What Is Written on the Tongue by Anne Lazurko

From one war to another, Sam is still sorting through the pain of WWII when he gets sent to Indonesia as a soldier to reestablish the Dutch rule over the colony, after Indonesia has declared independence following the end of the Japanese invasion which originally ousted the Dutch. Sam remains haunted by the German occupation of his home in Limberg, and the actions of his father, brother, sisters and himself – all having dealt with the war in different ways, and had wildly different experiences. What Is Written on the Tongue follows Sam in Indonesia, trying to make sense of the war he’s been plopped into, while he fills his journal with the memories of the war which preceded it.

“Blunt about the futility of the Indonesian war, Lazurko creates a cast of characters who have an array of agendas, loyalties, and lens on war.”

While this is a slow start, Lazurko builds a twisty, morally ambiguous story about traumatized people being sent to go do roughly the same thing that they just got out of: the Dutch soldiers in Sam’s squad are scarred from their experiences in WWII, while they commit very similar atrocities to the Javanese people they’ve come to “protect.” Sam struggles with the lines between “good” and “evil,” his friends in the squad being good guys who have his back, but also committing atrocities which Sam can’t stomach. He also struggles with his past, in which he believes his father collaborated with the Germans, while his brother Leo and eventually Sam himself are sent to forced labour camps for the Germans. Throughout the novel, Sam’s anger grows, as does his lack of conviction in anything the Dutch are doing in Indonesia.

The threads of Sam’s inner conflict between loyalty to his friends and family, and the fact that he repeatedly meets people on the opposite sides of the wars who are people he could like, people who could be friends, weave a very realistic struggle. Blunt about the futility of the Indonesian war, Lazurko creates a cast of characters who have an array of agendas, loyalties, and lens on war. And while a novel about a colonial war with a central white character runs the danger of downplaying the damage of colonialism, Lazurko positions the Dutch attempt to retake Indonesia as problematic from the start, and draws a number of stark parallels between what was done to the Dutch by the Germans, and what the Dutch are doing in Indonesia.

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What Is Written on the Tongue is a compelling historical novel, with a lot packed in. It starts slow, but as the pieces come together – Sam reveals more of what happened to him back in Europe, as well as becoming more acclimated to Indonesia – the novel offers a harsh but factual condemnation of colonialism and the ways we justify it.


Anne Lazurko’s first novel, Dollybird, won the WILLA Award for Historical Fiction. She has short fiction and poetry published in literary magazines and anthologies and is an active teacher, editor, and mentor in the prairie writing community. An award-winning journalist and no-awards farmer, she lives near Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ ECW Press (April 26 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 328 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1770416196
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770416192

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