Unlocking Indonesia Through An Exploration of Its Literature

Media Clippings


This article mentions Oka Rusmini Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Written by C.W. Watson
Originally published in Jakarta Globe.
Mar 10, 2013


Reading novels is an excellent way of getting to know something about a country when one is newly arrived, doesn’t know much about it, and is going to be spending some time there. Certainly this was my experience coming to Indonesia for the first time some decades ago.

Only at that time I was hampered by the fact that there were few novels — only ones by Mochtar Lubis as far as I’m aware — that had been translated into English or any other foreign language which I could read.

I had to learn Indonesian first before I could start reading the literature and it took me a year of hard work before I could comfortably read fiction.

But the hard work paid off, and I plunged into all the novels and short stories that I could lay my hands on (not always easy to obtain at that time) and found myself entering a new world, one which bore an ambivalent relationship to the one that I had learned about over a year of personal experience, bemused observation and animated conversation with friends and mentors about recent history and the place of religion and culture in Indonesian society.

One of the reasons for the ambivalence was that in fact there had been very few novels published between 1962 and 1972, so there was nothing describing contemporary events. What I was reading then, constituted the reflections, mediated through the fiction of writers from the period before 1962, a historical period of about 50 years, since it was only around 1910 that novels and fiction began to circulate widely in densely populated areas in the archipelago.

These pre-1962 novels and short stories described a national experience of a time of considerable political turmoil and extraordinarily rapid social and economic change.

The memory of what had occurred had become part of the life of the Indonesians I knew, something that they never bothered to explain because it was so familiar to them, so taken for granted. Thanks to the reading of the novels, however, I now had access to this shared world, and I could at last understand the existential orientations of my friends, the nature of their beliefs, the values they held dear, their personal aspirations.

It would take too long to recount here the variety and range of the books I read and the different insights which I gained from them: regional novels, especially those from West Sumatra, short stories and novels of the revolutionary period between 1945-50, psychological novels, coming of age stories, romances.

From each of the readings I took something new that helped me to understand the complexity of Indonesia and refine the crude conceptions drawn either from my limited experience or from the reading of the usual academic works of history and the social sciences.

I now can alert readers to some of those same novels, which are available in translation, so that expatriates who also share that early desire of mine to learn more about how Indonesian writers saw their own country and society.

Expatriate readers already predisposed to literature will certainly have come across the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, whose tetralogy, the so-called Buru quartet of four historical novels set in the early 20th century, as the Penguin edition have long been available in the bookshops.

But I would advise readers to try to obtain Pramoedya’s early works, the short stories and novellas set in his native Blora in Central Java, which describe the turbulent times of his boyhood in the 1930s.

Some of his later work including the collection “Tales from Jakarta” set in the 1950s has been republished by Equinox in Jakarta and is easily obtainable. There is also a translation in French of his instructive novel “Korupsi” set in the same period, which allows one to set present-day phenomena of corruption in a historical perspective.

A few French translations of other representative short stories and translations are also available from the Institut Francais Indonesia offices in major Indonesian cities, including “Voyage de Noces,” a hypnotic autobiographical novel by the most senior living Indonesian writer, Ajip Rosidi.

Perhaps the best place to start, however, is the accomplished set of translations that are currently being brought out by the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta under the directorship of John McGlynn, who deserves more credit than he has been given so far for his work over the years in promoting Indonesian culture to an international audience.

These beautifully produced editions with wonderful pictorial covers have at last made available in English the great Indonesian classic novels of the 1920s: “Sitti Nurbaya” and “Salah Asuhan,” set in West Sumatra, novels which for generations of Indonesian readers, at least before 1975, defined the terms in which the debates about Westernization and alleged conflicts between adat (indigenous culture and custom) and modern education were posed.

Other novels in the series include the realistic work “The Fall and the Heart” of the female writer S. Rukiah, a tragic figure caught up in the aftermath of the events following the coup of 1965. Also translated is the novel “And the War Is Over” set in eastern Sumatra at the end of the Pacific War, which although only first published in 1979 offers an interesting Indonesian perspective on the period of the Japanese occupation.

Of more contemporary novels, Oka Rusmini’s “Earth Dance” is a riveting story of a Balinese woman, and Ahmad Tohari’s graphic “The Dancer,” recently made into a passable Indonesian film, offers a glimpse of the world of popular Javanese village culture.

And the most recent translation on offer is of prolific writer Kwee Tek Hoay’s 1927 novel, “The Rose of Cikembang,” which takes us into a different world altogether, that of the Peranakan Chinese.

I just mentioned a few works here, but there is much more available, though they are sometimes difficult to locate. Readers, however, who have a passion for novels will find the effort of chasing up the books worthwhile — and I am sure that John McGlynn will be more than ready to help with his comprehensive lists of translated works.

Indonesian readers unacquainted with these novels should also seek out the originals. Sadly, not enough young Indonesian readers know these emblematic works of their country’s past, and since they also have little opportunity to study their own history, they are losing touch with their origins. Reading novels is one way they can remedy the situation.

Read the full article here.
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