THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY by Christopher J. Koch (1978) is a sophisticated story about post-colonial Indonesia, journalism and the driving force of identity, particularly the destructive force of conflicting identities.
Guy Hamilton is an Australian correspondent new to the country, which is ruled by the charismatic President Sukarno. Guy’s predecessor left the country without passing on contacts, which leaves him struggling to get stories. Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian dwarf cameraman, feeds Guy his first big story, which launches his career and establishes their friendship. Guy is extremely practical, obsessed with his career, and romanticizes women and the British Empire. Kwan is very romantic, moral, intellectual and philosophical, and offers an extremely interesting character constantly spouting challenging ideas. Kwan looks up to Guy as a kindred spirit but also what he could have been, but is ultimately disappointed when Guy fails his moral standards. At the crux of this is Jill, a bright but fragile spirit who works as an assistant at the British embassy, a friend of Kwan’s with whom Guy develops a romantic relationship.
The story of their triangle unfolds with passion but without moralizing, which is done by the characters and not by the author and his stand-in narrator, another journalist who recalls the events of 1965. The story of Sukarno and Indonesia is told in a similar way. Sukarno is a fascinating figure in the story, the nationalist leader who fought the Japanese occupation during WW2 and declared independence in its aftermath. An autocrat, he united an archipelago of islands, languages, ethnicities, cultures and religions to create a nation. Nonetheless, the country remained in turmoil, balanced precariously between the left-wing communist organization PKI and the right-wing Muslim military. As the PKI grew stronger and bolder, a confrontation looms that ignites a soft coup and genocide across the country. Kwan’s conflict with Guy, Guy’s conflict with Jill, and Kwan’s internal conflict all mirror the conflicts of identity within Sukarno and his Indonesia.
In short, THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY is a brilliant novel about identity and history. Highly recommended. The film adaptation (1982) by Peter Weir, starring Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt, is similarly excellent. It cuts some corners on the novel but is otherwise an excellent adaptation, though it focuses more on the relationship between Guy and Jill. Below is the trailer.