Norman Lewis was eighty-three years old when in 1991 he embarked on a series of three arduous journeys into the most contentious corners of Indonesia: into the extreme western edge of Sumatra, into East Timor and Irian Jaya. He never drops his guard, reporting only on what he can observe, and using his well-honed tools of irony, humour and restraint to assess the power of the ruling Javanese generals who for better or worse took over the 300-year old dominion of the exploitative Dutch colonial regime. An Empire of the East is the magnificent swan-song of Britain's greatest travel writer: unearthing the decimation of the tropical rain forests in Sumatra, the all but forgotten Balinese massacre of the communists in 1965, the shell-shocked destruction of East Timor, the stone-age hunter-gathering culture of the Yali tribe (in western Papua New Guinea) and perhaps most chilling of all, his visit to the Freeport Copper mine in the sky - which is like a foretaste of the film Avatar - but this time the bad guys, complete with a well-oiled publicity department, triumph.
He left us with a brilliant book, that reveals his passion for justice and his delight in every form of human society and still challenges our complacency and indifference.
Norman Lewis' early childhood, as recalled in Jackdaw Cake, was spent partly with his Welsh spiritualist parents in Enfield, North London, and partly with his eccentric aunts in Wales. Forgoing a place at university for lack of funds, he used the income from photography to finance travels to Spain, Italy and the Balkans, before being approached by the Colonial Office to spy for them with his camera in Yemen. It was from his service in the Intelligence Corps during the Second World War that his masterpiece, Naples '44, emerged. Norman Lewis wrote thirteen novels and thirteen works of non-fiction, mostly travel books, but he regarded his life's major achievement to be the reaction to an article written by him entitled Genocide in Brazil, published in the Sunday Times in 1968. This led to a change in the Brazilian law relating to the treatment of Indians, and to the formation of Survival International.