Garden of Terror

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It is axiomatic that good journalists make lousy novelists. When they turn their writerly talents toward fiction, most reporters — particularly foreign correspondents — are undermined by the very expertise that lends authority to their dispatches. Rather than creating flesh-and-blood characters, they often produce stick figures representing various factions and points of view, who hold forth in preachy, predictable allegories. Yet in The Spice Garden, his debut novel, Michael Vatikiotis, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, has constructed an engrossing narrative of mass hysteria and mob violence set in the Maluku archipelago, Indonesia's spice islands, during the horrific bloodbath that swept across the area in 1999-2000.

The Spice Garden should be notable, if for no other reason, as the first serious novel in English about the sectarian violence in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto. Vatikiotis solves one of the main problems facing the journalist-novelist by cutting himself free from actual events and creating an imaginary spice island he names Noli. He even invents for it a spice — "a hairy nut the size of a plum that stubbornly refused to grow anywhere else."

Vatikiotis' Noli is a scantly fictionalized version of the Bandas, a tiny cluster of some of the most beautiful and remote islands in a region where remote, beautiful islands are the norm. Like the Bandas, Noli is separated from the other islands in the Maluku archipelago by a wide expanse of sea, and has a population nearly evenly composed of Christians and Muslims. And the Noli nut is obviously a variation on nutmeg, which made the Bandas a geopolitical prize in the age of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.

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The plot of The Spice Garden revolves around the friendship between the leaders of the island's two communities: Father Xavier Lunas, a Catholic priest, and Ghani, a Falstaffian hotelier and fish merchant. At the beginning of the novel, a wedding is being planned between a Muslim boy and a Christian girl. The social cataclysms that have begun to rack Indonesia are felt here only as faraway echoes, until a boatload of survivors of gruesome atrocities in strife-torn Ambon, the capital of Maluku, washes up on Noli's shores. Soon afterward, a gang of jihadist rabble-rousers arrives, with a mandate from sinister elements in the army to create chaos as part of an ongoing plot to destabilize the nation in the aftermath of Suharto's fall. Within days the island's idyll is shattered, and neighbors who had long lived peacefully side by side literally hack each other to bits. The alliance between Father Xavier and Ghani ultimately proves to be Noli's salvation by appealing to the islanders' better angels.

Vatikiotis, whose collection of short stories with Asian settings called Debatable Land was published in 2001, has a remarkable gift for evoking the sights and scents of the Tropics. Unsparing in his portrayal of the violence of the era, Vatikiotis is admirably evenhanded in his attempts to elucidate the social forces that underlay it. For the most part, The Spice Garden avoids the usual plague of the journalistic novel of crudely putting exposition and argument in the mouths of its characters. The friendship between Father Xavier and Ghani is well rendered and has the ring of truth. Vatikiotis' writing style is polished and evocative, despite occasional patches of purple that could have been pruned. The novel's Romeo-and-Juliet subplot is sugary and painfully predictable, with lovemaking scenes that the judges of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award could take under consideration.

Yet the book ends on a strong note, with the island and the young lovers reunited by a shaman, representative of the animist belief system that dominated the islands of Indonesia long before the arrival of colonizing religions and which still commands a wide following. Since Joseph Conrad's early 20th century tales of the tropical seas, very few foreign, competent storytellers have taken Indonesia for their subject. With this interesting novel, Vatikiotis makes a valuable contribution to the literature of the archipelago.