The Interpreter From Java

the interpreter from java novel alfred birney

Alfred Birney
The Interpreter From Java
Translated by David Doherty
Novel
Head of Zeus / An Apollo Book
Paperback edition 2021 / feb 2022
Pages: 542
ISBN: 9781788544344
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Alan Noland discovers his father’s memoirs and learns the truth about the violent man he despised.

In this unsparing family history, Alan distils his father’s life in the Dutch East Indies into one furious utterance. He reads about his work as an interpreter during the colonial war in Southeast Asia, his life as an assassin, and his decision to murder Indonesians in the service of the Dutch without any conscience. How he fled to the Netherlands to escape being executed as a traitor and met Alan’s mother soon after. As he reads his father’s story Alan begins to understand how war transformed his father into the monster he knew.

Birney exposes a crucial chapter in Dutch and European history that was deliberately concealed behind the ideological facade of postwar optimism. Readers of this superb novel will find that it reverberates long afterwards in their memory.

Birney provides us with a gripping and important read, bringing a slice of overlooked history alive in narrative form. – Tripfiction

A work of unbridled, incensed storytelling: an assault on the lazy assumptions of parochial, colonial history and a personal quest for redemption. – South China Morning Post.

A Post Colonial Masterpiece That’s Not To Be Missed. – The Dorset Book Detective

The Interpreter from Java is more than a contemporary Max Havelaar or a Dutch version of Malaparte’s Kaputt. It is only fair that he has won two Dutch literary prizes for it. – The Low Countries

A Façade of Decency. How the Netherlands Deals With Its Colonial Past. By Anne-Lot Hoek, translated by Elisabeth Salverda.

Voices in my head. Plurivocality in the autobiographical novel by Alfred Birney, De tolk van Java – Study by Lut Missinne.

Alfred Birney became a noteworthy narrator who influenced changes in the socalled ‘tellability’ of narratives about the conflict in Indonesia.’ – Pauline Stoltz – Gender, Resistance and Transnational Memories of Violent Conflicts (Memory Politics and Transitional Justice) (Book)


Alfred Birney is a descendant of an illustrious planter family in the formal Dutch East Indies. His father was from Surabaya and had Dutch, East Javanese, Chinese and Scottish roots, hence the Anglo-Saxon surname. His mother was Dutch.

Frequently recurring themes in his literary work are alienation from family, constant solving related riddles and the inability to identify with motherland or homeland. He has published novels, novellas, short stories, columns, essays, critiques, plays, journalistic work and didactic material about guitar music.

The style in his novels, novellas and short stories is associative, lively, narrative, dreamy and subtle, but in his columns, essays and critiques the writer is harsh, hilarious, sarcastic, ironic, sardonic and humorous – all of these styles and voices come together in his bestselling novel The interpreter of Java.

The book was written in Dutch and published on March 1, 2016. It became the literary sensation of 2017 in The Netherlands. It was awarded the Henriëtte Roland Holst Prize 2017 and won the Libris Literature Prize 2017. The novel has so far been translated into English and Italian.

More about the writer on New Dutch Writing