By Cat Wheeler
Snow Over Surabaya is a terrific read; I couldn’t put it down. But when I reached the last page my brain was spinning. How much of that juicy, history-packed tale was true? The borders between fantasy and reality were so thin that I fell right through in places.
Muriel Walker was a real woman and her life was long and full of adventures, many of which are difficult to verify. “She was a fantasist,” author Nigel Barley told me during an interview at the 2017 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. “She lived in a world of complex fantasy and she believed her own stories.”
Scottish-born Muriel moved to the United States after the first world war and then to Bali where she took the name K’tut Tantri. Either collaborating with Japanese or imprisoned by them during the occupation (everything she claims should be taken with a large handful of sodium chloride), she found herself in Surabaya after the Japanese surrendered.
The situation was chaotic and dangerous. In Snow Over Surabaya Muriel becomes the lens through which Indonesian communist and Republican revolutionaries, Dutch, British and Japanese are observed during the Battle of Surabaya. Muriel became known as Surabaya Sue, broadcasting propaganda in English from concealed locations around the city.
Her life continued to be eventful. We know for sure that the Dutch issued a warrant for her arrest, that she wrote speeches for Sukarno and she spied for whatever country would pay her. We know she moved into Hotel Indonesia when it opened in Jakarta in 1962 and refused to either move out or pay her bill. She was arrested as a spy by the British in Singapore and her inability to discern fact from fiction must have been deeply frustrating for her interrogators.
Barley drew on three juicy sources of data about Muriel when writing the book. She retained a ghost writer to produce her biography, then trumped him with her own deeply unreliable autobiography Revolt in Paradise before he could publish. His book about her life may be the more dependable version. A lawyer named Tim Lindsay interviewed her and wrote a thesis about her. Barley knits it all together along with the fast-paced, wildly complicated events in Java following the end of World War ll. Needless to say, Muriel reports her own role as heroic.
Nigel Barley in interview with Ubud Now & Then guest blogger Cat Wheeler
Which all begs the question of how ‘real’ is history anyway? Author Jamie James remarks that Western historians look for the ‘truth’, whereas Asian historians know they are creating ‘versions’.
Is the story of what ‘really happened’ in the Battle of Surabaya and afterwards a carefully constructed version? A collective distillation? A convenient fiction? Barley calls Snow Over Surabaya faction – a combination of fact and fiction, presented as an alternative to the official historical version. An invitation to launch the book at the Indonesian Embassy in London was politely withdrawn after the Ambassador read it.
A fundamental writing convention is that the authorial voice always tells the truth, and Barley was bemused to find when he was writing the book that his authorial voice was not necessarily doing so.
Barley navigates a clever course between the real, the surreal and the fantastic in Snow over Surabaya. Fiction, faction, fantasy, whatever – it’s a very engaging and readable book. Highly recommended.
Photos courtesy of Suki Zoe