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The Painter of Lost Souls by Michael…
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The Painter of Lost Souls

by Michael Vatikiotis

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Recently added byMalarchy, Mytwostotinki, Katong

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The Painter of Lost Souls is a fictional account of an aspiring painter in the Yogyakarta region of Indonesia and his coming of age as a person and an artist which seems him tackle some of the entrenched cultural and historical issues hidden away in the country. The book is divided into three sections. The first covers lead character Sito's early years growing up in a village and introduces some of the taboos and issues of rural central Java. The second section brings Sito to the city of Yogyakarta and his interactions with a band of artists and dropouts. The final section sees Sito challenge some of the great issues of Indonesian society such as the role of Islam and the unresolved tensions around the 1965 killings.

The different sections of the book are of vastly different quality. The opening segment jumps from illustrative anecdote to illustrative anecdote with various incidents in Sito's childhood setting up the different themes and issues the book addresses. It is remarkably clumsy and does not flow at all well. The short chapter lengths mean none of these issues are really given the space they deserve and there are too many crammed into a surprisingly unrealistic depiction of a rural Javanese childhood. Too often the opening section reads as if the people are involved are voicing the thoughts of a western intellectual and it does not at all feel an authentic depiction of its place.

The second section is much better and deals with Sito's coming of age. His growth as an artist and finding both a subject matter and a patron are well described. The interaction with various other artists is ok but the boyhood yearnings are perhaps more timeless and universal so the descriptions of Sito as a young man and the relationships he forms read more realistically. The spirit of Yogyakarta is never truly captured though. There is not much of the city in the narrative other than its community of artists.

The role of the Sultan comes into view as part of the narrative with some fairly westernised criticism of the Sultan's attempt at winning the Presidency of Indonesia. That effort ultimately drew to naught but in reality there is hardly any local concern of democratic deficit in the Sultan's governorship of Yogyakarta.

More interesting is the character of Raden Surwiyo, a palace lacky cast out from the centre of power to oversee a village. He and his daughter (a Sito love interest) begin to put together some of the mysticism that characterises traditional belief in Central Java. Raden has a character trait of rolling marbles together, a rare example of character having an interesting attribute in a book with fairly flat characterisation.

The final section is the ultimate struggle of Sito to use art to bring out the voice of those killed in 1965. Given the relative lack of interest within Indonesia in uncovering this grim part of the country's history it is an intriguing vessel for raising those concerns. The narrative is deeply critical of the organised Muslim groups likely to have perpetrated much of the killing. Indeed the work as a whole carries a distinctly negative depiction of Islam which when compared to the more spiritual earlier beliefs is much less natural to the Indonesian worldview.

The difficulty the book faces though is that it is just not that interesting. The characters are not well drawn out. Some of them have their character features contradicted within just a couple of pages. The artist Heri Priyono for instance is at one point deeply concerned about the lack of monetisation of his graffiti art. A couple of pages later and he is described as a successful entrepreneurial spirit and has monetised his work. It is just sloppy for a man of Michael Vatikiotis's incredible intellect.

Equally one of the most important characters in the book faces the same character flip-flopping. The character of Uncle Tomo is initially described as revered and respected because of the success of his chickens in cock-fights. Later on it turns out he is not respected at all but is despised and hated because of the success of his chickens. As we proceed it turns out Tomo has a major role in the 1965 events which means chickens have nothing to do with how people perceive him. This is not a logical progression of a character through shades of grey, it is black to white to some other colour.

The work also falls short in its description of place. There is rarely much sense of being there. For those who have been to Yogyakarta there are no real landmarks other than the palace to grab hold of. There is no sense that this action took place in a particular part of the town. The imagery is not vivid, it does not spark impressions of place.

It is frustrating that there are so many flaws in this book because the middle third is potentially quite good. The rise to success of Sito's art is an interesting story. The people he meets and the art they produce makes sense. The best part of the story is the description of Sito's chicken art and around that a good narrative could genuinely have emerged. Unfortunately this book is not it. The huge brain of Michael Vatikiotis just does not produce a readable enough story to care enough through to the end. ( )
  Malarchy | Oct 11, 2016 |
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