Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. By Elizabeth Pisani

6/23/2014 / The Economist



The road ahead

Decoding a nation of 13,466 islands, 360 ethnic groups and 719 languages

Jun 21st 2014 | From the print edition

Indonesia Etc: Exploring the

Improbable Nation. By Elizabeth Pisani.

Norton; 404 pages; $26.95. Granta; £18.99.


ON JULY 9th the Indonesian presidential election will pit a charismatic, down-to-earth,

former furniture-maker against a retired general dogged by allegations of past human-rights abuses.

The military man is Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of Suharto, the country’s one-time

dictator. If, as (just) seems likely, the former businessman, Joko Widodo, wins, then for the first time

since Suharto fell 16 years ago, Indonesia will be led by someone from outside its entrenched elite.

It is a remarkable story, but one that will probably soon pall abroad. Talk of the world’s

fourth-most populous country, as Elizabeth Pisani notes in her new book, tends to provoke

“a mildly panicked look in people’s eyes…at drinks parties in London or New York”.

Widespread ignorance about the place is compounded by its bewildering diversity and the

subtle complexity of its politics and society. And there are very few good books in English to

help the general reader to understand it.

Ms Pisani’s is probably the best. Into a beautifully written, richly entertaining account of a

year spent travelling around the archipelago, she weaves a deep knowledge of the country

acquired first as a reporter there, and then as an epidemiologist. Her first book, “The Wisdom

of Whores”, which came out in 2008, was about Indonesia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In her new book Ms Pisani takes on many big themes—democracy, decentralisation,

corruption, inequality, the failings of Indonesia’s education system and radical Islam, as well

as the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands slaughtered as Suharto took power in 1965. Her

erudition is never dull. This is Indonesia both for the mildly panicked and for those who, like

the author herself, are besotted—if far from starry-eyed; Ms Pisani looks on Indonesia as “the

bad boyfriend”.




about Elizabeth Pisani