Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

Cameron Forbes

Under the Volcano:
The Story of Bali

Melbourne: Black Inc., 2007
286 pages; ISBN: 978-1-86395-409-9 (paper); price: $32.95

reviewed by Brett Hough

  1. Under the Volcano: The Story of Bali is the latest addition to the growing body of literature about Bali that includes academic studies, guidebooks, novels, biographies, and coffee table books, along with films, websites and blogs. Cameron Forbes' book belongs to the category that seeks to tell or reveal the 'real Bali' or in this case 'the story of Bali' to a general audience. In other words, Forbes aims to put forward a singular narrative about Bali that should be read as definitive in its portrayal. Although it may be more compelling in publishing terms to claim to present 'the story', my initial reaction was 'do we really need another one?'. However, while Forbes does go over the already well-known components of the Bali story, what is distinctive about his attempt is the inclusion of the periods of violence that have beset Bali over the last century or so. In particular, his discussion of the mass killings, which took place in 1965–66, provides a welcome contrast to the 'paradise' image of Bali characteristic of other general accounts.
  2. As a retired journalist/foreign correspondent who has worked in the Middle East, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bougainville, Forbes is familiar with areas that have been beset by wars and civil conflicts. Consequently, he has a keen interest in understanding societies that have troubled histories. His specific experience of Bali began with an initial visit in 1974, and then again in November 2005 and 2006. It seems that it was during his last visit that he decided to write the book, with the intention of wanting:

      to examine the uniqueness of beautiful Bali, but I wanted to do this in the context of world-shaping and world-shaking events and forces: the greed, arrogance and brutality of colonisation; the quixotic searches for paradise; the march of ideas; the jihadist phenomenon; the recurring acts of inhumanity while much of the world watches, helpless, heedless. Bali is in so many ways a microcosm of the human condition (p. 9).

  3. The book is divided into two parts. The first part, which consists of chapters 1–9, provides an historical overview of Bali from prehistoric times to the present, while the second part (chapters10–12) focuses specifically on the more recent events of the two bombings, the arrest and conviction of several drug runners, and some of the contemporary challenges facing Balinese.
  4. Among the main sources Forbes uses to provide the history and commentary are: Adrian Vicker's Bali: A Paradise Created;[1] Geoffrey Robinson's The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali;[2] Urs Ramseyer's and I Gusti Raka Panji Tisna's edited volume Bali Living in Two Worlds: A Critical Self-portrait;[3] AAM Djelantik's The Birthmark: Memoirs of a Balinese Prince;[4] and direct interviews. For a general reader who may know little about Bali, Forbes provides a reasonably good retelling. Anyone interested in a more in-depth understanding of Bali would do better to read those sources themselves, as his account adds very little new information.
  5. For the most part Forbes writes in an engaging style and intertwines his experiences in other parts of the world to provide a comparison to the Balinese context or else as a means to introduce a discussion of a Bali specific event. Although these references link his story to the wider world, he does tend to go off on tangents into discussion of these other events that leaves the reader to ask whether or not the book is about 'the story of Bali'. At the same time, however, Forbes is at his best when he is drawing upon his own personal experiences in Bali and elsewhere and is able to write in a more authoritative and passionate manner at these times.
  6. For me the more appealing aspect of the book is the use of case studies and vignettes of particular individuals, such as Mangku Meme the 'old, old woman' who 'lives under the volcano on the shore of Lake Batur in the village of Kedisan' (p. 1). (The volcano of the title is a reference to Gunung Batur the still active peak that rises above Lake Batur. The photograph on the cover of Forbes' book is of the larger neighbouring volcano of Gunung Agung). Such glimpses into the lives of a number of Balinese enables Forbes to convey something of their take on the situation, and his genuine admiration for them. However, grounding his account in their lives does not entirely prevent him from falling into the trap of writing about the generic exotic Balinese. For instance, in his discussion of Mangku Meme he writes:

      Mangku is known far beyond the shadow of the volcano. For decades she has taken part in festivals, a dancer, as most Balinese are, but an innovator too. One year she made a fan part of her costume and as quick as word of mouth, fans appeared in hands across the island (p. 3).

