Elizabeth Pisani has had two career incarnations: as a foreign correspondent for Reuters and the Economist, and as an epidemiologist. Her experiences in Indonesia form the backbone of a travelogue, national biography, and eulogy; to diverse, but disappearing, ways of life. The prologue offers a taster of the eclectic mix – a brigadier general who tells stories of a magic dagger is juxtaposed with transgender prostitutes and tattooed junkies – but it’s in the later chapters that each figure is fully fleshed out. Readers will soon feel personally acquainted with the likes of Big Man, Pudding Faced Grandma and the Representatives of Christ’s Kingdom.
Each of the 13 chapters discusses a different issue affecting the country, situating each confidently in its historical context. Certain themes – the artificiality of a single Indonesian identity; corruption; the people’s resilience – are common threads, but Pisani examines them sensitively and from multiple angles.
Pisani claims to have ‘trekked 21,000 kilometres by motorbike, bus and boat, and covered another 20,000 kilometres by plane’ during her most recent stint in Indonesia, and this underlines her commitment to the country and to her research. There are, no doubt, more detailed, academic accounts of the country’s recent history and its myriad current challenges, but few are more accessible and entertaining than Indonesia Etc.
INDONESIA ETC: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani, Granta Books, £18.99