By : Emeritus Professor Virginia M. Hooker

We are here to celebrate Home : a novel by Leila S. Chudori.

It was  published  in Indonesian in 2012 – with its  English translation by John McGlynn,

published by Lontar in 2015.

First, to congratulate the author – a writer of stature and achievement whose short stories,

and journalism have brought her acclaim, both in Indonesia and abroad.

For a writer of short stories, this work of 460 English pages is very weighty, in every sense.

It combines the short story features of arresting detail and sharp plot, with those of the

carefully structured novel, allowing the reader time to dwell with the characters and to

appreciate the movement across time and space, which many others  have commented on.

So, it is a very great honour and a special pleasure to be invited to launch this book, Leila S.

Chudori’s first novel — and it is wonderful to hear she is already writing another.

Thank you for entrusting that privilege to me, for this Canberra launch.

‘Pulang’ is the Indonesian title of this book and it is first and foremost a story of individual

lives. For readers who are interested in more than the story line, they realise quickly that

through those individual lives, we see also the effects and influences of the past, on the

present. But these are not influences which pre-determine the present if individuals in the

present use their knowledge to make intelligent decisions and choices. And the power of

individual choice is another theme of the book.

In Indonesian pulang means ‘to go back’ in the sense of returning to the point of origin.

It means returning to one’s physical, temporal point of origin — one’s home, or one’s

homeland. (In this context I note that the interiors of the homes of the main characters are

described in some detail as indicators of character and personality).

‘Pulang’  also means to go back to the metaphysical point of origin, that spiritual sphere where any non-physical elements of humans might go after death. So ‘Home’ is a neat translation of the Indonesian title, although it does not quite have the sense of the deliberate act of ‘going back’ that ‘pulang’ does. This is relevant, because ‘going back’ is what the characters do in their minds, in their music, in their choice of literature, in their photographs, in order to bring elements of the past into their present. They make sense of much of the present through knowing more about their


I have read only John McGlynn’s translation and perhaps later the author will tell us how

‘Pulang’ was translated in the other languages in which the book has been published.

Without giving any spoilers, we’ll look at the broad outline of the story because its structure

is very elegant and clever and one of the many strengths of the book as a work of literature.


  • The Structure:

The book begins with a Prologue and ends with an Epilogue, neatly enclosing

the narrative between. Chapter headings throughout the book indicate  time and place and the Prologue opens at night in Jakarta April 1968. Immediately there is wonderful scene setting with sounds and aromas, and the realisation that we are in a darkroom, underneath a photo studio, specifically, the Tjahaja, or Radiant, Photo Studio.

We realise we are experiencing the story through Hananto Prawiro and come to understand

that  he has been on the run for 3 yrs, which has brought hardship and terror to his wife and

three children as they are interrogated about him. When Hananto hears the military asking for

him in the shop above the darkroom  he realises he must give himself up and he is led away.

This is where the Prologue ends.

Just in space of a few pages  we gather all this personal information – but we are offered also so much more. In the ‘Radiant’ Photo Studio, full of light, there is  a dark underground, literally a dark room, where another world exists sheltering a man on the run; we feel a city of ordinary people making their livelihoods on the streets as small vendors, particularly of food;  and a world of

transporters, people who make their living getting others to their destinations in that

metropolis, Jakarta. And we feel the overhanging anxiety, fear and dread of Hananto and his


It is the work of the photo studio which reveals the reason for the oppressive atmosphere.

Over the previous 2 years, the studio has been making its money from providing ID photos.

Mugshots which were required for official certification that the bearer had been checked and

found to be clean of any links with the Indonesian Communist Party which was blamed for

the attempted coup of 30 Sept 1965, GESTAPU.

It is also in the Prologue that the  17-jewel Titoni watch is mentioned. It reappears through

the narrative as the physical link between generations, and  a literal marker of past and

present time. The Prologue is followed by three substantial sections of narrative.

The first set in Paris in 1968 told mainly from the point of view of Dimas Suryo, friend of

Hananto. He lives in exile in Paris with 3 other ex-PKI sympathisers.

The second section is also in Paris but set 30 years later, in 1998, and narrated mainly from

the point of view of Dimas’s half-French daughter, Lintang Utara —  a strikingly beautiful and

intelligent young woman who is studying documentary film-making at the Sorbonne.

The third section in set in Jakarta briefly in 1993, and then totally in 1998 and has multi-

points of view, but each closely linked with Lintang Utara who is now in Jakarta making a

documentary film about her father’s former colleagues. Through Lintang’s research and

interviews we begin to understand  the ongoing suffering and discrimination which New

Order Indonesian policies meted out to suspected ETs and their families.

The third section ends with extremely effective descriptions of the May 1998 Trisakti

shootings and their aftermath and the gang violence which overwhelmed parts of Jakarta. Yet

again, Indonesian citizens are murdered in ways which remind us of the massacres of the

1960s, causing the character Alam to say, ‘There’s something weird about the group

psychology in this country. When people are in a group, as soon as one of them screams

‘Thief!’ or ‘Communist!’ there’s no stopping the rest of the group from attacking the target,

whether the target is an individual or a family and regardless if the accusation is right or

wrong.’ p.433. [ Today we could add ‘Shi’i or Ahmadi to the list].

