Alan Noland discovers his father's memoirs and learns the truth about the violent man he despised. In this unsparing family history, Alan distils his father's life in the Dutch East Indies into one furious utterance. He reads about his work as an interpreter during the war with Japan, his life as an assassin, and his ruthless murders of fellow Indonesians. He fled to the Netherlands to escape being executed as a traitor, and there he met Alan's mother. As he reads his father's story, Alan begins to understand how war transformed his Father into the monster he knew.
Author Alfred Birney was born in 1951, and his works span both fiction and non-fiction, often featuring his family's Dutch-Indies history in a central role. For The Interpreter from Java, he has been awared the Libris Literature Prize, the Netherlands' premier literary award, and the Henriette Roland Holst Prize. He lives in the Netherlands.
A read that is as personal as it is brutal, The Interpreter from Java is an open and no-holds barred account of the relationship between father and son, and of the lasting damage that the cruelty of war can inflict on not just a man, but on entire generations of his family.
For a book this personal, it's remarkable that Birney chooses to be as balanced as possible, allowing the reader full insight into what made the father the man he became. These sections, set in the WWII during the conflict between the Dutch Indies and the Japanese Army, are hugely educational (I'm shamefully under-educated about this section of WWII), and massively raw and vivid - drawing the reader not just into the words, but into the brutal, bloody and cruel conflict that Alan's father found himself in. Reading the toll these hideous situations take on a man - pushing him to and beyond the verge of sanity and into a man who commits as much cruelty as those he encounters, is a hard read - but ultimately a fulfilling one, and Birney is clearly keen to paint a full picture of the father - warts and all.
The translation by David Doherty is excellent, although I found the style took a little getting used to - it moves around in terms of formats and voices initially, which, whilst initially a little startling, actually worked well overall - this is an immersive read that delivers the reader to uncomfortable truths with an admirable honesty. Highly recommended - many thanks to Amber at MidasPR for the copy.