There was an air of menace,” writes Richard Lloyd Parry in In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos, “an overwhelming sense that something was about to happen, suddenly and violently, and that if your attention lapsed, even for a few moments, you ran the risk of missing the whole thing.”
Like John Reed in Moscow and Ernest Hemingway in Spain, Parry brings the reader authentic front-lines journalism. In the Time of Madness is the true story of his confrontation with violence and death, face-to-face in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
When Parry makes his first trip to Indonesia in 1996, the 30-year dictatorship of General Suharto is firmly entrenched, but the journalist is tormented by nightmares of the horror to come. Returning to the country over the next three years, Parry watches as Indonesia gradually slips out of control and into chaos.
As the jungles of Borneo burn, an ages-old tribal conflict erupts into an epidemic of cannibalism. On the island of Java, wild – and often deadly – student demonstrations force Suharto out of office.
The Indonesian currency collapses, planes crash and violence runs amok in the jungles. Suharto’s successor brings a modicum of stability and sanity to the islands, but the madness cannot be held in check for long.
For Parry, the climax of the Indonesian situation comes on the tiny and fiercely independent island of East Timor. When the East Timorese vote for their independence, vigilante gangs combine their forces with the Indonesian army for a swift and violent retribution.
As the island burns and thousands die, Parry and his fellow journalists find themselves trapped inside a United Nations compound. Surrounded by death – and confronted with the imminent possibility of his own – Parry faces his own personal struggle with madness.
The power of In the Time of Madness lies in Parry’s unique ability to capture the mindset of the Indonesian people in their time of crisis and chaos.
More than any history book, In the Time of Madness enables the reader to understand the truth about what was going on in Indonesia in the late 1990s.
“You must write the truth,” insists one of the islanders to Parry. “If you don’t write the truth, all of us will die here. You too.” Indeed, many Indonesians did die horrible, uncivilized deaths almost unimaginable to the Western world.
Though the book was written in the tradition of Hemingway and Reed, a fitting postscript may be found in Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece of jungle depravity, Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.