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Review: An Empire in the East, by Norman Lewis

An Empire in the East, by Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis is well known as one of the great travel writers of the 20th century, but any description of his books as mere travelogues seriously underestimates his talent.

In his great masterpieces, Naples 44, and Voices of the Old Sea, Lewis demonstrates his deep interest in people, of whatever race or class, and his curiosity about their customs, beliefs and ways of living. Since reading these, I had been a keen reader of his work, but only recently found An Empire in the East.

In 1991, at the age of 83, he travelled to Indonesia and visited some of the further flung outposts of that vast archipelago, including the province of Aceh in Sumatra, the island of East Timor, and Iran Jaya (now renamed Papua), the western part of the island of New Guinea. His description of the fishing community on the south coast of Sumatra might ring a few bells with folks in Pittenweem!

In the quarter century or so before his visit, the Indonesian government of President Suharto, encouraged by anti-communist Western powers, had been engaged in the sometimes violent suppression of various rebellious forces seeking autonomy in their regions. At the same time, a process of industrial scale deforestation and the exploitation of mineral resources had begun.

Lewis’s book refers to some of the history of these events and describes what he saw of their impacts on the people and the environment, including the tribal peoples of Papua, who must then have been facing the destruction of a way of life practised for thousands of years.

But the story of his journeys does much more than this. He describes, in his generous, compassionate and often humorous way, his encounters with the various characters he meets along the way – policemen, officials, waiters, guides, tourists and so on.

I would thoroughly recommend this, or any other of Lewis’s books on travel. A proper travel writer!