The Malay Archipelago (In Praise of)

Back when I was small, Wallace was a famous yet obscure figure. You know, all elementary school science books always mentioned him and his famous legacy, the Wallace line. But why none (moi included) back then seemed to bother to find out about him is still beyond my ability to comprehend. Perhaps it was because we were, like what band Eagles put in one of their songs, “programmed to receive”. We hardly asked why. After all, we all knew the title of Kartini’s book, Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang, but never bothered to search it at libraries let alone asking about it to teachers!

Had National Geographic Indonesia not staged a small exhibition at Plaza Senayan about Wallace some time ago (or better yet, Had I not visited the exhibition), Wallace would remained obscure to me. After that, I went to Aksara and bought The Malay Archipelago. At the counter, I was full of doubt: the book is too thick, will I find time to read it?, oh I don’t like the cover, is it worth the price?, what will it tell me about? But my heart said, “Go ahead, buy it!”

It’s safe to say that I din regret buying this in the first place. Now the book’s been 6 years with me and this is the first time I write a review. I can say that if there’s a book that has made my travels within this archipelago seem/feel worthwhile, it is none other than The Malay Archipelago. Whenever I go, I take it with me. I will consult the book about the destinations. For example, when I was at Mojowarno, Jombang, last July, I checked where Wallace went, whom he met, what he did. It is sort of in the footsteps of ARW.

Albeit written more than 150 years ago, the book is still relevant, informative and entertaining as well. His writing is straightforward, the language is simple and illustrative. I can imagine him—fluent in Malay and Javanese—talking to various kinds of people, from Sumatra, Singapore to Misool in Papua. He shed a light on why this particular area (which eventually became what we call home–Indonesia) was precious: rich in biodiversity and culture. While here and there he waxed lyrical about the islands, he too wrote “sharp” descriptions if not criticisms about peoples (tribes) he had encounters with. And even though I love his observations, I have to admit I have many disagreements with him too. But overall, The Malay Archipelago is a very fantastic book!

I wish Wallace were my travel guide and or companion. I would have not mind helping him collecting insects, riding a simple prow, fetching things and making hut!  I really wish I had met him!


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