(and a brief aside here to note that the author’s description of the chaos,  weeping, grief and anger after the shootings at Trisakti University reminded me of post-battle scenes in the

Mahabharata, of wars between good and evil forces, such as on the plain of Kurukshetra,

scenes of disaster, suffering and loss on an epic scale).

The Epilogue is simply beautiful and balances the darkness of the Prologue with a sense of

gentle light and a feeling of completion.

I have to say I shed a few tears, not of sentimentality, but of great sympathy for the characters and appreciation for a story well told. There are other  elements in the novel which I must mention. Beautiful touches like the special significance and pleasure that  flowers, and the scent of spices can bring, and the comfort value of food lovingly prepared for loved ones.

Funny touches – one which appealed to me as an older academic was Lintang’s attitude to her

Sorbonne Professor, the elderly Professor Dupont. Waiting to hear his verdict on her proposal

for her thesis she becomes impatient and thinks: ‘The man was getting old. Professor Dupont

tapped the keyboard of his computer and on the monitor there suddenly appeared a list of

final assignments on her subjects..’ p.137.

He was not, despite appearances, a dinosaur. And it should be added, it is rather ironic that  it  was Prof Dupont, a Frenchman who could be regarded by some Asians as a colonial outsider,

who suggested to Lintang the thesis topic which changed her life. I take this as a nice tribute

from the author to a number of foreign academics whose suggestions have been of lasting

benefit to young Indonesians in their careers.

More seriously, I have selected just a few other elements which Leila has developed in her  book  to mention here.

  • Firstly, The international world of ideas in which the Indonesian exiles, and some

Indonesian intellectuals like Zuly and Leila Chudori, Goenawan Mohammed, Yudi

Latif and others , treat as their second home.

This world is created in the novel  by references to literary works written by French,

English, Irish, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and of course Indonesian authors, works

with which some of the characters are very familiar. One of Lintang’s favourite

pastimes is to buy second hand books from the specialist shops in Paris – she would

be very at home here in the Asia Bookroom.

  •  The second way this international world is created is through music such as the works

of Ravel (which feature throughout the novel) and the popular music of groups such

as Led Zeppelin, John Denver’s ‘Take me home, country road’.

Through international films which Lintang watches with her parents in open-air

showings in Paris. Through travel – the exiles have visited South America, Cuba, China, France, and Indonesian, or part-Indonesian children study at French, English and Dutch

universities. Moving on from the internationalism apparent in the novel to the inclusion of the stories from the Mahabharata in its Javanese wayang version. Many of us are familiar with the inclusion of wayang stories and characters in Indonesian literature, films, art and so on. And we are

aware of the appropriation of wayang characters by the New Order for its own purposes.

The incorporation of Mahabharata characters and stories in these art forms is because they

truly are essential and living elements in the lives of so many Javanese Indonesians. In Leila’s

novel several wayang characters are exemplary figures in the life of Lintang’s father, and he

teaches her about them so that her understanding of those characters reveals to her aspects of

her father’s character.  I don’t know if it is a deliberate irony on Leila’s part, but it is

noteworthy that a Communist sympathiser draws on a feudally-based Hindu epic drama to

explain aspects of Indonesian culture to his daughter. It certainly indicates the complexity of

contemporary Indonesian culture, in which even Muslim children are given the names of

Hindu gods and warriors.

The final element to mention here is the seamless integration into the narrative of all kinds of  forms of media. They add veracity, diversity and realism to the storyline.

So we learn about several of the characters through letters and photos. They communicate

with each other through phone calls, and in the 1990s, through emails (Facebook and sms had

not yet been invented so the author is historically accurate). And Lintang and the NGO which

Alam works for, use film and video to document the past accurately so that the interviews and

scenes (protests, atrocities) can serve as a permanent record of the past to be used, if

necessary as a record for justice in the future.

This gives me the lead- in to a supposition.

I hope scholars and others will write in-depth analyses of this wonderful novel.

One aspect I would suggest they explore, are possible overlaps with the work of Walter

Benjamin. Another tortured exile and a lover of Paris. Specifically I am thinking of

Benjamin’s  work on Baudelaire and also his appreciation of the possibilities of film.

Regarding the latter, he saw the unique advantages of film’s ability to be reproduced in

multiple copies so that it could be shown to mass audiences. Multiple copies also ensured  its

safekeeping (an example of which is in the novel).

Concerning Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin identified about six motifs of which Baudelaire was

fond. Among them are the ‘flaneur’ ( the observant walker, or stroller), a term and concept

Leila is also fond of. Secondly, the ‘shock experience’ or the shock of the crowd, which I

observed in Leila’s novel in the form of the ‘coup de foudre’ as well as the perhaps, the mass

protests and student movements which precipitated profound change in both France and


By any measure, on many levels, ‘Home’ is an exceptional novel.

Beautifully written, skilfully constructed, and most intelligently conceived and executed I

could not recommend it more highly.

Congratulations again to its author and thank you to the Asia Bookroom for hosting this

special Canberra launch.

I hope all here and many others will read it and enjoy it as much as I did – I did not want it to end.

Emeritus Professor Virginia M. Hooker

Dept of Political and Social Change, College of Asia and the Pacific

Australian National University

Canberra, 8 October 2016.