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Book Review: The Bard, the Bad and the Ugly

The Dark Cracks of Kemang
The Dark Cracks of Kemang

Kenneth Yeung reviews a poet’s prosaic recollection of expat life in Jakarta.

In 2013, a 53-year-old, divorced New Zealand man arrived in Indonesia to take up a teaching position at the New Zealand International School in Kemang, South Jakarta. Now, almost 10 years later, Jeremy Roberts has written a memoir, The Dark Cracks of Kemang, recounting his first year in the city. But this is not a collection of anecdotes about teaching English abroad. Instead, it’s a chronicle of his interactions with fellow expats and locals, interspersed with his impressions of Indonesia.

Roberts is a poet and during that first year in Jakarta, he and a fellow teacher formed a performance duo, calling themselves The Bajaj Boys. Roberts would recite his poems to the guitar twanging of his colleague and housemate, Englishman Derek Fraser. They played a few gigs to friends and bemused locals. At the end of the year, their act folded when Derek departed Indonesia in response to an ultimatum from a girlfriend back in England.

In the canon of English poetry, Indonesia is not a popular subject or setting. Few foreign poets have dipped their nib into the murky inkpot of the archipelago. One notable exception is a former Canadian diplomat, Peter Scott, whose “Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror” (1988), is a breezy 150-odd pages of reminiscences, blaming the CIA for the 1965-66 anti-communist massacres in Indonesia.

Roberts tends to steer clear of overtly political poetry, though in his prose he does record the buzz that surrounded Joko Widodo ahead of the 2014 presidential election. But for the most part, he focuses on the often reprobate activities of his expat acquaintances. It’s as if some well-meaning person had suggested: “you could write a book about that” – and the advice was taken to heart.

I was hopeful that a book by a poet might include a look at some local verse. Alas, Indonesian poetry doesn’t get a mention, which is a shame – as some of Indonesia’s better-known poets were punished and imprisoned, one was even presumed murdered, for using verse to critique the ruling elite.

Readers of The Dark Cracks of Kemang will be treated to some of the author’s poems, scattered throughout the narrative. Here’s one of the shorter ones, called Bar Journeys #23:

she served me alcohol.

I thought we’d spend

the rest of our lives

together.

Ripe stuff, indeed. The enjoyment of the poems is enhanced by hearing them performed in the author’s lyrical, lilting Kiwi accent, accompanied by his sidekick’s guitar strumming. You’ll have to visit audio platform SoundCloud to find the performance versions. Roberts excels in short, sharp observational verse that captures the ugly realities of Kemang, epitomized in It’s a Good Day to go Looking for Fresh Mango.

Within the book, there’s sometimes a lot of prose before the next poem. And along the way, a couple of irritating fellows named Charles Bukowski and Jim Morrison keep interrupting the narrative, as do Keith Richards and Iggy Pop. It might have been more enlightening to have some rebellious Indonesian poets or singers as inspirational muses.

Where Roberts does succeed is in making expat life in Kemang sound utterly ghastly. Most of the expat men he encounters are boorish, belligerent, beer-swilling womanizers. There are too many second-hand anecdotes about the tedious antics of these obnoxious inebriates. Bragging about escaping recrimination after a drunk-driving accident. Getting drunk and vomiting, repeatedly. Getting drunk and fighting. Getting drunk and smashing someone’s phone out of vindictive spite. Getting drunk and defecating into a glass. You get the idea.

More sober are the musings on expat-Indonesian relationships. Roberts, who is now remarried, is coy when it comes to revealing his own romantic experiences. He’s happy to recount a few celibate chats with gold-diggers, attentive barmaids, ladies of the night. Even a chance encounter in a mall ends with a rejection note that could itself be a poem.

Several pages are devoted to an anonymous tale of meeting a single mother online, flying to East Java for some brief physical interaction before realising that ongoing emotional interaction will not be so pleasant. There’s also the story of meeting a lady who threatens to call the cops if she’s not paid after a night of sex. Are these steamy episodes merely apocryphal cautionary tales – or are they personal confessions with the omission of the personal pronoun? If only these encounters had inspired some astute, observational verse.

Long-term expats may find themselves treading over much familiar ground: Kemang bars, Blok M bars, Singapore visa runs, working without a permit, evading an Immigration raid. Interestingly, Roberts has unwittingly recorded the slow, agonising death of Blok M’s notorious Jalan Falatehan, where a few sex-oriented bars strive to survive against the gentle onslaught of mediocre gentrification. Roberts becomes a regular at a couple of the quieter bars and treats readers to recorded conversations and his eavesdropping on lecherous, alcoholic losers. Drunken chatter from Kemang is also transcribed verbatim. If you’d ever wanted to be a fly on the wall at gatherings of expats, this is your chance. Although the ensuing repartee might soon have you yearning for the insecticide.

Frustratingly, Roberts rarely seems to step outside the expat bubble. Always too keenly aware that he’s a foreigner, he doesn’t go native, as he feels it would take too long to learn the language. At one point, concerned that a line in a poem might cause offence to Muslims, he notes, “I suppose I could discuss this with a local Muslim. There are plenty around.” But then he doesn’t talk to locals about it. One excursion to Taman Suropati park in Menteng results only in small talk with a group of locals.

If you buy only one book about Indonesia this year, make sure it’s We Have Tired of Violence by Matt Easton, who recounts the assassination of a human rights activist. If you buy two books about Indonesia this year, you might find yourself simultaneously amused and repulsed by The Dark Cracks of Kemang. There are several references to Kemang’s famous Eastern Promise bar, although it’s unclear whether the manager will be offering free drinks to people who present a copy of the book.

  • The Dark Cracks of Kemang
  • By Jeremy Roberts
  • ≈ 350 pages
  • Due for publication in September 2022 by Australia’s Interactive Press

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