is, of course, English. As such, the post-colonial discourse of Australian nationalism consumes that of Indonesian nationalism. "'Spiritually,'" Billy notes with unwitting significance, "'this place is still a colony'" (97). Billy's own claim that, as a cameraman, he is "'recording history visually'" (19) also carries the suggestion of cultural appropriation. Here, the camera rather than the written word is the tool of appropriation, reflecting a process of subjective selection, functioning to "box" Indonesia's crisis for foreign news. The sexual exploitation of Indonesia's poor by the other Australian journalists Wally O'Sullivan and Pete Curtis is another aspect of this assertion of power. The paradox of a post-colonial nationalism which subjugates another is heightened by the fact that the members of the Wayang Club - meeting place of the journalists - recognise and abhor Sukarno's developing tyranny, but not their own role in the power play. Ironically, the completely Anglosaxon Wayang Club takes its name from the wayang kulit, the Javanese shadow play in which relationships of power between the gods are enacted. While Sukarno grows more and more egocentric, the NEKOLIM journalists themselves retreat to the cool, gilted world of the Wayang Bar, to which Indonesians are denied access. There they dissect the affairs of the nation while KONFRONTASI rages in the outside heat. As Guy's Indonesian assistant Kumar later tells him, just before he leaves Indonesia at last for Europe: "'The misuse of this country's wealth has caused misery of which you really know nothing. But you don't have to care. You can go to another country, and write stories there'" (288). Kumar's earlier accusation of Guy - "'you people do not care about us, you only pretend to'" (176) - is not only a personal but also a national one; it is an accusation of hypocricy in what has become an altered code of domination.

This uncertain intersection of colonial and imperial positions in the make-up of a post-colonial consciousness is apparent in the figures of Billy and Guy, who have both suffered, though in different ways, from what they see to be a position of cultural alienation in Australia. As half Australian and half Chinese, Billy feels the weight of a kind of double alienation, a status of two-fold Otherness. His diminutive size (he is a dwarf) points to a further disparity in stature between Asian Australians and European Australians which, the novel suggests, is more than physical. It is his first-hand awareness of social marginalisation that allows him to identify with the Indonesian people with a sensitivity the other Australian journalists don't have. Yet curiously, from his standpoint of difference, Billy's response to Indonesia's state of cultural vulnerability is not only one of empathy but also one of exploitation. His adoration of the dictatorial Sukarno, for instance, reflects a tension in him between the need to belong and the need to control: on the one hand he idealises Sukarno's role as protector of the people, and adopts this role himself in his intimate dealings with Jakarta's poor; but on the other hand, his proprietorial assumption of the role of the Father suggests not so much equivalence to, as domination over, the Other. After all, the notion of cultural identification is itself a profoundly ambivalent one, implying in its range both empathy and appropriation.

Guy Hamilton, as half Australian and half British, entertains a different kind of ambivalence towards Indonesia and its people. Despite his almost brutal independence and his claims of "non-attachment" (65), Guy retains "a deference" (63) for things English, together with a nostalgic belief that the "British Empire was better": Sometimes he feels, he says, "'that I was born too late'" (65). To the British Military Attache Colonel Henderson - "a real pukka sahib" (65) - Guy shows a "careful respect," and it seems of more than passing significance that Henderson bears a close physical resemblance to Guy's dead English father, suggesting his own heritage of imperial authority. So although he selects and re-writes Indonesia's crisis under the guise of objective reporting, his cultural loyalties make the process questionable. His Anglocentric prejudices - manifested also in "an almost Edwardian strain of romanticism" (65) - cause him to mystify rather than to demystify Asia, which he is both seduced by and distrustful of. So rather than benefitting from this international converage to emerge as a nation with its own political and social needs, Indonesia remains a place of "opposite intensities" (20): contradictory, Other.

The contradictions and ambivalences of a post-colonial nationalism which was founded upon an assumed hierarchial code are not only apparent in Billy's and Guy's mixed responses to Indonesia, but also in their responses to the central female character, Jill Bryant. As the feminine Other, Jill becomes the marginalised figure in a specifically masculine discourse, through which the dominant male characters reaffirm their position of power. It is notable that, like the culturally marginalised Indonesians, Jill never enters the Wayang Bar. And like the socially marginalised Billy, she is physically small, a peculiarly child-like figure. Billy, for one, is genuinely attached to Jill, but his identification with her - like his identification with the Indonesian people - is marked by that ambivalent response of both empathy and appropriation.

