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Andrew Charles, Tropical Life, September - December 2011

Andrew Charles

Tropical Life, September - December 2011

It isn’t often that a reviewer has the time to read a book from cover to cover, but Secrets of Bali is an exception for me as I was asked to edit the text and therefore had to devote many hours to the work but please don’t feel sorry for me because I enjoyed every minute of reading through this excellent book and I am very happy to recommend it.

The author, Jonathan Copeland, is probably one of the most unlikely people to produce a book on the history, culture and traditions of Bali, as he is a Belfast-born lawyer with many years experience of practising law in the City of London. However, he is also an inveterate traveller and has acquired a great deal of knowledge about Asia and Bali in particular. The subject matter has been meticulously researched and the latest findings carefully analysed. His forensic skills are apparent on every page. He has also had the great advantage of being able to consult Ni Wayan Murni, the famous Ubud personality, who has lived through, and contributed to, many aspects of Balinese culture; especially those relating to tourism.


He wanted this book to be useful for both tourists and students of Southeast Asia and he has achieved this aim by writing a very easy to read account of so many aspects of life in Bali. Local residents, expatriates or otherwise, will all find out something they didn’t already know and the style of writing makes everything so easy to understand. As the noted medical anthropologist, Angela Hobart says, “it is eloquent, enthusiastic and jargon-free.”

There are so many books on Balinese culture and traditions but Secrets of Bali is the single most comprehensive approach to the important aspects of Balinese life; including religion, offerings, architecture, music, dance, textiles, dress, carvings and paintings. The book also gives detailed explanations of how things are made; including shadow puppets, musical instruments, textiles, masks, paintings on glass and palm-leaf manuscripts.

Fascinating Western parallels are drawn, from Darwin to Palladio and from the ‘Big Bang’ to the treatment of witches. I am not aware of any other book on the market attempting such an analysis. Learn some Balinese recipes and not just how to cook the food but how to eat it and how to comply with Balinese etiquette.

The book is divided into 60 self-contained chapters and most of them are fairly short, which makes it all the easier to read. You can either read it straight through or check in the index for whatever interests you. The final chapter is perhaps rather controversial, but fascinating, and I haven’t seen it tackled elsewhere: ‘Do the Balinese think like Westerners?’

Numerous line drawings by a talented Balinese artist save a lot of explanations and are a delight in themselves. There are no colour photographs and this is unfortunate but colour adds to the cost of production and it is important that this book be available to as wide a readership as possible at a reasonable price. I think, however, that it may be an attractive proposition to publish a future edition lavishly illustrated with colour photographs for those who enjoy that kind of thing.

Coverage of historic events is very informative and written in a way that anyone can understand. Several chapters deal with life in Bali under the Dutch colonialists who, despite their brutality, left some long-lasting benefits. The author explains how the caste system was enforced by the Dutch in order to keep control of the population and perhaps this was one of their less wise decisions but it has resulted in a hierarchical order that will probably endure for a very long time.

It seems that the majority of books about Bali have been written by foreigners and most people will be familiar with the writings of people such as Miguel Covarrubias, Fred Eiseman, Urs Ramseyer, Angela Hobart and Hugh Mabbett, to name just a few. I feel that Secrets of Bali will join the ranks of the definitive and authoritative volumes of reference books for lovers of Bali everywhere.

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