Closeness from a distance

By Elle Hardy
Jock Serong’s ‘On the Java Ridge’ shows us a world our politicians would prefer we didn’t see

In his third book, On the Java Ridge (Text; $29.99), Australian author Jock Serong delivers a political thriller with soft notes of dystopia that ought to tremor far and wide. A tale of two boats off the coast of Indonesia, one full of Australian surfing tourists, the other a sabotaged refugee boat carrying disparate groups from the Middle East, is coiled around the harried minister for border integrity, Cassius Calvert, on the eve of a tight federal election.

Border security in Java Ridge’s all-too-familiar world has been outsourced to the sinister, exquisitely named Core Resolve corporation, whose booming share price is reflected in its licence to do whatever it takes to stop refugees arriving on our shores. A wary departmental secretary is the lone voice of concern, telling Minister Calvert, “I have a kind of old-fashioned insistence on the government doing its own dirty work … has it occurred to you that being in harm’s way is what our armed forces actually do?”

In Roya, a nine-year-old Hazara girl central to the action on the stricken ship, we have the novel’s beating heart. The deftly drawn child sways between ignorance and understanding, wide eyes narrating a story of cold blood. Roya’s hope is lent to the reader; the wickedness of the world around her surely cannot be innate?

Serong constructs Java Ridge through the eyes of a range of its characters, including Roya and Calvert, cleverly establishing proximity in what is essentially a novel about distance. He confronts us with the paradox of the ongoing refugee crisis, about which we in the Western world have so much to say but so little at stake. So few of us have even seen these distant wars (even, terrifyingly, drone snipers sitting at a computer on another continent). And with Australia’s offshore refugee detention program, we do not even see the faces of “our” asylum seekers.

Dehumanisation is a creeping culture, and it detests imagination. The art of refugee-bashing is a political act of controlling the public consciousness, stoking fear when necessary, but for the most part keeping its full reality furthest from our minds. Gag orders, shutting down paths of communication, outsourcing to unaccountable corporations, distribution of euphemisms, all cement the idea that while we’ve never been so well connected, or had such direct access to information, we have never been so far removed from the horrors committed in our name.

The distance between us and the actions of the state is greater than ever, and this is being reflected in our artistic harvest. If we look at the great works documenting wars and refugees after World War Two, with novels such as Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, and Slaughterhouse-Five, and then Vietnam, with films such as The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket – the post-September 11 era doesn’t stack up. Perhaps worse still, besides a handful of middling Hollywood action films and novels of refugee flight, the market for readers eager to understand the wars and resulting humanitarian tragedies of our time simply isn’t there.

And in this, we know all too well, Australia is a world leader. Our refugees are held offshore so that we cannot view, let alone understand, their humanity, and in so doing we have all become complicit. For the thousands of op-eds written about Australia’s treatment of refugees since the Tampa affair in 2001, Serong appears to be the first novelist to imagine a fated boat journey, and offer a glimpse of where this terrible path may lead us. (Creepily, the only other book that I know of that has gone into print is the federal government’s 2014 graphic novel to deter Afghan asylum seekers from taking the journey.)

This is the mastery of Serong’s novel, understanding that fictional dystopias are at their most profound when they take the everyday and tilt it towards the darkness. The grotesque familiarity of its world allows On the Java Ridge to push through its at times jarring dialogue and hastily hemmed ends, because it is a deeply considered novel that steers us to the logical conclusion of an entrenched system rooted equally in brutality and silence.

We can only hope that On the Java Ridge will inspire Australia’s writers to not only create more human narratives from what little we know but also remind us that we all have a stake. Otherwise, we are simply muddling through a dystopia of our own making, a country that spent a hundred years trying to escape the tyranny of distance now clinging to it for reasons we can barely define.

Elle Hardy

Elle Hardy is an Australian journalist based in the United States. She can be found at


Read on

Image from ‘Honey Boy’

Think less, feel more: ‘Honey Boy’

Shia LaBeouf’s disarming autobiographical film-as-therapy dissolves the line between cheap image reparation and authentic mea culpa

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

A portrait of Scott Morrison

With the prime minister, what you see is what you get

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt

COVID-19’s long shadow

The virus exposes the increasing difficulty of Australia’s balancing act between China and the US

Image from ‘The Doctor’

The Doctor’s dilemma

Director Robert Icke on rewriting the classic Austrian play to explore contemporary moral conundrums