The Land of Gold: A Novel


If an island paradise existed anywhere, it was surely in the Indonesian island of Mapura, where Peter Henshall joins the first Europeans to enter a country abandoned by the Dutch some thirty years before.

Henshall has no time for his fellow explorers, but the alluring figure of Hartini Sujono, a local nightclub singer, is sufficient to draw him on into the web of danger and deceit. Mapura is not the land of gold, she tells him, but the land of shadows, and gradually the consequences of past horrors begin to emerge: the brutal Japanese invasion, and the blood-letting of the 1965 abortive communist coup, in which thousands perished throughout the archipelago.

Deep in the interior lies the forbidding mine of Tambang Surga, where a large gold consignment lies buried in underground workings. His associates help, confuse and hinder Henshall in his attempts to mount a proper search for the lost millions. Even Hartini, he comes to realize, is no less a shadow puppet controlled by outside forces than Henshall himself becomes.

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Excerpt (Opening)

Thick mist surrounded the guest-house when Henshall woke the following morning. He pulled on a sweater and sat on the veranda, ordering a nasi goreng when the houseboy appeared under a dripping green umbrella. A couple of women went by with bundles of vegetables on their heads, and there were several of the small dogs of Bali, padding warily past with their usual craven and preoccupied air. Though it grew increasingly chilly as he finished his meal, he packed the motorbike panniers just the same, tucking the sketch pads into plastic bags, and set off for the interior.

By three he was back at the Kuta Beach Hotel, with the singer of the previous night still large in his thoughts as he joined a group of residents returned from rained-off tours. A weak sun glowed on the metal table, where he sat with a couple of English women comparing handicraft prices. Henshall drank his tea slowly, and leafed through the guidebook, wondering who’d advise him on the village festivals so lavishly photographed. When the two left, still complaining about local practices, Henshall continued reading and wasn’t sure what the voice had asked, or whether it had asked anything at all. ‘You’re more than welcome’, he said. ‘I’m leaving shortly.’ The woman laughed and said, ‘That’s not what I meant.’ Perhaps his surprise showed, for the face gleamed with mischief, the water glistening on the long eyelashes. 'You don’t recognize me, but I know you.’ Henshall opened his mouth to reply, but she was already sauntering back to the swimming pool. All that day and the days following, Henshall could see in his mind the extraordinary face with the dark eyes, the features laughing at him, but their owner didn’t reappear.

It was at a small village in the hills where he was sketching four of the little girls waiting to receive a sprinkling of holy water before their Legong dance, that someone settled beside him and took the pad from his hand. He knew the identity, even before the playful voice said, 'This will get you into trouble, my friend.' Henshall let her flip through the sketch pad, turning the pages round to study them carefully. 'Where am I?' she asked. 'These aren't bad, but what have you done with me?' Henshall explained that her studies were in another pad, a smaller one he kept for social occasions. For spying, she decided: why else would he draw?

'It's harmless enough', said Henshall. 'Trains the eye.'

'It is not harmless to us.'

'Something to talk about at lunch perhaps?'

'Oh that is much too forward', she said, pulling a face. 'You must introduce yourself properly when you invite someone out in Bali.'
'Peter Henshall. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?'

'Hartini Sujono', replied the woman, now springing to her feet.

When they were sat in a local eating-house, Hartini prodding the old crone into frying some fish and sending off for fresh papaya, Henshall could look more closely at the arrival. Not wholly Javanese, he realized, but taller, a straighter nose and jaw, with a warmer complexion, and an openness that seemed to surround and take possession of what he was saying—when it cared to, and wasn't holding itself for his inspection and admiration. Henshall brought the conversation back to their surroundings, to the village with its straggle of dusty coconut palms and the rice fields that towered above them, fresh and green in the afternoon light.

'Think I was looking for you?' countered the head, turning on him again.

'Just wondered how you got here.'

'Hired a car. You came here yesterday as well, didn't you?' She pointed a fork. 'The young man who makes pictures.'