The Jakarta Post
A novel bridge between us and them

DUNCAN GRAHAM
The Jakarta Post
February 6, 2017
Original article here

This is how Troppo starts: “The first story I hear about my new boss is in a brothel in Bandar Lampung. I don’t realize it’s a brothel at first. From the outside it looks like a typical Indonesian beauty salon; pink curtains tacked up in a prayer arch over lace, a gritty Salon Kecantikan sign at the front and a becoming ladyboy at the door with toilet paper molded into boobs.” That’s an addictive intro.

Troppo is Australian slang derived from “tropical.” To “go troppo” is to abandon normal conventions, to “go native.” It also means turning crazy.

In the hands of West Australian writer Madelaine Dickie, Troppo is a sinewy take on the people next door seeing Indonesians as humans with flaws and qualities, not economic units in a government statement.

The surfing, skateboarding knockabout’s literary talents won her a Prime Minister’s Australia-Asia Endeavour Award. She used this to live in West Java, where she was mentored at Universitas Padjadjaran and Universitas Islam Bandung while writing her debut novel. The result may not be what they expected.

Promoted as a book about “black magic, big waves and mad Aussie expats,” Troppo follows the life of Penelope, a name associated with steady faithfulness. That’s not her bag, so she becomes Penny, as in dreadful.

Miss adventurous enjoys the Indonesian lifestyle, though her hosts have trouble slotting her into their mindsets. And so will many readers who are not into the religion of surfing and the worship of waves, or too old to remember overwhelming lust and its aftermath.

(Read also: Australia-Indonesia cultural relationship: Those who shaped our critical mind)

It’s 2004, two years after the Bali bombing. Penny is 22 going on 16. She’s a part-time hangover artist and full-time risk-taker on a break in Indonesia from her older conservative boyfriend in Perth. As she says, a bolter when things get too hard.

Soon this liberated lass is getting perved in the shower by masturbators, stalked in the bush by weirdoes and stoned by kids before making it into bed with a thigh-biting pilot who already has a pregnant girlfriend.

While her demure Sumatran sisters are treading an ancient path of service, mapless (but not hapless) Penny is desperately seeking self before her use-by date when tissues sag and a bikini is inadvisable.

The gap between Indonesians and Australians could hardly be wider despite Penny’s sympathies, empathies and occasional eruptions of guilt. She wants to find a bridge, but doesn’t know how, so turns to gin in a water bottle.

She’s set for a job at a resort, where the arrogant and explosive bule boss Mister Shane, a former freedom fighter in Aceh, is in deep trouble with the citizenry.

Penny gets warnings aplenty, but this surfing tragic is still in Pollyanna-land even when thugs hurl rocks through windows while a boozy party is underway.

Yet this libidinous lass is no naïf. She speaks Indonesian, likes street food and sleeps with a knife under her pillow, ready to turn unwanted amorous advances into limp retreats. She can even handle unflushed squat toilets.

The tension builds. Fundamentalists are talking bombs. The expats tell her to go. So do local friends. But with only a third of the book gone and knowing Penny’s temperament, we doubt she’ll be dozing on the next bus south.

Penny’s Indonesia doesn’t feature in airline mags. People are kind and cruel, honest and thieving, dirty and clean, treacherous and loyal — like anywhere. Their cut-andpaste view of outsiders has been colored by brash, exploitative drunks with too much money and too little understanding.

Like Elizabeth Pisani, author of the essential Indonesia Etc, Dickie has insights to offer through her unstable heroine: “For Indonesian people, Islam is a symbol, not an ideology,”

Penny asks a mountain village woman why she has started wearing a jilbab, expecting a deep discourse on faith. The reply — to keep warm.

She ponders the treatment of the elderly: “Here the old people aren’t shut away. They continue to be part of the communi- ty […] everyone has a place”.

The expat group is a handy literary device to explore at- titudes: Aging academics in an ethnographic wonderland, balding failures seeking compliant brown virgins as the whitegoods market has closed, hucksters running businesses denied permits in their rule-bound homeland — and the driftersturned-stayers.

One long-timer says; “The whole world speaks English. Why would I bother learning Indo?”

