Wednesday 5 December 2018

Book review: On the Java Ridge, Jock Serong (2017)

I’m not going to mess around with niceties reviewing this book, an engrossing, compelling, and intelligent political thriller that with grinding efficiency tears holes in your emotional equilibrium, so I have to warn readers that this review will contain spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens in this novel, stop reading here.

The story is simple and it’s a compelling one for Australians. A group of vacationers heads north from Darwin (presumably) heading for the surf breaks available in the Indonesian archipelago. They are led by a young woman named Isi (short for Isabella) Natoli and they are a varied bunch that includes a doctor and his son. At the same time, a boatload of refugees leaves Sumatra headed for Australia and asylum but due to a policy endorsed by the Australian government the bolts holding the engine in place have been filed down. The boat limps toward the island where Isi’s boat, the Java Ridge, has anchored and where its passengers are asleep in tents on the beach. The refugee boat hits the island’s reef and is wrecked but Isi and the others are quick to rescue as many of its passengers as they can. Many die but many are saved. One of Isi’s passengers, a young man named Tim, gets his foot stuck between the refugee boat and the reef, and it is crushed. Neil Finley is a doctor and his son Luke is a Scots student who wants to go into medicine. The two men operate on Tim and the surviving refugees bury their dead, then the lot of them pile onto the Java Ridge and head south toward Ashmore Reef.

During the voyage, Ali Hassan, the captain of the refugee boat, uses one of the refugees, a young girl named Roya, as a hostage and imprisons the rest of the people on the Java Ridge. He puts them belowdecks in the cabin and smashes the communications equipment on the boat, then turns it north, heading back to Indonesia. During the night, the Java Ridge hits a submerged log and the drives are damaged. As Ali Hassan, Isi and Luke are trying to fix the problem, Luke stabs Ali Hassan with an implement he holds in his hand, and Roya plunges a knife into Ali Hassan’s throat, killing him. Isi turns the boat south but Tim eventually dies because the infection in his leg.

Meanwhile, Cassius Calvert, the minister in charge of borders, is facing a dilemma. He learns about the Java Ridge and knows that he has to help its passengers but the prime minister, who is facing an election at the same moment, heavies him into ignoring the information that is coming from Core Resolve, the firm the government has hired to man the country’s northern borders. The order comes from the government that, instead of rescuing the Java Ridge, a drone should be used to shoot the boat out of the water. Cassius is distraught due to his party leader’s savage and single-minded purpose, and records a meeting he has with him in his office on the night before the election. The next morning, Cassius suicides by drowning himself in Lake Burley Griffin and his PA sends the recording of the conversation to the press gallery.

This is a gripping read but as with many genre novels life is cheap. It seems that drama is nothing unless someone dies first, or unless they are threatened with death. I found this aspect of the work distressing and unnecessary. Beyond that, the basic premise is a simple one, and it hinges on the reader accepting the contumely of the Australian government and the worthiness of the refugees. Roya is an engaging subject for fiction and her friendship with Isi is infectious. The devil’s advocate, Carl Simic, with his opinions about economic refugees and his distaste for people from other countries, especially for Muslims, is overshadowed by the government’s hypocrisy. Eventually, Isi and Carl come to terms with each other in the presence of emotions released by the drama they are involved in.

Putting all your money on the fundamental decency of a boatload of refugees is taking a gamble, however. Ali Hassan turns out to have been a victim of Saddam Hussein, so his responsibility is mitigated. The religious rites the refugees use at a time of stress to discover some solace in a harsh world ignores the way that societies in the Middle East barely function; it’s a little brazen to lay all the blame on corrupt leaders. People living in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq are just as responsible for the health of their polities as are the community in Australia for the health of theirs, where it gets to elect federal leaders every three years. I found the noble savage theme a bit tiresome, to be frank, and felt that Serong was looking at his creations through rose-tinted glasses. But this is not great literature and it is not designed to provide nuance and subtlety. It is designed to make you turn pages.

One other thing that I think merits attention is the character of Cassius. His divorce from his wife was difficult and she treats him with contempt. He loves his son (who touchingly has a pet chicken he takes with him wherever he goes; this is a nice touch by Serong) and treats him with dignity and care. He has a good relationship with his PA, who is like something from a casting list for the ABC sitcom ‘Utopia’, and is very funny in a zany kind of way. But he tends to rest on his laurels a bit with regard to his position as a minister of the crown. He gloats a bit too much about the power the job gives him. But on the other hand once the PM turns against him due to the refugee boat the authorities and Core Resolve discover in the waters north of the continent, he folds like a house of cards under the senior man’s withering scorn. The character of Cassius might have been a bit stronger if he had been a bit less vain and a bit more resilient. But genre novels demand scalps, and the suicide at the end is a tactic by the writer that merely follows a logic dictated by the rest of the book.

In the final analysis the danger of privatising essential services is scrutinised with ruthless effectiveness by this novel. It reminds me of the way that a similar theme is explored in the speculative fiction work ‘Dyschronia’ by Australian author Jennifer Mills (which I reviewed on 1 February this year on this blog). A kind of dysfunctional society where official accountability is mitigated through the use of hired intermediaries is a distinct possibility, with more and more government services contracted out to unaccountable operators that are often owned by overseas interests. In the end, we should all prefer to see the Navy in charge of the borders. And we should also think about doing something positive to remove the incentive for people smugglers to sell hope to desperate people. It’s time that we set up a refugee processing centre in Jakarta.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the best reviews I've seen on this book. It pretty much nails it. I suspect most Ministers are pretty tough just to get to a Ministry. Perhaps Cassius was an exception but then again he was under enormous stress - the murder of the occupants on the Java Ridge, losing his child, messed up private life and the general nastiness of political life