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A rollicking good read, but. . .
on 30 September 2012
This is a well-written, enjoyable and - seemingly - (the 'but' of my title, which I will come back to later) thoroughly researched book that covers a breath-takingly wide range of subjects and interests. The negative reviewers of this book make a fair point, if what you are looking for is a book that strictly focuses on the eruption of Krakatau (the correct spelling of the volcano) in 1883 then this is not the book for you.
Winchester sweeps across continents and time-zones, academic subjects, eras and eons, technical developments, potted biographies (including frequently details of his own) and theoretical debates throwing out fascinating and easily comprehensible facts and histories. It is an eclectic mix and written in an engaging style centering, often elliptically, on the volcano itself.
So what is the 'but'? Why withhold two stars from a book that ordinarily would deserve five?
It is simply this; Winchester presents a wide-range of topics and he comes across as, while not an expert certainly, a man on top of his subject who has researched and understood that which he is writing about. However as I read, two glaringly obvious gaffes jumped out at me, two things presented as facts that are simply not so, two things about which I know that Winchester writes about incorrectly and which if you were unaware of them you might simply take as face value.
They thus led me to ask, if he got these two, very basic and easily verifiable, facts so badly wrong, how can I so sure he is correct on all the multitude of other facts he so liberally dispenses and about which I have little or no prior knowledge?
So what are these two egregious errors that so spoiled the book for me?
The first one appears in a footnote on page 142. It states in part that former Indonesian president Sukarno was "replaced by General Suharto in an American-backed coup d'etat, which led to the corruption and civil strife that disfigure Indonesia still." There are so many factual inaccuracies and blatantly biased editorialising in those few lines that it is actually difficult to know where to start. First off Suharto, actually a Lieutenant-General, did not take over the presidency of Indonesia in a US-backed coup, simple. The events of October 1 1965 remain vague to this day but unless you are Lyndon Larouche or Pravda circa 1974 (and in fairness to the latter probably not even them) no one seriously believes that the CIA organised the putsch against the right-wing Indonesian general staff on that day. It is absurd to put such a hare-brained theory forward as historical fact and discredits the veracity of any writer who does so.
Secondly Suharto did not get into power as an immediate result of the putsch, on the contrary while it certainly helped him, the fact remains that it took Suharto another two-and-a-half years of careful manipulating against the still very much leftist dominated government of Sukarno before Suharto finally became president in 1968.
Thirdly, Indonesia was racked by corruption and civil strife long before Suharto came to power, to somehow believe that Indonesia was some sort of Garden of Eden that was corrupted by the evil Suharto is childish and not worthy of serious consideration.
What is the other error then? It does not appear in a footnote but rather in teeth-gratingly irritating fashion throughout the book. Winchester continuously refers to the people across the Sunda Strait from Krakatau on the Banten coast as "Javanese", there undoubtedly were some Javanese among them but overwhelmingly those people were Sundanese. Ah, Javanese, Sundanese, you say tomato, so what? Well it is as absurd to write of the harbour-master walking among the terrified "Javanese" of Anyer as it would be for a writer discussing the Great Potato Famine of 1847 to describe walking among the starving "English" peasants on the hillsides of Donegal.
The Sundanese live on Java but anyone with even the most minimal knowledge of Indonesia would know that they are no more Javanese than the Irish are English. They are a separate people, with a different culture and language. The thing is Winchester knows this, he mentions the Sundanese in a footnote and then simply ignores them preferring instead to call them Javanese. No doubt he thinks Javanese sounds more exotic, and certainly more understandable to his readers than Sundanese, after all who's ever heard of them eh? But in doing so Winchester is making the same error that makers of the movie "Krakatoa East of Java" made, who cares if the volcano is actually west of Java? East sounds more exotic right?
Two small errors, but fundamental errors, errors that with a minimum of checking could have been avoided, but two errors on subjects that I actually know something about. The book is full of fascinating facts about a wide variety of subjects about which I am not knowledgeable and which I am supposed to take at face value.
If he can make such glaring mistakes about things that I know about, how can I be so sure that when he writes about gutta-percha, or Surtsee, or the Wallace Line he actually knows what he's talking about?