For instance: he seems to understand her better in many ways than Guy does, but his assumed ownership of her - "'Jill's a nice little thing - I'd like you to meet her'" (46) - is one of the means by which he asserts his influence with Guy. And Guy takes part in this exclusively masculine discourse when he responds to Billy's question "'How did you like my little Jillie, old man?'" with "'She seems a nice little thing. Very pretty. I envy you'" (86). The terms of their conversation endorse not only the trivialisation but also the appropriation of Jill's character. Later, Billy will give her to Guy, and they both assume her passivity when Billy says: "'I know she'd follow you eventually, if you decided to marry her'" (152).

The position in which Jill is placed in this triangular relationship is not only a marginal one but is actually a contradictory one. As the object of masculine desire, Jill represents the absent Other, the supplement to personal lack, and the men become rivals against each other for her love; but in their identification with each other they both dismiss her, assert masculine control over her. As such, she is caught at the centre of both the rivalry and the complicity of the two men, taking on women's position in patriarchial culture of sharing in what Toril Moi calls "the disconcerting properties of all frontiers ... neither inside nor outside, known nor unknown". 5

In her relationship with Guy, Jill's imposed contradictoriness is compounded by her British nationality. He is attracted to her because she represents for him the lost landscape of his ancestry, and he looks to her "for an England that had never been his and had never, in fact, existed" (139). She takes on, therefore, all the nostalgic intransience of that ideal: she is "waif-like," "nymph-like," recalling the elusive quality of "an old drawing" (120). As the embodiment of otherness, Jill is denied her own place of value, except as the reflection of Guy's ambivalence: "'[He was] simply unable to put the two halves of her together. How could this Arthur Rackam nymph, his English Alice, be Pete Curtis's 'very good lay'?" (139-40).

This allusion to Pete Curtis' sexual exploits (or exploitations) ties a thread between the marginalisation of Jill and that of the Indonesian people. But these different acts of marginalisation come together most powerfully in the image of the cemetery. This is the meeting place of Jakarta's prostitutes, where there "was a sense of outskirts; [where] the darkness continued" (182). The urgent desperation with which the women there fight each other for the favours of the Australian journalists stands in stark contrast to the removed indulgence of the journalists' political speculation as it is exchanged in the air-conditioned Wayang Bar. For them, the long hours spent in the Wayang Bar, with its ready flow of beer, served by Indonesian servants, is an Asian version of their ordinary lives in Australia. Their excursions outside, into the "opposite intensities" of Jakarta - the "filthy and colourful" streets, the mixed pleasures of the cemetary - are excursions into the extraordinary, the exotic, otherness. This designation of otherness in terms of both race and gender is voiced by Guy on his only visit to the cemetery, when he sees that the Indonesian women "would for ever remain remote: figures in a bas-relief" (182): in short, Other.

So although the motivating force of post-colonialism is deconstructive, the national identity that has emerged from that movement in Australia may be seen as being subject to the same cultural structures it has sought to question. This difficulty is compounded by the tendency of all nationalism to generalise, to subsume elements of difference in a sweeping gesture of identification. Nonetheless, at least the colonial question of determining national "identity" can become, in a post-colonial context, the question of identifying the form of nationalism through which we operate. For this reason it is worth recalling that all national identity - even post-colonial identity - is an invention. As Richard White writes in Inventing Australia: "When we look at ideas about national identity, we need to ask, not whether they are true or false, but what their function is, whose construction they are, and whose interests they serve". 6

University of Western Australia


1 Christopher Koch, The Year of Living Dangerously (1978; rpt. London: Grafton, 1986), p.140. All references are to this edition and will appear in the text.

2 Simon During, "Postmodernism or Post-Colonialism Today" in Andrew Milner et al., (eds.), Postmodern Conditions (Clayton, Vic.: Centre for General and Comparative Literature, Monash U, 1988), p.112.

3 Kay Schaffer, Women and the Bush: Forces of Desire in the Australian Cultural Tradition (Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge UP, 1988), p.10.

4 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1976), p.142.

5 Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Methuen, 1985), p.167.

6 Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980 (Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), p.viii.

New: 26 December, 1996 | Now: 11 April, 2015