On the other side are teens trapped by customs dictated by men, controlling clerics, venal cops, dutiful wives whose dreams of a liberated lifestyle are destined to be trashed by frustrated and jealous husbands. They ask Penny about “free sex” and boyfriends, questions as predictable as “where you from, Mister?” Ponders Penny: “Sometimes there are things you can’t explain. Cultural difference so vast you don’t know where to start.” She says she’s from New Zealand. Australia carries too much baggage in Indonesia. What these generally unpleasant people share is a common hatred of Mister Shane, so plot his downfall through black magic and violence, which is bound to cause collateral damage. Enough said. Less able writers would have resorted to clichés in exploring this swamp, but Dickie doesn’t use a monochrome palate. She has a fine sense of places “where the earth holds a memory,” but is more at home with the sea, like compatriot writer Tim Winton. What is it about these beachcrazed West Aussies? They’re always looking away, unlike Indonesians who know they’re at one with the land. Troppo has already won a major award named after journalist and author Tom Hungerford, so Dickie, now 29, seems set to make a mark. Hopefully through revealing another Indonesia: “There’s something intoxicating about living in extreme places, among extreme people. You never, for a moment, forget that you are alive.”

 

The Sydney Morning Herald
Troppo: Surf, sex and danger in Indonesia

 

KERRYN GOLDSWORTHY
The Sydney Mornings Herald / The Canberra Times / The Brisbane Times
September 9, 2016
Original article here. 

Penny is a young Australian woman who lives for excitement and pleasure. She likes surfing, sex, alcohol and danger, and having left her partner behind in Perth for a job managing a resort in Indonesia, she is finding plenty of all these things. She describes herself as "restless and reckless", but this hedonistic narrator is also curious and thoughtful about other people, attuned to cultural difference, and alert to the need for respect and empathy.

The plot gathers pace as it goes along, involving a cast of finely drawn characters. There is also some terrifying action, involving the growing climate of resentment against moneyed, heedless tourists, the corruption of the police, and the community's dislike of Penny's boss. There is some beautiful descriptive writing about Indonesia and about surfing and the ocean, lyrical but never gushing and always original.

The Australian
Reviews: Sarah Drummond’s the Sound, Troppo by Madelaine Dickie

DANIEL HERBORN
The Australian
12:00AM August 13, 2016
Original article here.  

(excerpt) . . . 

In Dickie’s Troppo, Penny leaves Perth for a job managing a surf resort in Indonesia. It’s a return to the country she spent time in as a teen that is motivated by her life as a “sleepwalker” in Australia as much as anything else. Yet the story is too smart and too dark to allow its characters to successfully use Indonesia as a land of uncomplicated, hedonistic escape, and members of the bule (foreigner) community she becomes part of are inevitably frustrated in their attempts to break free of their malaise.

In Penny’s case, she has left behind a stalled career and Josh, a seemingly reliable but dull older boyfriend. The resort job is projected to last a few months, but she has no immediate plans to return to their shared home beyond that, if at all. Almost instantly, she meets another Aussie, Matt, who is crossing over from tourist to local and decides she would “like to whip him into long, dangerous conversation”. While he is vague on details about his life or relationship status, his cultivated air of mystery only makes him more appealing: “I’m certain Matt’s a hell-man … and like all hell-men, he courts darkness.”

While the story sets up as being about Penny’s role at the resort, most of the action ends up taking place in the somewhat aimless days before the job begins, when she is getting a feel for the area. It makes for somewhat strange pacing, with a languid set-up abruptly shifting gears and hurtling towards a climax.

Where Troppo is particularly sharp, however, is in its abstract yet precise evocations of the sensory overload of Indonesia and in its dense, poetic riffs on the almost narcotic pull of chasing waves.

During her time with the sensible landlubber Josh, Penny lost this wildness but in Indonesia her thirst for the adventurous, nomadic lifestyle of the hardcore surfer returns as she reflects on “that obsession, that hunt for the perfect moment”.

Meanwhile, Penny’s boss Shane looms in the background like some bogan Colonel Kurtz, with stories suggesting he has well and truly gone troppo. A ladyboy in a beauty salon warns of his volatility, while other expats cast a wary eye over his penchant for drunkenly flouting his adopted home’s cultural norms.

