Despite Indonesia’s proximity and its intense, at times turbulent relationship with Australia, relatively few Australian novels are set there, with the notable exception of Christopher Koch’s 1978 award winning The Year of Living Dangerously [made into one of my all-time favourite movies by Peter Weir].
Is this because, as the Australian character in Ruby J Murray’s Running Dogs suggests, when it comes to Jakarta, let alone the whole country, ‘Looking to see the city for what it was, its actual scale, required too much from her’?
Murray, who has spent significant time in Indonesia, rises to the challenge, producing in Running Dogs a complex and engaging debut novel that brings Indonesia to life without trying to explain it.
The story moves between the end of President Suharto’s 31 year rule in 1997-98, and the present day. The 1990s story is told by the Jordan children, Petra and Isaak, whose Indonesian mother has died, leaving them with a wealthy, brutal American father, his damaged second wife, a younger half-brother Paul, and the nanny Mbak Nana.
The present day narrator is Diana, an Australian who accepts an aid posting to Jakarta in the hope of reconnecting with Petra, whom she’d befriended six years earlier in Melbourne. Reunited with Petra and introduced to her brothers, Diana becomes more than a spectator in the unravelling of a family whose obscene wealth and privilege may protect them from justice but not from revenge.
A violent denouement is prefigured in the opening—a body in a hotel room with a bullet in the head—but the narrative is neither linear nor predictable. We are plunged into streets teaming with anti-Suharto protestors, and shipped to luxurious private islands. We accompany Diana on a disastrous donor tour to an orphanage, and Petra to an equally cringe-worthy fancy dress party where her stepmother is complimented for the ‘nice gesture’ of dressing the children as Indonesians.
Moments of wry humour combine with finely observed detail to light up the text like ‘sun caught on the burnished sides of the keoprak tins in the early evening.’
‘Jakarta beat me,’ Diana laments towards the end of Running Dogs. ‘Jakarta is much older than you are,’ her Indonesian friend counters. ‘Jakarta knows things we don’t know.’
Murray’s novel is a welcome opportunity to get to know Jakarta a little better.
An edited version of this review appeared in Readings Monthly May 2012, together with a Q&A with Ruby J Murray.