Review of Black Water by Louise Doughty
I am always hesitant to pick up a book which is likened to John Le Carré or Graham Greene as they are usually anything but. In Black Water by Louise Doughty we are given the same plaudits about her eighth novel but what caught my eye was the subject matter and for that alone she deserves credit.
The backdrop is Indonesia in 1965, the Cold War has come to prominence in South East Asia with the opening salvos of American intervention in Vietnam and the CIA, long embedded there are backing the Indonesian military as they fight the PKI Communist Party of Indonesia.
Originally founded in 1914 the PKI was the largest non-ruling communist party in the world with a membership peaking at some two million by 1955. Their popularity was considerable and by the early sixties their powerbase became a concern of the United States whose policy of stopping the rise of communism in South East Asia would become all too apparent and bloody. In 1965 a botched attempted coup by the PKI saw a government crackdown with dire consequences for the party, its supporters and those often wrongly convicted of loyalty to the cause. What followed was mass murder; reasonable estimates put the death toll at half a million but many believe it closer to two million.
The American government played a leading role in the killings; economic aid, military equipment and technical training were all given to the Indonesian government along with CIA ‘kill lists’ detailing the names of thousands of suspected PKI members. Such was the size of the indiscriminate killings that in parts of rural Java the disposal of bodies became so large and problematic it caused a sanitation crisis with bodies heaped into rivers and streams. The Americans were found complicit in the murders and the kill lists play an important part in Doughty’s novel.
Split between the years 1942,1965 and 1998, the novel tells the story of John Harper, a Dutch national born in a Japanese internment camp in 1942, a chaotic childhood followed via Holland, California and a return to the Netherlands after the tragic death of his younger brother. The hallmarks which make a freelance trouble shooter like Harper are all there; alcoholic mother, estranged father and a broken marriage compounded by the premature death of his only child, he lives and works under an alias with a past he cannot come to terms with.
The comparisons with Greene are most apparent with his classic, The Quiet American, Doughty takes two seismic events in Indonesia’s recent history and takes a personal perspective of those who suffered as the backbone to the story. Like many of Greene’s characters Harper relies on the help of locals and finds solace in Rita, a teacher who senses there is more to Harper’s story than the narrative he tells her throughout the book. Harper, like all of those who lived in villages and towns during the purges could trust no one, Doughty describes the reality of neighbouring villages turning on one another which lead to the deaths of so many innocent victims and this sense of protectionism is so vulgarly evident in the corporation Harper works for. In such times we see the true value of life in the eyes of others and the devastating cost political and monetary decisions can reap on the undeserving.
Like Greene, guilt, redemption and loss runs through the pages of the book and like Le Carré, it is a book less concerned with action than the human element associated with a covert life. It is an important book in as much as the reminder it serves of atrocities carried out in the furthest corners of the Cold War map and the impact superpower nations had as they championed their own ideals. This isn’t a book for Greene or Le Carré fans per se but the ingredients are there to attract them to it.