When Penny visits the resort for a bit of pre-work reconnaissance, he presents a rakishly appealing front and paints a dark picture of the recent spike in anti-Australian sentiment. “Elements of sharia law are being adopted all over the place,” he tells Penny. “We’re gunna see more bombings, we’re gunna see beheadings.”

Shane may have trouble looming on yet another front as Matt also has it in for his compatriot and has been seeing a witch doctor for advice. It’s yet another sign to Penny that she should run, but instead she delves deeper into the shadowy world of dukuns.

“There’s something intoxicating about living in extreme places,” she reflects later. “You never, for a moment, forget that you are alive.”

Perhaps not, but both these impressive maritime tales make the subversive, disquieting suggestion that what presents as life-affirming, character-building danger for their protagonists may be just a straight death sentence for somebody else.

Daniel Herborn is a writer and critic.

 

The West Australian
 

The Broome Advertiser

NICOLA KALMAR
The Broome Advertiser
August 18th, 2016

The annotations of Nathan Hobby - A literary blog from Perth

Madelaine Dickie Troppo

NATHAN HOBBY
The Annotations of Nathan Hobby - A Literary Blog from Perth
10th September 2016
Original article here. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Madeline Dickie at the TAG Hungerford Award ceremony in March last year. It turns out she’s a good friend of a school friend of mine. She was announced as the winner that night and I’ve been looking forward to her novel coming out since.

Troppo’s first person narrator is Penny, an Australian in her early twenties who’s returned to Indonesia escaping the boredom of her career-focused older boyfriend, Josh, and the sterility of life in Perth. She lives for surfing, adventure, and the excitement of new people. “Risk,” Penny writes, “always make things sharper, throws into contrast the highs and lows, gives clarity. As a surfer, I know this, I’ve lived this. Living in Perth, like a sleepwalker, I’ve missed this.” Penny is drawn to a new man and is torn between her attraction to him and her loyalty to Josh. At the same time, she’s about to begin a new job at a resort run by Shane, an expat with a reputation as a psycho whose business is the focal point of growing tension between the “bules” and the locals. 

There’s an element of Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness about Shane and the early chapters feel, in a good way, a little like Marlow’s journey toward a confrontation with the “troppo” madman. Then Penny ventures to the resort ahead of time and the narrative moves in a less linear fashion. In Shane, Dickie has succeeded in creating a dangerous and fascinating character.

Penny is an interesting character too – overwhelmingly physical and tough, yet also self-reflective. She’s looking for the meaning of life just as much as the bookish characters I usually read and write about, but she’s finding it in a different sphere. She’s colloquial but obviously smart. The complexity of her character is revealed in her unlikely penchant for poetry which comes out at several points of the narrative and culminates in a reading of a poem by Geoffrey Lehmann. Too often I think the “rules” of fiction require writers to make characters consistent to the point of reductionism for the sake of verisimilitude; this aspect of Penny is an interesting resistance to this.

Troppo is a celebration of Indonesia. It’s a place which must hold magic for Dickie, and she captures its allure for her, its beauty, dangers, and dirt. “The night air is sticky as cut mango.”  “Hear the sea somewhere below, churning tissues and turds.” Even Bali-belly is a spiritual exercise of a kind: “It’s almost like you have to unlearn everything you know… The first bad nasi campur and you come unravelled. It’s only after hitting battery acid bile that you can start to reweave your resistance, unpick and restitch.” There’s almost an edge of the evangelistic at certain points. “Here, the old people aren’t shut away. They continue to be part of the community.”

I like the short, punchy chapters. They suit Penny and they suit the setting. It’s a novel which is paced both fast and slow; at one level, there’s a lot happening, and yet a lot of it is conversation, speculation, and anticipation. Conversation is actually a major theme – Penny’s fascinated by the idea and rituals of conversation – how locals talk, how expats talk, who’s a good conversationalist and who’s not.

Troppo is a novel which captures the spirit of many people’s early twenties. As well as a compelling depiction of life in Indonesia, it’s an important exploration of Australian identity, as revealed in our complex and problematic relationship with our neighbour. What’s more, it’s a page-turning, accessible read.