Goenawan Mohamad

‘1965’ has become a kind of code to decipher: what Sundanese call a ‘titimangsa’, a code for a catastrophic occurence—something called ‘historic event’—and because of this, always simplifi ed. The murder of a group of generals. The terrifying revenge against the Indonesian Communist Party. The beginning of traumatic change in the history of Indonesian politics.

                We know that ‘1965’ is much more than that. “History is the stride of a heartless giant,” the words in the novel Amba say, in a letter that has been hidden for years beneath a tree on the island of Buru after the writer, a doctor and political prisoner, was murdered. “History removes ordinary people from the records.”

 The novel Amba portrays people who have been removed from the records of 1965—as does the novel Pulang.

For some reason, these two lengthy novels appeared close to each other in 2012. Amba, by Laksmi Pamuntjak, describes in wonderful prose the life of a young woman who is the daughter of a teacher in the small town of Kadipura, the changing and tense atmosphere in Central and East Java, the violent clashes in Yogya, and finally the life of those exiled on Buru Island. Pulang, by Leila S. Chudori, in lively and captivating narrative tells the story of those who were forced to become exiles in Europe, or who were killed in Jakarta, because they were considered to be ‘Communists’—and also their families, friends and children.

 For some reason, it seems that 2012 was the year of remembering. ‘1965’ is the focus. A special edition of the journal Tempo published interviews with those who took part in murdering Communists or those suspected of being Communists around 1965; this was the fi rst time that such reporting had ever been published in Indonesia.

 Then there was the documentary fi lm The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer about the 1965 executioners who were making a fi lm about their own exploits at execution, a documentary at times funny in parody-like way, at times cocky, disgusting, and horrifying—a film that Zen Rs fittingly decribed as “a grotesque picture of Indonesianness.”

 The grotesque, the moving, the factual—all can be present, for remembering is not to bring up old sepia-toned photographs. Memories are not weak versions of ‘reality’. To remember is a process of contraction and expansion at the same time. Contraction, because within memory data is scattered, layer upon layer, proliferating and being summarized, through a process of selection that is spontaneous or intended. And what we remember vividly, arises from this selection. But remembering is also an expansion: dragging and getting something new—as when we remember an experience that never ceases to move us.


 But memories are not replicas. Memories are not memorization, not like heartbeats that repeat unaided. Memory shapes and is shaped, a process that is carried out in freedom. And this is where imagination is born. Imagination, of course, is not merely recalling something that once was, “Imaginer n’est pas se souvenir,” as Berson says.

This is why Amba, Pulang and The Act of Killing can show that remembering the past is also to produce what is new: a perspective that did not exist previously. Laksmi Pamuntjak dedicates her novel to “those who were imprisoned on Buru Island” who “have given me a new pair of eyes.”

 In Pulang, the main character (to me) is Lintang, a young Parisian girl whose mother is French and father Indonesian. Her father, Dimas Suryo, is a journalist who works for the Nusantara news agency, and who, since 1965, has been unable to return home to Indonesia. Towards the end of the Soeharto regime, Lintang comes to Indonesia to fulfi l academic requirements: to make a documentary fi lm about the victims of 1965. She falls in love with Alam (the son of a friend of her father’s who was executed by the military). Lintang becomes involves in the student reform movement—although more as a historical withness than an active participant.

 The documentary fi lm that Lintang is planning can be seen as an allegory for the transformative nature of memory, a process of giving birth to something else. Documentation of the past changes her life. As a young woman born and educated in Paris, Lintang’s thoughts of ‘going home’ (pulang) actually should not refer to Jakarta. But until the end of the novel, there is no indication whether she has decided to go to Paris. She merely senses how happy her father would be to be buried in the land of his birth, in the cemetery in Karet, Jakarta, that he has dreamed of throughout his exile. To her father, ‘going home’ is to return to the past. But to Lintang, ‘going home’ is to enter new experience.

 Maybe this is why the novel Pulang ends up as a series of stories about the younger generation active in changing Indonesia for the future. Pulang is not a nostalgic novel: the youth who people the latter part of the book want a republic with freedom that their parents never experienced—from the ‘Guided Democracy’of Bung Karno through to Soeharto’s ‘New Order’’.

 Maybe this is why time in the novel is fast—refl ecting the way young people want Indonesia to keep on running, to lose the smarting bitterness that stings the past. The language is clever and  transparent, entirely without ambiguity and obscurity. The young view Indonesia (sometimes written I.N.D.O.N.E.S.I.A.) as a phenomenon that is still undefi ned, or does not need to be trapped in defi nition.


TEMPO  English, Sidelines, Jan 6, 2013