The new novel by Michael Vatikiotis is a fast-paced, intensely emotional drama of Indonesian life high and low, set against the tumultuous backdrop of the "reformasi" era, after the fall of Suharto in 1998.
"The Painter of Lost Souls" is the story of Sito, a gifted artist who leaves his home in a poor village in Central Java while still in his teens, to make his name and his fortune in the royal city of Jogjakarta. There he falls in with an idealistic group of avant-garde artists that calls itself the Republic of Dreams, reflecting the extravagant hopes of millennial Indonesia. Sito's talent for satire soon brings him to the attention of a major collector, then the patronage of the Sultan of Jogjakarta, and finally to the heady ether of the cultural elite in Jakarta.
Vatikiotis tells a suspenseful tale that weaves together a fascinating inside view of the art boom in Indonesia and the nation's religious and political ferment in the twenty-first century, haunted by ghosts of the nation's bloody past.
Yet the soul of the book is a young man's coming of age. Sito is torn between two loves: Arda, a political activist and patriot of the Republic of Dreams, and Ayu, the daughter of a mystic at the sultan's palace in Jogja. A catastrophic eruption of Mount Merapi completely upends Sito's life, forcing him to decide which direction it will take in maturity.
Drawing on the rich color and magic of Indonesia's cultural heartland, this imaginative story of youthful fulfillment and triumph in the face of tragedy takes the reader deep into the creative soul and harsh social realities of modern Indonesia.
"The Painter of Lost Souls" is Michael Vatikiotis' fourth book of fiction, following "The Spice Garden" (2004), a novel of sectarian violence in Maluku, and two acclaimed short-story collections, "Debatable Land" and "Singapore Ground Zero." Formerly a journalist for the BBC and chief editor of the "Far East Economic Review," Vatikiotis has lived in Southeast Asia for more than a quarter of a century. He now lives in Singapore and works as a mediator in armed conflict.