An unsparing family history in which Alan Nolan discovers his father’s memoirs about the atrocities he committed in the Dutch East Indies during the war with Japan – his life as an assassin, the murder of Indonesians in the service of the Dutch and his escape to the Netherlands to avoid execution.
– The Interpreter from Java
The Interpreter from Java by Alfred Birney was published September 3rd with Head of Zeus. Translated by David Doherty, it is described as a superb novel, with the South China Morning Post stating that it is ‘a work of unbridled, incensed storytelling: an assault on the lazy assumptions of parochial, colonial history and a personal quest for redemption’
I am delighted to bring you an extract from the novel today as part of the blog tour with Midas PR so I do hope you are intrigued and of course enjoy.
[ About the Book ]
Alan Nolan discovers his father’s memoirs about the atrocities he committed in the Dutch East Indies during the war with Japan – and begins to understand how war transformed his father into the monster he knew.
In this unsparing family history, Alan distils his father’s life in the Dutch East Indies into one furious utterance. He reads about his work as an interpreter during the war with Japan, his life as an assassin, and his decision to murder Indonesians in the service of the Dutch without any conscience. How he fled to the Netherlands to escape being executed as a traitor and met Alan’s mother soon after. As he reads his father’s story Alan begins to understand how war transformed his father into the monster he knew.
Birney exposes a crucial chapter in Dutch and European history that was deliberately concealed behind the ideological façade of post-war optimism. Readers of this superb novel will find that it reverberates long afterwards in their memory.
[ Extract – The Interpreter from Java ]
Guitar and typewriter
As a young man in Surabaya, my father saw the flying cigars of
the Japanese Air Force bomb his home to rubble, he saw Japanese
soldiers behead civilians, he committed acts of sabotage for the
Destruction Corps, was tortured and laid in an iron box to broil
beneath the burning sun, he saw Japanese soldiers feed truckloads
of caged Australian prisoners to the sharks, he saw Punjabi soldiers
under British command sneak up on the Japanese and slit their
throats, he learned of the death of his cousin on the Burma
Railway, heard how his favourite uncle was tortured to death by
Japanese soldiers on his father’s family estate, he betrayed his
‘hostess’ sister’s Japanese lover, he guided Allied troops through the
heat of East Java, where Indonesian rebels were hung by the ankles
and interrogated while he – an interpreter – hammered away at a
typewriter, he helped the Allies burn villages to the ground, heard
the screams of young rebels consumed by flames as they ran from
their simple homes into a hail of gunfire, he learned to handle a
gun and, at a railway station, riddled a woman and her child with
bullets when a Javanese freedom fighter took cover behind them,
he led an interrogation unit in Jember, broke the silence of the most
tight-lipped prisoners, he was thrown 250 feet into a ravine when
his armoured vehicle hit a landmine, he was ordered by a Dutch
officer to supervise the transport of inmates from the municipal jail
in Jember and, arriving at Wonokromo station in Surabaya after a
nine-hour journey, he dragged the corpses of suffocated prisoners
from the goods train, he found the body of an Indo friend who had
blown his brains out because his girl had slept with a Dutch soldier,
and, amid the chaos of Bersiap, he killed young men with whom he
had a score to settle. But for him the worst thing was when the neck
of his guitar broke.
Or did that last detail slip your mind, Pa? Perhaps because you
made it up?
It happened during the First Police Action. Two convoys
travelling in opposite directions passed at close quarters. Some
squaddie left the barrel of his machine gun in harm’s way and you
the neck of your guitar. The make of the machine gun is unknown,
but your guitar was an original US Gibson: every Indo’s dream,
played by all the greats. A prize you’d have given anything to own,
even the sweetest girl in all Croc City.
You were a big man in my eyes, a fearsome figure, and you
smiled as you told me this tale in a chilly Dutch living room. The
guitar had been a faithful companion to you and your soldier
buddies, though you never mention it in your writings. And, as
long as that instrument survived, the war still resembled a Boy’s
Own caper: tearing around, feeding your face, serenading the
village girls, spying on women as they bathed in the river. Night
after night as a kid, I had to listen to those ripping yarns of yours.
While your Dutch mates in their green berets plastered their
tanks with pin-ups, you hung a portrait of their queen at the foot
of your bed in Surabaya. Your lofty dream of Holland was just a
decent pay packet to most of those guys or, to the psychos among
them, an adventure. That first batch of Dutch Marines had been
trained in America – to you they were heroes. And, pig-headed
as you are, you continued to watch those mindless American
movies all your life, films in which war is for heroes and peace
is for cowards. Refused to grow up, didn’t you, Pa? You always
remained that boy of twenty.
[ Bio ]
Alfred Birney was born in 1951. His works span both fiction and non-fiction, in which his family’s Dutch-Indies history has a central role. In novels like The Innocence of a Fish and The Lost Song, he writes about his youth, dominated by his father, and the years he had to spend at boarding school. For The Interpreter from Java, where he describes both his parents’ histories and the impact their lives had on his own, he was awarded the Libris Literature Prize, the Netherlands’ premier literary award, and the Henriette Roland Holst Prize. He lives in the Netherlands.
Twitter ~ @AlfredBirney