KERRY B. Collison's The Tim Tim Man is one of those books which surreptitiously
draws the reader in. So, be warned - at 560 pages it's something of a marathon read
and may result in sleep deprivation, unfinished domestic tasks and neglected relationships.
A novel of the "boys own-ripping yarn" genre, The Tim Tim Man is a story
of international intrigue and conflict which sweeps through thirty years of history
as geopolitical paranoia, arms deals, illicit love and betrayal all unfold in the
exotic setting of Indonesia.
Collison, who began his association with Indonesia as a member of the Australian
Embassy Air Attaché Corps and continues it to this day as a successful businessman,
obviously draws heavily on thirty years of personal experience.
His intimate knowledge allows him to compose a detailed sketch of South East Asia's
turbulent recent history as a dynamic backdrop for the story's plot which begins
in the mid-sixties as Indonesia retreats, beaten from its Konfrantasi with Malaysia
and Singapore. The abortive communist coup which follows provides Indonesia's new
regime with an excuse to consolidate its power through the massacre of half a million
The vacuum which results allows the Tim Tim Man, Nathan Seda, a Timorese previously
shut out from the Javanese dominated political elite, to maneuver his way to a position
of wealth and power. Along the way a young Australian, Stephen Coleman, becomes entangled
as a pawn in the ambitious Seda's political games.
As an intelligence operative working under cover as a journalist, Coleman is seduced
by Indonesia and, slowly but surely, becomes alienated from his own past. However,
and as is so often the case with westerners in Asia, he remains an outsider in his
Collison's long experience as an Australian in South East Asia serves him well, allowing
him to create a novel rich in historical and cultural detail. It has also enabled
him to skillfully describe the isolation of the expatriate which results from the
conflicting attitudes of east and west.
For the Western reader that conflict should make it easy to identify the good guys
from the bad. But as the plot unfolds, that distinction becomes blurred, Coleman's
actions and attitudes becoming less those of the good guy, while those of his antagonists
assume a certain nobility.
The recent political unrest in Jakarta creates a certain resonance throughout the
book, with press reports of rioting reinforcing Col-lison's descriptions of civil
unrest at various times in Indonesia's rapid economic development.
That resonance is amplified for the reader in Phnom Penh by his descriptions of Jakarta
of the 1960's. With its steamy, tropical climate, flooding, majestic but dilapidated
colonial architecture, a high profile military presence and broken infrastructure
the city he describes might well be the Phnom Penh of 1996.
That parallel is underscored by Collison's often uncomplimentary portrayal of the
expatriate lifestyle, average people living a phony existence of privilege made possible
by enormous relative wealth. The tedium of the cocktail circuit, the superficial
friendships, the bewilderment of aliens who respond to their confusion by closing
their minds is skillfully reproduced. Many of his secondary characters could be identified
at any of the popular expat hangouts here in Cambodia.
Having said that, and with the possible exception of Seda, Collison fails to fully
develop the story's main players. Coleman, in particular, remains undefined throughout,
his personality often at odds with his actions. The author's narrative technique
also tends to be a little dense at times. His descriptions, particularly of scenery,
are somewhat "over cooked" and his repeated use of exclamation marks adds
a dimension of melodrama which is unnecessary. The bloody facts of the "Year
of Living Dangerously", the invasions of Irian Jaya and East Timor, and the
emergence of Indonesia as a regional power - events around which the story is told,
are dramatic enough.
However, overall Collison has produced an entertaining and engaging story. A modern
literary The Tim Tim Man is not, but it is a pretty good read which should strike
a chord with any westerner who has lived and worked in Asia.