I just spent two weeks in Bali, and during that time I read ‘Anna Karenina’. Now I know that as a parent of a small child, Bali would seem to be more a ‘Toy Story’ than Tolstoy style destination, but it turned out to be an illuminating combo, because Bali is where ordinary Australians go to live like Russian Aristocracy.
The parallels are terrifying. The lives of late nineteenth century Tsarist nobility and early twenty-first century Australian ‘knobility’ are both characterised by eating and drinking to excess, empty conversation, ill-advised sexual encounters, and the endless search for novel forms of entertainment – while the children spend all their time with foreign nannies (unless their separation anxiety is peaking – thanks for nothing Tilly!)
I actually think a ‘Westside Story’ type retelling of ‘Anna Karenina’ (Anna Karen?) is crying out to be written. Gorgeous Mother of one has affair with a sexy surfer called Alex and ends up throwing herself under a Vespa, sustaining a few nasty grazes that make the ‘Pacific Blue’ flight home a little uncomfortable.
What was most provocative about reading ‘Anna Karenina’ in a location like Bali though was the realisation that in both contexts the opulence of the lifestyle is only possible because of the tireless, underpaid labour of an army of the working poor. Yet despite this, for the most part this army is almost invisible for the (k)nobility, unless ‘incompetence’, ‘laziness’, ‘dishonesty’ (or an inability to understand English mumbled at high speed) frustrate our desire to have exactly what we want, exactly when and exactly how we want it.
One of the most cringe-worthy moments of my trip was overhearing an Aussie retiree ordering his breakfast, and saying in an incredibly broad accent ‘Same as Joan.’ When the poor waiter was not able to make the multiple phonological, lexical and semantic leaps required to make sense of this utterance, his Lordship just repeated the same formulation in a more and more exasperated tone until his wife interrupted to explain that he wanted the same things that she had ordered, a coffee, a papaya juice, and scrambled eggs. This was then followed by a conversation, in front of the waiter, about what terrible English the staff at the hotel all spoke.
Even for the more ‘enlightened’ of the knobility though, the Balinese (just like the servants and peasantry in Tolstoy) are so often either idealised or pitied, but nevertheless remain at the edges of the frame; only visible when their lives intersect with ours (and only audible when they speak English)…
…Don’t worry though, Tolstoy didn’t just cast a pall of guilt and melancholy over my entire holiday, there was a silver lining. Reading ‘Anna Karenina’ did make me glad that the hotels we were staying at were in the tropics and staffed by warm and friendly Balinese rather than in the frozen Steppes, and staffed by sullen, pasty Russian peasants. It’s so much easier to ignore inequality when the sun is shining and everyone is smiling.