5 February 2011
The production of books about Bali isn’t driven by the identification of a hole in the market, but the never-ending curiosity for the land of enigmas. “Secrets of Bali: Fresh Light on the Morning of the World” is an excellent book that examines almost everything about the island.
When it comes to books covering Balinese culture, Fred Eiseman Jr’s three volume “Bali: Sekala & Niskala”, a collection of detailed essays first collated between 1985 and 1988 - revised twice since - is hard to beat. Any ventures into similar territory are bound to be compared to it. But that is not to say there isn’t room for more forays into the arena.
Indeed, there would seem to be no stopping them because what really drives visitors to write books about Bali is not the identification of a hole in the market, but the intense love and curiosity the island inspires. “Secrets of Bali” is an excellent and welcome example of this. It is a book whose encyclopaedic scope and many fascinating detours are enlivened by a passion for the subject matter and the awareness that there is always more to know.
For a number of reasons, the definitive reference on all things Balinese is yet to be - and may never be - written: Bali’s fabulously arcane and frequently opaque cultural and religious life continues to evolve and throw up new enigmas. Eiseman’s essays, as he himself admitted, are so specifically about the community near his house in Jimbaran, every other region will have differences and idiosyncrasies worth recording, especially as we venture away from Balinese Hindu heartland. Lay-cultural anthropologists and their informants furthermore, frequently have very different interpretations of the same practices or rituals.
The quality of the relationship between knowledge seekers and their informants is a major factor in the success of any book like this. While Copeland has assumed the greater responsibility for the book’s authorship, his avid curiosity has clearly been ably abetted by his good friend of 25 years, the Ubud insider and restaurateur Ni Wayan Murni of Murni’s Warung fame.
The result is an eclectic, lively and very accessible account of Bali since the Big Bang, one that dips into such diverse, foundational subjects as geology, DNA, and prehistoric migrations, as well as culture, history, politics and religion. Mixing up rocks, biology, archaeology, language, ritual and culture offers tantalising possibilities, but at the same time it also presents organisational and structural challenges.
The book’s ambitiousness does occasionally open up some small weaknesses. Its attempt to touch on all there is to know from the pre-Cambrian era to the present day stretches it thin in places, particularly in some of the earlier sections, yet there is something entirely admirable in a book whose eyes are bigger than its stomach, an enthusiasm that is infectious.
My only criticism is for the book’s designer and editor: the captions to the numerous line drawings repeat verbatim passages that appear just millimetres away and were read just milliseconds before. At first this seemed like serial déjà vu, but then it just seemed like a waste of precious space on pages already packed with information.
A book of these modest dimensions can’t afford those sorts of redundancies. This was a slight annoyance more than anything else but it did sometimes disrupt my reading pleasure and unnecessarily detract from what was otherwise the perfect travel companion: a playful, informative and easy-to-read single-volume introduction to Bali - which I now know, if I was ever in any doubt, to be a relatively young island in geological terms but one already crammed with scintillating and complex mysteries.
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