A Conversation with Jean Couteau by Eric Buvelot (translated from the French by Diana Darling) Brisbane: Interactive Publications, 2022
Whether you’ve stayed in Bali for a long time or have come for short visits over the years, you’re no doubt familiar with the startling changes in Bali that seem to happen overnight. Maybe a treasured view has been ruined by an ugly villa, or a favorite nasi campur replaced with a gluten-free pizza. It appears systemic and unstoppable. We might ask what is left of the “old Bali”—or, better—we might wonder if we had any idea of what was going on here in the first place.
If you are curious about what has happened to the island of the gods, and you should be, the newly published book Bali: 50 Years of Changes is a must-read. Presented in the form of a dialogue, the book is an edited transcript of 20 hours of recorded interviews conducted over several months by the journalist Eric Buvelot with the sociologist, art critic, and Bali scholar Jean Couteau, both of whom have lived in Bali for decades.
Bali: 50 Years of Changes, originally published in France in 2021, is a timely addition to anyone’s library about Bali. It is rich with threads of history woven into a complex picture of Bali’s deep transformations. The book reflects Jean Couteau’s long scholarship in all things Balinese, and especially his personal engagement with Balinese people of all backgrounds. The scope of Jean Couteau’s knowledge of Bali is dazzling. Eric Buvelot poses informed, probing questions, and Couteau replies with ease and charm. The two Frenchmen discuss everything from love, the inferior position of women in society, and the unbridled power of the royal courts of yesteryear, to the modern challenges faced by a rapidly developing Indonesia, with the pressures of urbanization, migration, competing religious identities, and environmental degradation. It’s to the credit of Buvelot and Couteau that their obvious love of the island allows them to look objectively at its problems. Couteau is an articulate, first-class Baliologist who brings a fresh perspective from which to explore the complexity of modern Balinese culture and history.
The book is a great read for those with some knowledge of Balinese and Indonesian society. Those with absolutely no idea of Bali beyond their villa and favorite yoga shala might find it a bit obscure. In this case, a reader would do well to follow Eric Buvelot’s advice, found in the Introduction, where he suggests that readers can “… open the book to any chapter, or even to any page” and just read. Buvelot then goes on to admit an unavoidable side effect of the book’s organization, which is a certain amount of repetition. In addition, occasional digressions by Couteau, countered by redirects from Buvelot, sometimes lead to a sudden change of subject, which might leave the reader still wanting to know more about the previous subject, and this detracts from the overall reading experience. But this is a minor inconvenience that may well inspire us to look yet more deeply at the beloved island of Bali.
– Christine Foster
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