Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Cook’s discussion of the characters is drawn from Billy Kwan, whose encyclopedic files reflect his obsession with determining people’s identity and penetrating their psychological armor. To those ends, he uses myths, photographs, literature, and his own perceptive musings. Though he clearly is fascinated with Ibu, Guy, Jill, and Sukarno, he is much more interested in himself, particularly in his dwarfish “roots.” Billy links himself to a past, to other dwarfs such as Attila the Hun, and to medieval legends in order to come to terms with himself and to define his identity. Being a “hybrid,” a “mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Chinese,” Billy does not “belong” anywhere; he prefers to believe that Guy is also a “hybrid,” a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and Celt who is not really an Australian, because he wants to identify with Guy, his “giant brother.” Billy’s problem with identity is also related to his donning of the Sukarno cap. In both cases, he attempts to live through others because he does not belong, not even in the Wayang Bar, from which he is finally expelled, much like an unwelcome foreign visitor. In both cases, he feels betrayed when his alter egos do not behave as they should, or at least as their “creator” believes they should. Sukarno and Guy are human beings, despite efforts to elevate them to larger-than-life status, with all of their weaknesses. Billy can live his life neither as himself nor vicariously as another person.

Since the novel functions at both the personal and political levels, it is hardly surprising to find that Koch also treats the theme of national identity. Despite the Jakarta Sports Stadium and the Hotel Indonesia, symbols of the NEFOS (New Emerging Forces), symbols of the colonial past still exist. At Tugu, the “hotel” is the former home of a Dutch planter, and the smell of the “past” still persists. The struggle between the Right and the Left, which is presented as a wayang drama, is the struggle to define Indonesia. Although Billy believes that Sukarno will direct the course of Indonesia’s destiny, that he will, to use Billy’s metaphor, steer the bus between the Right and the Left, Indonesia is a “runaway bus.” At the end of the novel, the country opts for the reactionary Right and turns against the Left, which Kumar associates with the future.