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Bali Chronicles    by Willard A. Hanna order for
Bali Chronicles
by Willard A. Hanna
Order:  USA  Can
Periplus, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I spent some time in Bali in the late 1970s, exploring the area around Kuta Beach and bodysurfing in the ocean off the north end of the island - I was one of what Willard Hanna calls 'a late twentieth century invasion of jumbo-jet barbarians' (though I didn't stay in expensive hotels, but shared jam-packed buses with the locals, and their chickens). I was fascinated by the rich culture ubiquitous in daily life, and intrigued (and somewhat puzzled) by individuals' spontaneous intense religious observations. I hoped to learn more about the place I'd visited from Bali Chronicles.

Despite the subtitle's promise of 'A Lively Account of the Island's History from Early Times to the 1970s', I found the book to be a rather dry rendition of historical fact - though historical events themselves could be summarized as lively, including as they do wreckers and raiders; betel and opium addiction; fragmented, feuding kingdoms with often dissolute rulers (incest was not uncommon, and cannibalism occurred); a disastrous volcanic eruption; an assortment of foreign adventurers, including powerful traders who lived as 'White Radjas' (in particular 'bold Viking' Mads Lange); and colonial powers (mainly Dutch and English) with dubious ethics.

Slavery and the practice of 'suttee' (widows burning on their husbands' funeral pyres) were practiced until eradicated under Dutch influence. There's the dramatic 1800s clarion cry of Gusti Ktut Djilantik, a defiant young Balinese prince - 'Let the kris decide' - and the regular practice of 'puputan', mass suicide of a defeated Radja and his court. There are lighter moments too, as when the Dewa Agung forced the Dutch to supply him with a hippopotamus, during treaty negotiations (which, we are shown, were rife with misunderstanding), or the first Dutch tourist in 1902, who discovered that a palace fish pond was used as a toilet.

Hanna tells us that the Balinese way of life 'seems to outsiders like a lavishly costumed pageant continuously and merrily played out against a superbly scenic tropical backdrop' (though I hoped for more explanation of the pageant, it's only briefly summarized at the end of the book as 'Basics of Balinism'). Hanna closes with an expression of concern that the vital, spiritual base of the culture 'is being processed into synthetic bait with which to lure world tourists.' Though not a lively read, Bali Chronicles did intrigue and it gave me a new perspective on the history of Bali and the Balinese.

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