The artist Walter Spies was not shy about taking liberties himself, so he would probably be amused to know that more than a few liberties have been taken with the facts of his own life story in the interests of turning it into rollicking historical fiction.
More than 60 years since Spies’ death, writer and anthropologist Nigel Barley has raided the archives and made him the subject of his latest novel, “Island of Demons.” Spies was German, but he will forever be associated with his adopted home, Bali, and this book is about the man and the island.
Spies first came to Bali in the 1920s, and was foremost among the shifting community of European bohemians who lived there in the last decades of Dutch colonial rule. His story is well known — accidental founding father of touristic Ubud, more important for his influence on both local artists and on the world’s ideas about Bali than for his own paintings, arrested and briefly imprisoned by the Dutch for homosexuality, jailed again at the start of World War II as a German and killed when his prisoner-of-war ship was torpedoed.
Barley reportedly had intended to use all this detail for a biography, but then decided it would be more fun — for both writer and reader — to turn to fiction instead.
And fun it is. The book is narrated by another real-life foreign figure from Bali’s artistic past, Spies’ contemporary, the Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet. Opening as an aged Bonnet (the real one died in 1978) begins to tell his tale to a young American, the book then turns into the saga of Bonnet’s formative years, his arrival in Bali and his falling in with — and falling for — Spies.
There’s plenty of sparky dialogue and some genuinely laugh-out-loud comic moments. The characterizations of the key foreign players in the early years of modern Bali — Miguel Covarrubias, Margaret Mead and others — are sharp and at times deliciously cruel. The most effective character in the book is not Spies himself, but Bonnet. His gawkiness, the faint sense that he is an outsider to the pretentious Ubud set and the way he manages to be both prudish and debauched at the same time — with furtive nighttime excursions to Denpasar in search of beautiful young men in contrast to Spies’ overt homosexuality — builds subtly and endearingly without the reader noticing.
But there are problems with this book. Barley gleefully states in his introduction that he has played fast and loose with chronology and time in the interests of narrative. But having made the decision to write fiction instead of history, he has failed to go one step further and make a plot — generally a prerequisite of a novel.
As a consequence, “Island of Demons” sags in the middle, turning into little more than a series of well-written and very funny vignettes as historical figure after historical figure is shoehorned in and caricatured. What is needed is a sense of building tension, of the threat of the dour Dutch authorities bearing down on Spies and his carefree clique as the book progresses. But it is absent, and when Spies is arrested for homosexuality 320 pages in, only prior knowledge has given the reader warning.
The other flaw is the failure to address what could be called “the case against” Walter Spies. While he was clearly not the slavering pedophile of colonialist propaganda, the idea that his relationships with young Balinese men could have been predatory and exploitative should have been given more than the brief touch it receives. And his role in the creation of the carefully constructed and enduring myth of uniquely paradisiacal and artistic Bali — one that manages both to glorify and to patronize at the same time — could have done with a sterner appraisal.
But despite these flaws, and despite the book’s flabby midriff, “Island of Demons” does remain a highly amusing read. Barley’s style, which somehow manages to be as light as air while bandying about words like “pandiculate,” is a delight, as is his comic coining of new terms — “co-varrubious” for the overly affectionate Miguel and Rosa Covarrubius, for example.
The scene setting, the rich color of Bali’s landscapes and the rhythms of its dance performances are very well done, and the last chapters — detailing the war, the Japanese occupation of the East Indies and its aftermath — are suddenly and unexpectedly poignant, adding a final weight to a book that had otherwise been only pleasurably frivolous.
“Island of Demons,” although not entirely successful, is ultimately rather like Spies himself: though flawed and at times frustrating, in the end it is hard not to be charmed.