Novel ‘Pulang’ Asks Tough Questions of Indonesia

The Jakarta Globe

By : Lisa Siregar

Poet and writer Sitok Srengenge pondered in silence as the spotlight slowly lit the stage at the auditorium of the Goethe-Institut, Jakarta, on Wednesday. His arms were crossed and his face was bearing the signs of a troubled mind. Then, slowly but surely, Sitok began to recite an excerpt from memory.

“The army is the disinfectant, and we were only bugs and dust that need to be swept off from the earth,” he said, reciting a sentence from “Pulang,” a new novel by journalist and film critic Leila Chudori.

“Pulang” is a story about love, hatred and betrayal that sheds light on two of Indonesia’s darkest periods in history — the 1965 and 1998 revolutions. In this story, “dust and bugs” refers to accused supporters of Indonesia’s Communist Party. Other than Sitok, the dramatic reading of the novel to celebrate the book launch at Goethe-Institut also featured actors Slamet Rahardjo, Ine Febriyanti, Reza Rahadian, Raline Shah and film director Joko Anwar.

“Pulang” follows the story of Dimas Suryo who was exiled during the September 30th Movement in 1965. He attends a press conference in Santiago, Chile, and later finds himself stranded in France after the Indonesian government denies his Indonesian citizenship. He is accused of being involved in the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) that is responsible for the death of nine army generals. With his three friends, Nugroho, Tjai and Risjaf, Dimas tries to resume his life in Paris by establishing a restaurant.

Even though he had a girlfriend back in Indonesia, Dimas knew it was time to move on with his life. He soon meets a French girl named Vivienne Deveraux during the 1968 revolution in Paris. The couple gets married and they have a daughter, Lintang Utara, who bears an Indonesian name that reflects the father’s longing to come home.

Novels from different perspectives have documented the 1965 tragedy, Leila said, but that hers is different because she wants to highlight the human side of the story. She also wants to reveal how the event affected the younger generation.

The third part of the book describes the life of Lintang, who is able to enter Indonesia for research purposes decades later, only to face the chaotic 1998 demonstrations that eventually led to the downfall of former President Suharto.

Leila is still active as a journalist for Tempo magazine, while also being a mom to her only daughter, Rain Chudori-Soerjoatmodjo. Despite her role as a mother, Leila said she will always be a writer. She began writing short stories at the age of 12. “Pulang” is Leila’s third novel after “9 dari Nadira” and “Malam Terakhir.”

Leila first visited Paris in 1989, but wrote “Pulang” between 2006 and 2012.

“There are holes in our history that need to be questioned, and I asked my questions through my stories,” she said.

The idea for the novel came during many random moments, but Leila had her first encounter with the Indonesian restaurant run by exiled prisoners in Paris when she first visited France. At that time, Leila had just finished her studies at Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific of the United World Colleges in Victoria, Canada. She met with journalist Umar Said, who established the Parisian restaurant with fellow exiles in order to survive.

Historian Asvi Warman, who was also one of Leila’s sources for the novel, said that running a restaurant in Paris was the only way the Indonesian exiles could survive in a foreign city without being dependent on the French government.

“When you write something, you need to feel that you are represented, and that is how I felt when I talked with Pak Umar, because he is a journalist,” she said.

While Leila took real life situations as inspiration for her novel, she created her own plot. All characters in “Pulang” are fictional, but Leila used journalistic methods for her research.

The challenge in writing “Pulang” was in the accuracy and the re-creation of historical events in her mind. Leila, born in 1962, was too young to remember how the September movement affected Indonesian history. She talked to historians and Indonesian-exiled prisoners in Paris. Based on her research, she said that around 1,500 people were dislocated after the exile and could not reunite with their families.

“I didn’t experience what they are going through, but I do understand them,” she said.

Dimas is a character who represents many exiles, who were not communists, but were friends with them. Through Dimas, Leila captures people who were victims of the untold history.

“Being exiled means he couldn’t be there when his mother died, and he couldn’t marry his girlfriend. I learned about these feelings,” Leila said.

Leila wanted to include the May 1968 revolution in Paris and May 1998 riot in Jakarta in her novel to highlight how different the political systems in the two countries tackled protesters. Although the French government is known for favoring the left movement, protesters were not threatened.

The May 1998 riot in Jakarta is also an important time-stamp in the story, because it ended the New Order era.

“That’s 32 years of our history being compromised,” she said.

As a failed system, communism has become something that can be discussed openly in Indonesia, but some questions still remain unanswered. This is affecting the second generation, symbolized by Lintang, who can’t recognize her own land of origin.

Historian Asvi says the book is an extraordinary effort to cover three historical events, noting that historical novels usually only focus on a single event.

“What is interesting about this novel is that it tells a story of Indonesians with foreign citizenship, and obviously they are given benefits as a citizen, but they still long to come home,” Asvi said.

Leila’s research revealed that this is common. Most of her sources said they wanted to be buried in their homeland after they died.