Indonesia’s lost history


Leila S. Chudori
Translated by John McGlynn
495pp. Lontar. Paperback, £12.95.
978 602 9144 36 9
US: Deep Vellum. $16.95. 978 1 941920 10 7

Published: 3 February 2016

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A poster commemorating the victims of the 1965 massacre in Indonesia Photograph: Nobodycorp/Internationale Unlimited


Early in Leila Chudori’s Home, a seemingly minor exchange takes place between Dimas Suryo, an Indonesian activist and political exile in Paris, and Vivienne Deveraux, a young Frenchwoman. We are in the months following the student protests of May 1968, and Vivienne is raging against the “fucked up” state of her country. “To myself”, Dimas reflects:

“I thought that when it came to the state of a nation, she had no idea what ‘fucked up’ meant. Indonesia was rarely covered in the press, not even in leading news media such as Le Monde and Le Figaro. What the typical French person might know is that Indonesia is a country located somewhere in Southeast Asia not too far from Vietnam . . . . Vivienne and her equally agitated friends . . . wouldn’t have heard the names of Indonesia’s political activists who long predated theirs – such as Sukarno, Hatta, Sjahrir and Tan Malaka.”

In terms of dramatic encounters, it is merely a passing moment: a flash of annoyance that soon gives way to a dreamy yet unsettled romance between the two, which in turn becomes absorbed into a sprawling, tangled plot spanning over thirty years and nearly 500 pages. But Dimas’s early barb against what he sees as the easy, low-stakes revolution taking place in France betrays all the novel’s political intentions, as well as its anxieties and insecurities: Indonesia’s struggle against invisibility – to the Western world and to its younger generation; the fight against Western self-satisfaction; the collective failure of Indonesian memory and history. In so doing, it also provides an insight into the prevailing concerns of the current generation of Indonesian writers.

For over half a century, Indonesian literature has lived under twin shadows: that of the great writer and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006 aged eighty-one; and of the bloody events of 1965, which marked the end of the reign of Sukarno – the nation’s Communist-leaning first President – and the start of Suharto’s thirty-one-year New Order regime, during which all official discussion of the events was suppressed. The decades-long silence surrounding 1965 – during which up to a million suspected communist sympathizers were subjected to brutal torture and summary executions – was always tested by writers and journalists, even during the most repressive moments of the Suharto censorship campaign, but its general absence from school textbooks and official discourse has created an enduring problem for the writers currently at the forefront of Indonesian literature: how to reclaim the stories of a missing, epoch-defining era and reconstruct a new understanding of their country.

For authors such as Chudori who are now reconstructing this lost history there is a further complication: that of Pramoedya’s immense legacy. Jailed firstly by the Dutch colonial administration for his pro-Independence writings, and then by the Suharto regime for his unwavering leftist, pro-Sukarno stance, Pramoedya represents both an inspiration and a unique challenge to all Indonesian writers who follow in his footsteps. His monumental body of works – including the famous “Buru” quartet, written while he was imprisoned on the notorious island that gave the novels their nickname – seemed to mirror the size and scope of the largest and most populous country in the region: a vast archipelago boasting a culture, history and size surpassed only by China and India on the Asian continent but a past whose titanic – and relatively recent – political struggles have remained curiously invisible to the world’s gaze. It seems fitting, therefore, that Pramoedya appears in Chudori’s novel as an all-too-real character, first as the translator of foreign writers such as Maxim Gorky, and in later passages as a potential subject of a documentary interview. It is as if Chudori, like most of her generation, hasn’t quite worked out a way to escape the great man’s shadow.

The melding of fiction and politics – especially when tackling the problem of 1965 – is at the heart of much of the best work appearing in Indonesia today, and in 2013 Home won Chudori the Khatulistiwa Prize (Indonesia’s foremost literary award), the same year that another major writer, Laksmi Pamuntjak, was shortlisted for The Question of Red, a novel that similarly focuses on the trauma of 1965 and its aftermath. Also on the shortlist that year was Okky Madasari, a previous winner whose works deal with discrimination and hardship under the Suharto regime. Madasari has been called Pramoedya’s successor – a label that belies an impatience for the worldwide acclaim that Indonesian writers feel their rich literary heritage deserves. Eka Kurniawan, widely read for his brand of magic realist pulp fiction (see overleaf), is another writer who has had to bear this cross – prematurely and unfairly.

What all these writers have inherited from Pramoedya is an intense interest in the unheard and under-represented. Perhaps the clearest example of a writer consciously seizing political ground in the portrayal of ordinary lives is Ayu Utami, whose phenomenal novel Saman (2003) related, in unflinchingly frank fashion, four women’s views of female sexuality, explosively mixed with a dose of religion. Utami’s venture into taboo territory was distinctly reminiscent of Pramoedya, as was her judging of the mood of her times (the novel remains one of the bestselling titles in Indonesian publishing history); but in appealing to an entirely new, younger readership, Utami arguably went one step further.

For over half a century, Indonesian literature has lived under twin shadows

Like Pramoedya, Chudori wants to educate, and her audience is made up not just of the Western liberals scoffed at by Dimas but by the younger generation of Indonesians who have grown up in a country becoming materially rich but lacking in self-knowledge; some of her finest passages involve a clash between the politically aware and upwardly mobile. As with Utami, Chudori’s chief mode is tragedy, though this is a less angry novel than Saman, wider in its scope and immense research. Much of the novel revolves around Dimas, who is forced to flee Jakarta for Paris, where the novel opens in 1968. He has a daughter with Vivienne, Lintang Utara, who grows up with only the faintest awareness of her father’s past, and little connection with Indonesia beyond the restaurant that her parents own and run – a haven for Indonesian political exiles based on the Restaurant Indonesia that still exists today on the edge of the Jardin du Luxembourg. The years roll on, but each time Dimas applies for a visa to return to Indonesia he is refused.

The novel’s pathos lies principally in Dimas’s position – physically in one country, emotionally in another: his illogical rage and unpredictable temperament are tied to unresolved longings and tangled relationships in Indonesia. As with most of his peers, the secrets of his past seem destined to perish with the passing of each generation, but the search for his history is revived by Lintang, whose final-year project at the Sorbonne is a documentary on the events of 1965 and her father’s involvement in them – a quest that mirrors Chudori’s own search for meaning in the novel. As Lintang’s understanding of her father’s past deepens, she begins to develop a greater sense of her own divided cultural identity, and of how she has suppressed her awareness of her parents’ pain. “For the longest time”, she ruminates, “I had forgotten about that foreign substance in myself.” And so she travels to Jakarta, where she experiences for herself the confusion and complexity of Indonesia. It is 1998 by now, the end of Suharto’s New Order, and the threat of violence hangs over the city.

Lintang’s journey is constantly burdened by the weight of information, the sheer scale of the history she has to absorb. This restless anxiety is something we might feel, too, confronted as we are by lengthy expository passages on themes ranging from the Mahabharata to the proto-feminist figure Kartini, poets such as Chairil Anwar and Subagio Sastrowardoyo, Indonesian regional food, and so on. Chudori is at her best when the action settles into patient set pieces. Two excruciating dinners – one involving a grumpy Dimas, Lintang and her bourgeois boyfriend; the other in a rich Jakarta household – show a writer with a fine appreciation of social collisions and domestic dramas that mirror wider political concerns. But elsewhere, the decision to use constant shifts in time, different narrators and points of view, dilutes these moments of reflection and distracts us from the characters’ complex trauma.

Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire.