In a broad square not far from the center of Jakarta, a large obelisk of concrete soars into the sky. But for the Javanese-style eaves at ground level, it looks not a little like our very own Washington Monument–and bears something of the same status. This is Indonesia’s Monumen Nasional–“Monas” in the local parlance. Schoolchildren clamber up its steps, busloads of Japanese tourists disembark to take photographs and pay a small sum–accident insurance costs a little extra–to ride up its elevator (if it happens to be operating). Built by Sukarno, the nation’s founding president, it is known among foreigners and locals of a certain cynicism as his last erection.

It is unfashionable to say so, but there is something powerfully evocative about this block of stone. The scale of it summons back a little of that larger-than-life quality Sukarno possessed in such abundance. It projects a kind of assertive oneness that suggests as clearly as anything you will find in Indonesia the vision of unity that obsessed the great “Bung,” the brother of all Indonesians, during the frenetic years of his presidency, which came to a sudden end after a bloody, CIA-supported coup in 1965. Linger under the eaves at Monas and gaze out at the capital’s incessant cacophony, and you feel enveloped by the mind of its maker.

Sukarno understood his moment well. How could he not, having given his life to the cause of independence from Dutch colonial rule since he was a Javanese villager in his 20s? The task before him was not merely holding in place the imagined community suddenly known as Indonesia: It was assembling and stitching together 17,506 islands to make a nation where there hadn’t ever been one–across the separating seas and in the minds of people who had no notion of nationhood. It is hardly a wonder that he inscribed the importance of national oneness in Stalin-scale stone–stone planted in Java, from which oneness would perforce have to emanate, center to periphery.

It would be easy enough to look at Indonesia today and conclude that Bung K’arno was a complete failure. Aceh, the long-troubled province in northern Sumatra, is once again the scene of confrontation between government soldiers and separatists. Papua, the former Irian Jaya, could easily go the same route, as could any number of other provinces. Beyond this, Indonesia now seems beset with a small but radical and increasingly violent Islamist movement, which some suspect of ties to Al Qaeda and to two recent bombings of Western targets. Indonesia is nothing if not porous–and its population a potpourri of persuasions. But to attribute all this to Sukarno’s shortcomings would be wrong–upside-down thinking. Better to read all the contending forces in Indonesia today as testimony to Sukarno’s village-level understanding of the nation over which he presided: Yes, unity is the goal; no, it is not to be achieved easily, and not by obliterating difference in a nation that speaks more than 350 languages.

Sukarno gave Indonesians a sense of themselves they never had before. This was more than mere identity: The Bung showed people a way of standing in the world without, in the classic pose of Javanese humility, stooping awkwardly and cupping their hands over their groins. Indonesians remember this because pride–individual and national–is precisely what the Suharto dictatorship took away in the name of “developmentalism.” Having started out as a nation with a grandiose vision of its place in the world, Indonesia under Suharto sank into a swamp of venality, protofascistic control and hypercorruption from which everyone, as an Indonesian friend once told me, emerged with mud between his toes. We soared like eagles at the beginning, a prominent Jakarta journalist once wrote, and then we scratched the earth like chickens.

These are the people both Theodore Friend and Jean Gelman Taylor are out to capture between hard covers. They both find a nation fraught with all the old problems–underdeveloped institutions, tensions between Jakarta and the provinces, the still-to-be-resolved question of what it means, precisely, to be Indonesian. But for a brief epilogue in Friend’s book, they both end in the odd interregnum after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and before the arrival, two years ago, of Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, in the presidential palace. Both Friend and Taylor make much of history to explain the present–a laudable approach, though not without its pitfalls, and neither author altogether avoids a few of them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both Indonesian Destinies and Indonesia: Peoples and Histories end on a note of uncertainty. “What makes a livable society?” asks Friend. And from Taylor: “Are there Asian values to be pitted against Western values, or are there universal human values?” Indonesia is like that: It will always leave you with as many questions as answers.

Theodore Friend, a historian and a former academic administrator, did a lot of legwork and a lot of study putting together Indonesian Destinies. This is a richly detailed history of modern, independent Indonesia–the first to appear since Suharto’s dictatorship collapsed and all the old questions came rushing to the fore again. Sensitive to the defining nature of presidential reigns, Friend has divided his book into three: a section on Sukarno, one on Suharto and one on the succession that followed the latter’s downfall. Not unlike a good Javanese centrist, Friend neglects the provinces. But there is much to admire in his account. He has a feel for the place, and there are passages in which the combined odors of rotting fruit, kerosene and open sewers–eau de Jakarta, let’s call it–seem to come right off the page. He also gives the present all the historical echo one could expect. “Layers of cultural sedimentation,” as he describes them, are fully explored. Indonesia, he writes at the outset, “must be understood from the inside out, not from the outside in.”

Yet Indonesian Destinies is in many ways an odd beast. It is intended to be part history, part meditation and part memoir, and to the extent that these parts contend in the book, it is also part failure. Given that Friend is American, one supposes he sized up his potential audience and concluded, as all too many writers do these days, that his book had better have a personal element if it was going to find its way out of any bookshops. Friend’s excursions into memoir don’t work, and they mar his accomplishment. One does not want to finish a passage of historical or political analysis and then read about Friend’s travel arrangements, bouts of dysentery, the ailments of his wife or–somewhat indiscreet, this–a passed-up chance with a wealthy Indonesian courtesan. Friend’s description of a motorcycle ride with Benedict Anderson, the noted Indonesia expert and author of Imagined Communities, seems like an exercise in reflected glory.

More substantively, there is Friend’s disappointing treatment of both Sukarno and Suharto. With the cold war behind us, Friend had an opportunity to begin revising our understanding of these men, but, along with the fetching courtesan, he has passed this up, too. Friend’s thinking is too Western to do the job–and too much informed by cold war perspectives. So Sukarno remains the troublemaker and Suharto the provider of progress.

Sukarno had many faults. By his own admission he had no grasp of economics. Konfrontasi, his failed attempt in 1963 to oppose the incorporation of Britain’s remaining colonies into what is now Malaysia, was an overweening error. “Go to hell with your foreign aid!”–Sukarno’s recommendation to Washington in 1964, his “Year of Living Dangerously”–has already earned a place among the memorable suggestions of the era. But his mistrust of the West, while perfectly justified, was tactically overplayed.

Nevertheless, Sukarno is in desperate need of a revisionist–a historian who, indeed, portrays his presidency from the inside out. His incessant emphasis on politics must be placed against the immense complexity of the forces he had to balance: the army, the Communist Party, a restless Islamic movement and yet more restless separatists. We will not understand his oversized vision unless we recognize the magnitude of the vacuum he was charged with filling–the extent to which he was called upon to make something out of nothing. As to his animosity toward the West, was he not right in warning against American “advisers” in Vietnam during the mid-1960s? In his “go to hell” speech, he termed America a nation that was once but was no longer “the center of an idea.” One need not be anti-anything to recognize the prescience of the observation. Sukarno knew in his bones what many other national leaders never grasp: that in shaping a national ethos there is simply no substitute for listening to a society from the very bottom upward.

Friend comes up short on all this because he fails to appreciate the gifts of both identity and dignity Sukarno gave his nation and the extent to which he could never have hoped for more than a modest, messy kind of success. Sukarno was a dissipated romantic, Friend tells us, “aiming for the stars with a slingshot.” Suharto, by contrast, gets pretty good press in Indonesian Destinies. “Suharto’s success as president was not instant or without vulnerabilities,” Friend notes as he takes up Sukarno’s successor. Success? By what measure this? To be fair, Friend spends many pages detailing the malevolence of the worst of Southeast Asia’s cold war dictators–corruption on a scale that debilitated the entire nation, the destruction of civil society and civil rights, the coerced forgetting of the slaughter that followed the 1965 coup, which put Suharto in power–in all, the evaporation of public space and public consciousness in favor of a corporatist ideology imposed across the board. But his presidency is nonetheless considered the lesser of two evils. We’re even treated to an appreciation of Suharto’s smile–“a measured, almost sweet acknowledgment of the beneficence of the gods.” There are many Indonesians who would see it differently.

In effect, Friend buys into Suharto’s depoliticization of Indonesia in the name of development–the cold war social contract through which populations across the entire region were forced to exchange democratic process for material progress. Friend is also too ready to explain such things as plain old corruption by way of history, tradition and culture–as when he considers Suharto’s kleptomania. “In this,” Friend writes, “Suharto as president would resemble the Javanese rulers of precolonial times.” Maybe he did, but we can’t accept custom as an explanation here without entering into an egregious kind of condescension. This is a very elementary mistake, and one is surprised Friend makes it. Culture and tradition are always useful to one’s understanding of things. But they can never be applied as substitutes for political or personal motivation–not even when opportunists such as Suharto exploit them.

Friend’s cold war perspective is most evident when he takes up the coup that toppled Sukarno and left more than a half-million Indonesians dead. We are still stuck with theories as to exactly what happened during the night of September 30, 1965, and who did what to whom and why. Friend lays out all the possibilities, but he then goes very soft on the degree to which Americans offered at least tacit approval to Sukarno’s enemies. Washington’s stance toward the loudmouthed, nonaligned Sukarno was, after all, something other than hands-off by 1965. The coup followed the CIA’s expensive attempt to influence the presidential elections in 1955 and a reckless effort two years later to destabilize Sukarno by supporting provincial rebels. The fact is that funds and information from the US Embassy flowed to anti-Communists (and anti-Sukarnoists) shortly after the September 30 events–and as the mass-murdering was well under way. To defend the amounts of money and the number of names as “puny and post facto in the larger scheme of things,” as Friend does, is sloppy logic–and finally inexcusable.

Jean Gelman Taylor has neither the space nor the inclination to enter into such topics at any length, for Indonesia: Peoples and Histories is both more and less ambitious. Taylor, a lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales, is far more detached than Friend–further from the ground. At the same time, she has staked out a lot of ground to cover and does so, by and large, creditably. Where Friend stays pretty close to the Javanese center throughout his book, Taylor’s portrait of Indonesia takes in the whole, gigantic sprawl of it. She also starts at the beginning, with the earliest migrations southward from the Eurasian land mass. “This book is a social history more than a political one,” Taylor writes as she sets out. “It narrates the journeys of peoples of the archipelago into today’s republic.” This is perfectly put. And it is as much as to acknowledge what is far more than a sociological thesis. At the core of Taylor’s book is the argument that diverse, layered histories of numerous varieties have combined to make Indonesia what it should remain: an integrated (more or less) nation–the many that make the one.

Taylor’s handling of history is very different from Friend’s. They both see in modern Indonesia the outline of the old Majapahit empire, the courtly, cultured, Java-centric state that lasted until the fifteenth century. But for Friend (once again) this is deterministic, while for Taylor it is useful in understanding present-day patterns without somehow fixing them. To Friend, Suharto’s reign was “the new Majapahit empire,” while for Taylor, Sukarno and Suharto shared “Majapahit visions.” The distinction is crucial: The one attempts to account for a political strategy and does not, while the other explains a historical consciousness and succeeds.

Taylor’s supple way with history warrants one more example. Here she is writing about Aceh, the Islamic sultanate formed in the early sixteenth century (and now a province at war with Jakarta’s army over both the place of Islamic law and the right of the Acehnese to their own natural resources):

Through Islam, Aceh knitted itself into Indonesian histories of the western archipelago…. [But] Aceh was never a taxpaying vassal to Java’s kings, for Majapahit’s navies had not sailed so far north. The people and storytellers of Aceh did not look to Java for symbols, royal ancestors or models of court culture. Javanese never became the language of the palace or a symbol of high status.

And so on. One can admire this kind of historical writing for the care taken to explain the present without depriving its living, breathing inheritors of their agency and autonomy.

Like Friend, Taylor also recognizes that the enormity of the Indonesian story must somehow be told without depriving the reader of close-in perspectives. Friend, as noted, has his first-person encounters, which are too arbitrary most of the time to be especially rewarding. Taylor’s approach is different–and imaginative. She intersperses her text with almost a hundred “capsules”–boxes, as newspaper people would call them–on specific subjects. These range from rice to poetry to the evolving meaning of the word merdeka:

Merdeka, a powerfully emotive word in modern Indonesian, means free, independent. Sukarno used it in the 1920s as a call to action to create the nation; his daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, used it in her 1999 presidential campaign to preserve the nation occupying the space of the old colonial state. In the early months of Indonesia’s war for national independence, “merdeka” became a common greeting.

Some of Taylor’s capsules go on for a page or more, and she offers them on a read-them-if-you-want-to basis. Among my favorites has to do with the meaning of a kiss in public. It is complex, depending upon the time and place: It means one thing in the context of a marriage ceremony, another when a pious Muslim extends his hand. Because of this latter meaning, Indonesians were shocked when Suharto’s vice president, B.J. Habibie, kissed the grim dictator’s hand on national television in early 1998. Suharto was already in disgrace and months away from his fall. To imply holiness in him was a horrific miscalculation for the man who would soon seek to succeed so unholy a creature.

Sometimes, it seems, a kiss is not just a kiss. But what Westerner or non-Indonesian would have understood this at the time? It is a perfect illustration of the way Taylor allows us to do something we too seldom do: to see by way of history–clearly and delicately–meanings as large as monuments right before our eyes.