Translated from German by Basil Creighton
The success of Grand Hotel (published 1929) enabled Vicki Baum, who saw what was coming to Europe, to move her family permanently to Hollywood in 1932. Thus she was free to roam the world, when even Hollywood became too claustrophobic. (“Fifty people were using my toothbrush”, was how she described it) She wrote this novel during a 9-month extended stay on Bali, lodging with her friend Walter Spies, a longtime resident on the island. He provided the insider knowledge and accurate detail that steeps this novel in authenticity, not the touristy tropes that Baum may have experienced in the mid-1930s.
Unusually, let’s start with the ending. An historic event – the puputan – the slaughter and mass suicide of the Balinese in 1906, which resulted in the Dutch becoming overlords of the whole of Bali. Love and Death in Bali is centred around the events that led up to this, but it is not heavy on politics. Neither is it condemnatory towards the conquering power, nor rosy-eyed towards native culture. Baum is quite even-handed towards both sides of the conflict.
Her prime focus, however, is on Balinese life in what you might call a feudal society. Pak is a peasant, cultivating his rice fields, land which Alit, the raja (king?) has granted him. His needs are simple, to produce enough to keep his growing family fed. His pleasures are a little more complex, particularly when he takes a second wife, one he loves. His indulgence is cock-fighting. But generally Pak doesn’t challenge his lot. Yet his life is blighted by the caprices of his ruler.
Raka is a dancer, a beautiful man, married, Alit’s friend. Who falls in love with Lambon, Pak’s sister, but only after Alit, the Raka has “requisitioned” her to be his nth (who knows) wife. The dangers inherent in this affair are quite clear – by this time Pak’s brother has been blinded because he has dared to love another of the raja’s wives.
This Balinese raja, Alit, then appears to be a bit of a brute, and yet, he does not seem to be so, particularly in scenes with Raka, whose company he prefers over his wives. Tradition appears to be at fault here. It is tradition and honour that lead to Alit to instigate the puputan, instead of surrendering to the Dutch, who, it must be said, attack his territory on a trumped up excuse regarding the plundering of a Chinese shipwreck. (It’s something to do with the Dutch being unable to ignore Clause 11 of the Treaty of 11.07.1849).
The irony, of course, is that the Dutch are being played by the Chinese merchants. I’m not entirely sure whether they know it, or whether they are utilising an expedient excuse. The cynic in me says the latter, but the staggering rise in compensation demanded by the Chinese did add a blackly comic strand to proceedings. On the other hand it’s hard to argue with the Dutch wanting to put a stop to the brutality of Balinese justice (physical maiming) and tradition (widow burnings).
Diplomatic delegations give Baum the opportunity for set pieces steeped in Balinese culture such as lengthy dance performances, during which the pace flagged for me (as well as for the Dutch observers!) On the opposite end of the spectrum are blood-boiling attitudes towards women, particularly unloved first wives, who nevertheless display unprecedented common-sense and loyalty.
But let’s not forget the ultimate betrayal. While I don’t admire Pak – a man of his time and place – I did empathise when his heart was finally ripped asunder. You might think the blinding of his brother and the requisitioning of his sister might do that, but there was something else. Utterly capricious on the part of the raja, and I lost all respect for him. I understood completely when Pak finally made a stand and refused to participate in the puputan.