The Tale of Bali, or Love and Death in Bali as it is also titled, came to me wonderfully and randomly. I was staying in Ubud for the second time on my trip, having returned early from the beautiful black-sanded beaches of the north to witness the cremation ceremony of a member of Ubud’s royalty.
I know that sounds a little morbid. But everyone I met told me I was going to be missing a real spectacle if I didn’t, so I arrived back the morning it was due to happen. Wandering the already busy and expectant streets, I saw the sign ‘Ganesha Bookshop’ hanging outside a little building, and decided to duck in out of the morning heat. After all, one does not simply walk past a bookshop. *Insert Sean Bean meme here*
High on the smell of pages unread, I nosed around the surprisingly abundant shelves of books in English: recent best sellers, classics and such like. But then a glass cabinet near the till labelled ‘Bali Books’ caught my eye. I already had an inkling that I wanted to be reading location relevant books on my travels so I went to explore.
The book I ended up selecting was Tale of Bali by Vicki Baum (obviously, hence this post). It cost so much more money than I was planning to spend, 285,000 IDR (roughly £15). I know that doesn’t sound like a lot, but to a penniless traveller nearing the end of her trip and budget – in Bali of all places – where you can get a decent night in a hostel for £3, it was quite the splurge. But I just couldn’t resist the rough cut pages, the charming spine design and the magic words written inside the cover: ‘first edition’.
And so began a love affair that lasted my whole time in Bali, entertaining me and informing me about colours of life on Bali that I previously wouldn’t have even noticed. I am so glad I read it during my trip and it sits on my shelf at home now as one of my favourite souvenirs from my time on that beautiful emerald isle.
I recently came across another Baum book, Headless Angel, in a second-hand shop (this one I got for a pound!) and was reminded of how interesting not only the plot of Tale of Bali is, but the story of its conception is too.
In 1916, Baum came into the possession of a series of photographs of the beautiful, other-worldly island of Bali. But it wasn’t until nineteen long years of wander-lusting later, in 1935, that she was able to afford to make the trip. She spent her time there with the Island’s oldest Dutch resident and writes: ‘The privilege of seeing the real and unspoiled Bali instead of merely the modernized and tawdry fringes which tourists skirt in hurried comfort was due to a letter of introduction to Dr Fabius‘. The doctor died soon after her visit but left her a collection of documents in the hope that she would commit to paper the story that they contained. Tale of Bali is the exotic and engaging product of these documents.
This book is a ‘free paraphrase of actual occurrences’ regarding the ‘Poepoetan’ or ‘The Last Stand’ between Balinese natives and the Dutch Settlers. It is truly fascinating, a beautiful retelling of a little-discussed era of Indonesian history. An era that remarkably has left so little a mark on the average visitor’s experience, that most have no idea that it even happened. But it’s also a charming depiction of Balinese life and focuses primarily on the ‘peasant’, Pak, and the movements of his green little world, his rice sawas, wives and smiling children.
The introductory chapter ends like this: ‘Bali has become the fashion. When I came back to the island, where in many places life and customs have remained unaltered for thousands of years, I found an invasion of Bali bars and Bali bathing suits and Bali songs. I need not say that (this) book has nothing to do with this Bali – because such a Bali does not exist’.
If you are travelling to Bali soon, or just need some destination inspiration, here are some of my favourite photographs from Bali.