From The JAKARTA GLOBE, Oct 31, 2013:

Ceritalah: Longing for Home

By Karim Raslan

Leila Chudori has written an epic. At over 456 pages (including footnotes), “Pulang” is an ambitious slab of fiction crammed with a rich and diverse cast of characters whose lives have been swept along by Indonesia’s dramatic and at times extremely tragic contemporary history.

However, this is not a dry, text-book account of the post-Independence era. While the rise, fall and bloody dismantling of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) is the engine driving the storytelling, Chudori — an experienced Tempo editor and film-reviewer — wisely chooses to focus her attention on a peripheral figure, Dimas Suryo — a flaneur, a happy-go-lucky journalist swept along by events.

Dimas is “Everyman”: he is a sensualist who loves his women but lacks the fortitude and gritty determination to hold onto them. Trapped abroad (in Paris) by a twist of fate just as the PKI is being hunted down, Dimas is forced to become a cook at an Indonesian restaurant called Tanah Air, channelling his creative energies and his desperate longing to return home into his food.

Chudori is a prodigious and impressive storyteller, switching the narrative between various characters across decades and continents. For example, we get to know Dimas as a father, a son, a husband, a loyal friend and feckless lover.

But the heart of the story lies in Jakarta in the 1950s and ’60s with Dimas as a neophyte journalist surrounded by writers and activists at a fictional newspaper, Berita Nusantara. It’s a heady and highly-politicized time as the tensions between the PKI and their adversaries (most notably the military) roil the city in the twilight of President Sukarno’s rule.

His best friend, fellow journalist Hananto Prawiro is a committed PKI supporter. Hananto is also an inveterate womanizer, locked into a rocky marriage with Dimas’ first and enduring “amour,” Surti Anandari. It’s a painful love triangle made all the more so by Hananto’s victimization and eventual execution as well as Dimas’ three-decade-long exile.

However, Chudori escapes the trap of turning her characters into moral ciphers — the good PKI supporter victim, the bad New Order man. Indeed, the multiple narrative viewpoints, something she pulls off effortlessly in a series of authorial pirouettes worthy of Orhan Pamuk, render her characters more real and complex.

“Pulang” is also a wonderful exercise in humanism. It is first and foremost a story about love, passion as well as a sensual — almost primordial — attachment to the land. The characters, most notably, Dimas Suryo and his half-French daughter Lintang Utara, drive the narrative as they search for love, peace and reconciliation.

Chudori balances the grand and bloody national narrative with an intimate and deeply-felt evocation of how the drama and violence of those years and indeed of the subsequent Reformasi period was played out family by family, individual by individual. On a certain level, “Pulang” is also an extended love letter to Indonesia, an evocation of a mood, a state of mind and a place. Chudori develops the idea of “Negeri,” a homeland that is distinct from “Negara,” which to her is merely a government or set of institutions.

For Dimas (and indeed Chudori), the New Order’s Indonesia is a “Negara,” a place of betrayal and death. Instead he sustains himself on his memories of the “Negeri” he once knew through food, the wayang and his desperate love for Surti.

“Pulang” is a novel I’ve been waiting to read — a book of grandeur and intimacy, love and brutality, a book that envelops you into the cultural, historical and geographical vortex that is Indonesia, without for once ever losing its eagle-eyed focus on the human soul. This is an important work, sophisticated, wise and poignant from a novelist at the height of her powers. And for those who don’t read Bahasa Indonesia, don’t worry: an English language edition is on its way.

Karim Raslan is a columnist who divides his time between Indonesia and Malaysia.