Truth and Lives

“Romance was the key to K’tut Tantri‘s extraordinary character and life.”

That’s the first line of the obituary* of  Scottish-born Muriel Stuart Walker, who became better known as ‘Surabaya Sue’ after reinventing herself as ‘the voice’ of the Indonesian struggle for independence.

Even though K’tut Tantri wrote an autobiography, Revolt in Paradise (1960), her true story remains elusive. She was a fantasist with many aliases, who jealously protected the facts to create an enigma.

In his new book, Snow Over Surabaya (Monsoon Books), the British writer and anthropologist Nigel Barley embraces the romance of her life to revisit those tempestuous times. Speaking to Jo Furniss, he explains why K’Tut Tantri caught his eye.

NB: Snow Over Surabaya came about after having tea with fellow writer Tim Hannigan. We both wrote books about Sir Stamford Raffles. Mine was positive and his was very negative, so I assumed Tim must be horrible, but we both happened to be in Bali at the same time and were invited to the famous teahouse Biku. I discovered that he wasn’t horrible at all. At some point, he said that he was surprised no-one had written a novel about K’tut Tantri, and I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation: I was already writing it in my head.

Another of my novels came about in a similar way. I had lunch one day with [Malaysian author] Tash Aw, who lives near my home in London. He was researching his novel Map of an Invisible World and commented that no-one’s written a decent novel about (the Bali-based artist) Walter Spies. We discussed how difficult it would be to write that book; you’d have to know about museums, speak Indonesian and German, understand paintings. And I realised that was my CV! So that conversation lead to my novel Island of Demons (2009).

JF: How did you go about researching the life of Muriel Stuart Walker, who was known to have a relaxed attitude to the truth?

NB: She was an extraordinary woman and the main course of her life is clear, but she was a fantasist. She wrote her life as stories and, like all good fantasists, she came to believe them. Unfortunately, her fantasies weren’t very good: they were sentimental.

She was in a wonderful place and time, she must have seen fascinating things, but she engaged in self-censorship and was basically marketing the Indonesian Revolution.

I felt it was wrong that other writers concentrated so much on the relationship between K’tut Tantri and Truth. The question I wanted to ask was whether her fictions were good fictions, interesting fictions, ones that told you what was actually going on in Indonesia. So I decided to write a kind of K’Tut Tantri Unchained.

JF: There is her unreliable autobiography, Revolt in Paradise, and the historical study The Romance of K’tut Tantri (Timothy Lindsey). But fictional accounts have so much power, you could be responsible for writing the definitive version of her life.

NB: I think she would be up for that. As for the literal truth of what she is, we’re never going to know. Timothy Lindsey did the digging through paperwork, speaking to lawyers, even questioning K’Tut Tantri herself and asking difficult questions, so that definitive version has been done. It was up to me to try to encapsulate the period.

She was a terrible egotist. She lived until 1997; I met lots of people who knew her well and most didn’t like her very much. So I didn’t want to sugar frost her.

To survive in that place, you had to be tough and the one thing she was honest about was her commitment to Indonesian independence. But all the time, I want the reader to be asking ‘did she really do that’?

JF: Your first book, The Innocent Anthropologist, described your time living in a small village in Cameroon (West Africa) with a great deal of humour. My first expat posting was also to Cameroon and I loved your book because it was insightful but also very funny. Was is it a conscious decision to bring that same lightness to Snow Over Surabaya?

NB: It seems strange to write about a time of starvation and warfare and ethnic cleansing and then say that I hope people don’t find it a depressing book. Even in the midst of horror, people are still human beings and that central humanity was something I wanted to bring out.

JF: A lot of our readers are also writers and I wonder how you translate so much research into a fictional story?

NB: The one thing you must remember is that just because you know how to get hold of a passport in post–revolutionary Indonesia, or how to change the fuel filter of a Japanese tank with a woman’s nylon stocking, that information doesn’t have to go in the novel. The muck-shifting aspect is most dangerous. As Dr Johnson once said, “if any paragraph strikes you as particularly fine, cross it out.”

Nigel Barley originally trained as an anthropologist and worked in Cameroon, West Africa. He survived to move to the Ethnography Department of the British Musem and settled on Indonesia as his principal research interest and has worked on both the history and contemporary culture of that area. After escaping from the museum, he is now a broadcaster and writer, with over fifteen books to his name, and divides his time between London and Indonesia.

* You can read the full obituary of K’tut Tantri from The Independent newspaper.

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