  7. The 'Balinese are dancers' cliché tends to work against his efforts. While many Balinese may on particular occasions participate in dancing most of them would not see themselves as dancers (juru igel in Balinese). Moreover, for those Balinese who do dance within the context of a ritual it is an act of devotion rather than a career or a pastime, as the English term 'dancer' implies. Similarly, Forbes' statement that the popularisation of fans was due to Mangku Meme's use is presented as a fact rather than as a claim, which may or may not be true. Although this is one example, throughout the book Forbes does provide stories of 'ordinary' Balinese to provide a counter to high profile or high status individuals, yet has not quite managed to do so without exotifying them through his description or accepting information at face value.
  8. At the same time, choosing to open the book with this case study of an old, commoner woman from the highlands of Bali, does signal Forbes' desire to provide a different perspective in his account. Apart from Mangku Meme, other women who appear in the book are Dewa Biang Nyoman Keramas from Tembuku; psychologist Luh Ketut Suryani and performer Cok Sawitri. While the former appears in Chapter 4, 'The commoner and the prince' and provides the counter to discussions of Anak Agung Made Djelantik's life—the prince of the chapter title (who incidentally died last year after the book's release)—the latter two are high profile, articulate women, who have publicly commented upon the current state of Bali. Both women are somewhat unusual in the sense that for the most part women are relegated to the private domain and generally have not featured prominently in public affairs. Gender as an issue, however, is not part of Forbes' account other than his comment on pages 249–50 that 'At present there is a gender war,' which is in connection to Cok Sawitri's work and views on the position of women in the performing arts and 'men's domination of the public domain' (p. 250). Much more could have been said about the relative positions of men and women in Balinese society, and the specific challenges they each face, that would have been new to 'the story', and more clearly have set Forbes' book apart from other general accounts.
  9. The strength of the book, and I suspect Forbes' main interest in its writing, is his discussion of the violence and conflict that has been very much a part of the island's history yet has been swept under the carpet in order to promote the image of Bali as a tourist paradise of peaceful, smiling, beautiful people. The title of 'Under the Volcano' not only literally refers to people like Mangku Meme who live in close proximity to either Mount Batur or Mount Agung but also to living under a metaphoric social volcano that periodically erupts in violence. The main periods he highlights are the resistance to Dutch colonial expansion that resulted in the ritual suicide (puputan) of the noble families and their followers in Badung (1906) and Klungkung (1908); the mass killings that took place in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 1965; and the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005. Forbes does not add much new information but does, as I have already noted, seek to contextualise the events in a wider context by comparison to other parts of the world or his own experiences. He is generally compassionate in his discussion and concerned with understanding how people deal with the aftermath of such traumatic events.
  10. Although all of these periods and events have been covered to varying degrees in academic publications or media reports, they have tended to be left out of general accounts. Yet the killings of 1965–66 and the bombings have left a troubling legacy that Balinese have to deal with in the midst of maintaining the tourist image of a peaceful paradise and coping with the increasing pressures caused by too much development, commercialisation and consumerism. In his final chapter, Forbes touches upon some of these contemporary challenges but does not devote too much discussion to any of them, which is a pity as they are the part of the story that has not yet been well told.
  11. Apart from unsubstantiated claims, there are a few too many careless misspellings that mar the text. The location of one of Bali's best-known temples and also a contemporary surfing destination, Uluwatu, is misspelt as Uluwata. The acronym for the women's association connected to the Communist party Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia) is spelt incorrectly in the text as Gerwami, yet it is spelt correctly in the bibliography. Luh Ketut Suryani's name is spelt Luh Kenut Suryani in the endnotes (p. 264), and Djelantik given as Djenlantik (p. 260), while Degung Santikarma is spelt Denung Santikarma in the bibliography directly after a correct entry (p. 274). Forbes does not always provide a reference to his sources of information such as his mention of Anak Agung Gde Agung's doctoral study at Leiden University. As Forbes writes that Agung's 'thesis was co-sponsored by Professor Richard Leakey, father of anthropology' I was curious to know how Leakey was involved and why he was being credited as the 'father of anthropology' given he is best known as a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, born in 1944, long after Anthropology as a discipline had begun. A google search found the source to be a Jakarta Post article by Imanuddin Razak titled 'Change in Bali: A view from within'.[5] Forbes has paraphrased from the article and not bothered to check its accuracy. Although a general reader is unlikely to pick up on the spurious claim it does reinforce the sense that Forbes tends to be a bit sloppy with checking information, which unfortunately undermines the credibility of the work.
  12. In many ways the book is about Forbes' interests and exploration rather than 'the story of Bali' as such. Although he draws upon discussions with Balinese or from their published accounts, it is not an attempt to engage with them in any substantial way, as he has not allowed them to determine how 'their story' should be told. Bali remains the backdrop for Forbes' story, but it is not really the main concern.


    [1] Adrian Vickers, Bali, A Paradise Created, Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1989.

    [2] Geoffrey Robinson, The Dark Side of Paradise: Political Violence in Bali, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.

    [3] Urs Ramseyer and I Gusti Raka Panji Tisna (eds), Bali, Living in Two Worlds: A Critical Self Portrait, Basel: Museum der Kulturen; Schwabe & Co. AG., 2001.

    [4] A.A.M. Djelantik, The Birthmark: Memoirs of a Balinese Prince, Singapore: Periplus Editions, 1997.

    [5] The search located a copy of the article on the Bali Discovery Tours Website in the 'Bali Update' section: Imanuddin Razak, 'Change in Bali: a view from within,' in the Jakarta Post, Jakarta, online:, site accessed 1 March 2008.


Intersections acknowledges the assistance of the Gender Relations Centre, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University in the hosting of this site.
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