Synopsis: A dashing ABC foreign correspondent based in Indonesia, an earnest Chinese-Australian dwarf cameraman and a beautiful British embassy staffer become entangled in a Communist insurrection against President Sukarno. Ambiguous loyalties – romantic and political – proliferate.
My Take: This book deserves to be a classic of Australian literature. Tense plotting, an exotic setting and some deeply intriguing characters make for a thoroughly engrossing read. However, despite the political intrigue, the real heart of this book comes in the form the moral prodding of the protagonist’s Chinese-Australian, dwarf cameraman, Billy Kwan.
Billy is a complex character (bizarely the movie version included the female Linda Hunt winning an Oscar for playing the male Billy Kwan). Culturally straddling Asia and the West while belonging to neither, Billy is further excluded from full social (particularly romantic) acceptance because of his physical limitations. Kwan feels this isolation acutely and in this regard is the perfect outsider to prod the main characters from their moral comfort zones. His occupation as a cameraman is clearly highly symbolic – an observer documenting the moral choices of the actors.
The primary question that Billy poses to those around him how they ought to respond to inequity. Billy frequently muses on the moral difference between a political response to poverty and a personal response. The tension is highlighted in this key exchange between Billy, and the novel’s protagonist, ABC foreign correspondent, Guy Hamilton:
BILLY: And the people asked him, saying, what then, shall we do?
GUY: What’s that?
BILLY: It’s from Luke, chapter three, verse ten. What then must we do?
Tolstoy asked the same question. He wrote a book with that title. He got so upset about the poverty in Moscow that he went one night into the poorest section and just gave away all his money.
You could do that now. Five American dollars would be a fortune to one of these people.
GUY: Wouldn’t do any good, just be a drop in the ocean.
BILLY: Ahh, that’s the same conclusion Tolstoy came to. I disagree.
GUY: Oh, what’s your solution?
BILLY: Well, I support the view that you just don’t think about the major issues. You do whatever you can about the misery that’s in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light. You think that’s naive, don’t you?
Unsurprisingly, as someone who works in politics, I have to side with Guy on this moral question. The reason that I work in politics is because I believe in the potential for political actors to affect macro-changes to the life circumstances of the vulnerable. I’ve always viewed ‘thinking about the issues’ and acting on this basis through the political sphere as more productive than taking direct, individual action to help the less fortunate.
However, I can see that this is a deeply utilitarian view of moral obligation – it’s certainly not for everyone. And that’s why I love Billy’s questioning in this book – it forces you to reflect on your own moral world view. In fact, I was emailing a friend of mine with religious faith about this exchange a while ago and she gave a very different view:
I interpret the scripture (quoted by Billy) to mean that I will be held to account for the times when I didn’t show compassion to each individual God had specifically brought across my path to help. To show compassion to such individuals may make little difference in the grand scheme of things. However, it means a lot to God.
Why? Firstly, because he cares about every human being that I come into contact with, and he needs me to convey His love, care and concern for them through human action.
Secondly, it is a way for me to express my love to God. Will I always respond in the way that He wants me to? No. Why? Because I’m human and not perfect. However, that shouldn’t stop me from aspiring to do as God pleases.
Given that I’m not a person of faith, it begs the question somewhat from my perspective. It’s fine to ask ‘What then shall we do?’ – so long as you don’t answer on other people’s behalf.
Highlight: Billy Kwan asking “What then shall we do?” certainly stayed with me long after I had finished this book.