Exterior shot: a hot August afternoon in Bali with the trade wind running through the palms.
Interior shot: the dining room of the glorious Biku Restaurant, all antique woodwork and art. At the back of the room a delectable kroncong ensemble is playing “Surabaya” (Kota kenangan, kota kenangan, takkan kulupa!) while the grandes dames of Seminyak sip their tea and nibble their finger sandwiches.
At a table on the right, the patroness herself, the mighty Jero Asri Kerthyasa, is playing host to a pair of writers. Both, as it happens, have written books about a certain Thomas Stamford Raffles, though they have rather different views of the man – Raffled and unRaffled, perhaps. Despite this, they’re getting on like a house on fire.
“Nigel,” says the unRaffled writer; “you should write a novel about Muriel!”
And – blow me! – that’s exactly what he goes and does…
A couple of years later, and Nigel Barley’s Snow over Surabaya is now in print – a deliciously funny fictionalisation of the life of the dumpy, bespectacled Scotswoman Muriel Stewart Walker, who somehow ended up joining the Indonesian revolution. (She called herself K’tut Tantri, and became infamous as “Surabaya Sue”, but she was Muriel to her mother, and she’s Muriel to me too.)
Nigel has very generously credited me in the introduction for providing the original suggestion – though I still can’t quite believe that he hadn’t already thought of writing about Muriel for himself. After all, he has fine form when it comes to fictionalising outrageous Bali-based expats, thanks to Island of Demons, his take on Walter Spies.
What I didn’t tell Nigel that afternoon in Biku is that I’d once considered writing a book about Muriel myself. Her story seemed irresistible: lowly Glaswegian birth at the tale-end of the nineteenth century leads – via Hollywood, somehow – to a career as Bali’s original tourist hustler and sometime hotelier, and then, even more bizarrely, to a job as a feisty radio propagandist and general Republican hanger-on during Indonesia’s bloody post-WWII independence struggle. Surely she’d make the perfect hook of a pithy pop history book about that wild period of Indonesian history, I thought…
But I didn’t get far before I realised that Muriel was utterly biographer-proof – as the scholar Timothy Lindsey had already discovered. The problem, quite simply, was that the woman was the most incorrigible mythomaniac, a liar-liar-pants-on-fire bullshitter of the first rank. There was not a single meaningful detail of her life story that she hadn’t redrafted to such an extent that by the end of her days (in Australia in the 1990s) she was surrounded by an impenetrable fug of fabulation. She was also, by all accounts, a pretty difficult person to spend time with. Walter Spies, no less, declared her to be “Awfulll!!!”, while Asri Kerthyasa herself, fully half-a-century later, found her “horribllle!!!”
Muriel’s mythomaniac tendencies certainly make her untouchable for a nonfiction writer, and if I’d suggested writing a book about her to a fellow narrative history author, it would have been a devious act of sabotage. But Nigel Barely is one of those lucky blighters who can do fiction and nonfiction with equal panache (he’s the author of many, many books, including the brilliant The Innocent Anthropologist, and Not a Hazardous Sport, republished as Toraja, as well as being a bone fide scholar). He’s also very, very funny, and the one thing you can say with confidence about Muriel as a character, is that she’s hilarious. I couldn’t think of anyone better to take her on, and Snow over Surabaya is everything I might have hoped for.
The book has Nigel’s customary blend of airy prose and wicked humour, plus the sort of solid historical background familiar to readers of his other Southeast Asia-set novels. There is, as yet, no single narrative history account of the Indonesian revolution, but Snow over Surabaya actually fulfils that function remarkably well, despite being a work of fiction with a notorious liar for a narrator. All the noteworthy players – from Sukarno to Turk Westerling – get walk-on parts, and you’ll come away with a decent sense of how the revolution played out.
But, of course, the real reason for reading is Muriel herself. As a non-novelist, throwing a blithe suggestion Nigel Barley’s way, I never stopped to consider the fact that an unreliable narrator might be as tricky a thing for a fiction writer to handle as a biographer, but he deals with it deftly. For the most part we simply get a ripping romp through Muriel’s adventures, complete with saucy tales of early Hollywood, run-ins with sleazy Dutch imperialists, nail-biting gold-smuggling runs through the Javanese hinterland and more besides. There are hints, here and there, that all may not be quite as it seems. But mainly it’s just a good ol’ adventure – until, that is, Muriel winds up detained by British police in Singapore. At this point Snow over Surabaya gets all meta, as the cool kids say, and turns into a comic tropical version of The Usual Suspects (is Muriel Walker actually Keyser Söze?) It’s a nifty reminder that you can’t believe everything you read…
My only disappointment was that the book ends just as Muriel ascends into her bloated post-Revolution period – a period during which she took the physical form of a pink blancmange with winged spectacles, attained new heights of Awfulll!!!ness, and made a career out of permanently inhabiting international hotels at other people’s expense. Still, that at least leaves open the possibility for a sequel in which Muriel gives an unreliable account of her attempts to flog her unreliable account to Hollywood – now that really would be meta!
Muriel Manxy-K’tut-Tantri-Surabaya-Sue Walker always wanted to be the hero of her own story, and as I came to the end of Snow over Surabaya I found myself supposing that, actually, she’d probably be delighted by the way that Nigel Barley has told her tale. Because whether you decide to trust her as narrator or not, the hero is what she ultimately is. But then I recalled something rather important…
During the many ill-fated attempts to turn her tale into a movie, Muriel drove would-be producers and script-writers to distraction with her blunt insistence that there should be absolutely no hanky-panky, no torrid trysts with Balinese princes or steamy clinches with rugged revolutionaries. It was precisely this “bizarre and stilted sense of sexual propriety”, as Nigel calls it, that stymied all attempts to bring her legend to the silver screen.
But in the Snow over Surabaya version of events, Nigel Barley’s naughty streak has come to the fore. Outrage of outrages! – he’s given Muriel that thing that she surely must have had in reality, for all her public prudery: a sexuality! Pudding basin haircut, distinct physical resemblance to a Javanese clown, and voracious appetite for cream cakes are all in place. But Barley’s Muriel also lusts after handsome tram boys and has her wicked way with Ambonese truck drivers. It’s a devilish touch, and one that would surely set the real Muriel spinning in her grave, which is exactly as it should be!
© Tim Hannigan 2017