This is one of four great books which Norman Lewis wrote about his Asian travels. The author must have been pushing eighty when he embarked on his west to east journey through the 'Girdle of Emerald'.
The Dutch decribed the control they had established over a maritime empire consisting of more than 16,000 island as stretching 'from Medan to Merauke', and it is this itinerary that Lewis follows.
As usual he tries to stay away as far as possible from the beaten track. No Borobudur, Bali or Lake Toba here, instead the author and his companions decide to explore the northern tip of Sumatra, venturing into the troublesome Aceh province. The staunch Muslims of Indonesia's northern-most region are strongly independent. Even after decades of incessant warfare the Dutch had been unable to completely subjugate these Malay warriors. After independence the nationalist, Javanese-dominated government in Jakarta failed likewise.
Lewis then takes us to East-Timor, ravaged by the Indonesian military after the Portuguese withdrawal in 1975. Although political developments since Lewis' visits have changed the outlook of East-Timor dramatically, his account provides an interesting insight into the political situation of the territory just before the collapse of the Suharto-regime and subsequent granting of autonomy to East-Timor.
Finally the author visits the interior of Irian Jaya, the Indonesian-controlled half of New Guinea. A disconcerting portrayal of a traditional society on the verge of collapse is followed by a worrying report on the onslaught of greedy mining companies; Lewis makes us witnesses to an ecological disaster in the making.
'An Empire of the East' does not reach the level of his earlier books 'A Dragon Apparent' and 'Golden Earth' about French Indochina and Burma respectively. Written in the 1950s these two giants of 20th century travel literature established Norman Lewis as one of the greatest travel writers. Nevertheless, he has again been successful in presenting a cocktail based on his well-tried recipe: combining his highly original depictions of natural scenery with insightful portraits of the people he meets, and - above all - his penchant for unusual situations.