What Is Written on the Tongue

Written by Anne Lazurko
Review by Meg Wiviott

After being released from a Nazi work farm, Sam returns home only to be quickly drafted and sent to Java as part of the Netherlands’ military force to regain control of the colony. Believing he is there to recover what belongs to his country, Sam finds himself caught in the middle of the Indonesians’ fight for independence. Guerilla warfare soon becomes less than heroic. Even before he falls in love with Sari, Sam begins to question his loyalties and purpose, and wonders what makes him any different from the Nazis.

The story opens in 1947 with 20-year-old Sam stationed in Java, an island in the Dutch East Indies though he “has seen little of the country they’re supposed to be fighting to reclaim.” Lazurko’s writing creates a graphic picture not only of the beauty of the country but also the physical toll the heat, humidity, insects—not to mention the warfare—take on the Dutch soldiers. The history is well presented for those readers (myself included) who know little, if anything, about Indonesia’s fight for independence.

Interspersed between the chapters set in Java are Sam’s experiences, written in first person in notebooks he kept hidden during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, from 1943 to 1945. These flashbacks give context to Sam’s conflicting emotions and reflections. The tragedies of one war repeat a few years later. He sees, firsthand, the terror his squad imposes on the Javanese. He knows the atrocities he commits because he is ordered to do so.

Though set in a specific time period about two specific wars, this story is timeless. It addresses questions still asked today: Who are freedom fighters, who terrorists? Who are occupiers and who peacekeepers?