Nelson Publishers (Australia). 296 pages.
1965 in Jakarta, Indonesia. At the height of President Sukarno’s rule–all with his determination to isolate Indonesia from the rest of the world, the height of the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation over Borneo (locally known as Konfrontasi), and the impending threat of communism taking over the country. This novel circles around the lives of expats (mostly working in the media) posted in Jakarta.
Guy Hamilton, a correspondent for an Australian news network, just arrives in Jakarta, and is a ‘newbie’ in the expat circle. He meets Billy Kwan, an Australian-Chinese dwarf who is a highly intelligent cameraman. Billy takes immediate liking and admiration for Guy Hamilton and a tandem news team is born between the two of them.
However, as the old age theory goes, a foreigner (read: white man) is either at his best, or goes mad when he is in the tropics. This novel has more psychological twists than anything. Told in the point of view of “Cookie”, a more or less obscure expat who is a mutual friend of Billy Kwan and Guy Hamilton–the story focuses on the tension of knowing who to trust in your circle. There is always a lingering suspicion that Billy Kwan may be a spy or some secret agent. Not just because of his being half Australian and half Chinese, but mostly because of his intense and very morally serious character.
Billy Kwan is simply a character with a very complicated personality. He searches for someone to identify with–obsessed with keeping a dossier (profile) of everybody he meets, and fervently believing that he has a lot in common (and sometimes convinced that they are one and the same person) with Guy Hamilton and Sukarno, two men that Billy Kwan admires. He is seeking a ‘more powerful’ body to identify with against his own condition of being a dwarf.
A love triangle between Guy Hamilton, Billy Kwan, and Billy’s girlfriend soon occurs, and this creates even more tension in the atmosphere. More than this, Billy and Guy’s own reactions to seeing poverty in Indonesia also greatly affected their actions, thoughts, and decisions that eventually led to the novel’s poignant, dramatic and tragic ending.
Written in 1978, this book was made into movie by Peter Weir in 1982. Mel Gibson played Guy Hamilton’s character, Sigourney Weaver played Jill Bryant (love interest). I had always wondered where they could find an actor who, not only should be half white and half asian, but must be a dwarf/midget as well. All with an Aussie accent.
Lo and behold–they got the powerful Linda Hunt to play Billy Kwan!
Hunt won an Oscar for best supporting actor in this role.
I’m dying to watch the movie and have been hunting for it online. I’d always been a sucker for war/political-drama stuff, more so because Im intrigued about how Linda Hunt played Billy Kwan.