On Literature

    Writing and Reading to Overcome the Traumas

    The invitation to the Frankfurt Book Fair is a big opportunity for Indonesia. However, its forthcoming appearance as guest of honour also presents the country, with its many languages and the world’s biggest Muslim population, with considerable difficulties.

    Anyone speaking to Indonesian writers, publishers and officials about Indonesia’s status as guest of honour at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair will encounter an interesting paradox. The publishers, and certainly the writers, associate Frankfurt with the hope that Indonesian literature will finally be given the recognition it deserves. Yet the people more or less directly involved with organising Indonesia’s presence at the Book Fair are doing everything in their power to dampen expectations. When questioned about this discrepancy, Goenawan Mohamad laughs. He’s the chair of Indonesia’s national Book Fair committee, an extremely influential Indonesian author, and co-founder of Tempo magazine, which was banned under Suharto. ‘Yes, perhaps we should warn the writers,’ he says. With around seventy Indonesian authors expected to travel to Frankfurt, it’s easy to work out just how much attention each individual is likely to get.

    Hopes and expectations

    There is, of course, a more serious reason why expectations shouldn’t be raised too high. The translation programme – a key element of every country’s presence at the Book Fair that funds the translation of books from the guest country into English and German – only kicked off in Indonesia when the funds were released last autumn. By way of comparison, Brazil’s translation programme ran for three years, which is about average for guest countries at the Book Fair. Finland even invested six years. If all goes well, by this autumn some two hundred Indonesian books from Indonesia should be available in English and/or German. The figure includes travel books, cookbooks and coffee-table books. As far as the translation of literary works from Indonesian into German is concerned, the official figure varies between twenty and thirty titles. Most importantly, not only the quantity of translations but also their quality could suffer from the time pressure they are now under.

    Nonetheless, there are good reasons to look forward to Indonesia’s guest appearance. The country’s literature is among the most multi-layered in existence. From a cultural-political point of view, too, Indonesia’s presence couldn’t be better timed. This is, after all, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. It also boasts a very long tradition and praxis of tolerance among its various religions, and a moderate interpretation of Islam, influenced early on by Sufism, that emphasises the individual’s relationship with God rather than the need to follow universal rules. However, it is true that, in Indonesia too, conservative and bigoted tendencies are on the increase. Moderate Muslim thinkers, who represent the mainstream of Indonesian Islamic exegesis, will be present at Frankfurt not just in their works but also in person, participating in events and discussions.

    What does it mean to be Indonesian?

    Since the very beginnings of modern Indonesian literature, in the 1920s, one of its great themes has been the establishment of the nation and the question of what it means to be Indonesian. This was even more apparent after independence – declared in 1945, but only recognised by the old colonial power, the Netherlands, in 1949 – and is essentially still the case today. The reason for this is not just Indonesia’s history as a former colony, but also the island archipelago’s huge geographical, cultural and linguistic diversity. Indonesia consists of more than seventeen thousand islands, whose inhabitants use several hundred different languages. The old language of Malay, the lingua franca of the trading regions, only became the national language – Bahasa Indonesia – when the country gained independence. Even today, it is not most Indonesians’ mother tongue, but an early second language: they start learning it in primary school, where classes in all subjects are taught in Bahasa Indonesia. And, of course, the same is true of authors – if they want their work to be understood beyond a local readership, they write in the national language.

    In recent years there has been a growing trend, in both politics and literature, for people to return to multifaceted regional identities within the context of a common Indonesian identity. The Balinese author Oka Rusmini, who was awarded Indonesia’s prestigious Khatulistiwa Prize just last November and whose novel Tarian Bumi [Dance of the Earth] has been translated into German, is known for being particularly critical of her culture of origin. Furthermore, since the ousting of the military dictator Suharto in 1998 Indonesian writers have increasingly focused on the dark side of Indonesian history.

    This includes, above all, the mass murder of progressive activists and both alleged and actual Communists during the military takeover in 1965-’66, when the socialist-leaning government of Sukarno – hero of Indonesian independence and founder of the republic – was toppled, eventually bringing Suharto to power. The documentary film The Act of Killing by the American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer recently brought these mass murders to international public awareness. Indonesia’s literary engagement with this horrific period, when hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, may be represented here by two books by women authors, due out in German this autumn. Laksmi Pamuntjak’s Amba retells the story of Amba and Bhishma from the Indian epic the Mahabharata, setting it against the backdrop of the bloody events of 1965-’66. The Mahabharata and the second great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, are both still very well-known and influential in Indonesia, which was a Hindu and Buddhist country before the arrival of Islam.

    Leila Chudori’s Pulang [to be published in English, as Homecoming, in October 2015 ] tells the story of a journalist who gets stuck in Paris after a trip to Chile in 1965: the new Indonesian government has stripped him of his citizenship, accusing him of being an Indonesian Communist Party sympathiser. Later in the novel, Chudori has the protagonist’s Franco-Indonesian daughter travel to her father’s homeland, where she gets caught up in the unrest of May 1998 – the second historically significant date Indonesian authors have recently started to address in their writing. This period, towards the end of the Suharto dictatorship, saw rioting directed at members of the Indo-Chinese minority, during which more than a thousand people died, Indo-Chinese businesses were looted and set on fire, and many Indo-Chinese women were raped.

    Indonesian literature is not all politics and social commitment. But given these events in its national history – some of which could not be spoken about openly for decades, or took place less than twenty years ago – and given the country’s social divide, which still runs very deep, as well as the poverty and technological-infrastructural deficits, especially in remoter regions of this island republic, it’s easy to see why a purely aesthetic concept of literature is remote to almost all Indonesian authors. Andrea Hirata’s novel The Rainbow Troops chronicles the journey of desperately impoverished schoolchildren in a village on the island of Belitung to successful adulthood (the sequel, The Dreamer, was published in German in March 2015), and was one of the most internationally-successful novels by an Indonesian writer in recent years. However, the young protagonists in his books are also, in a sense, burdened by the developmental history of their nation.

    Pramoedya Ananta Toer was probably the most significant Indonesian writer of the twentieth century. Up until his death in 2006 he was repeatedly spoken of as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, but never received it. In fact, the prize has, to date, always overlooked Indonesia – and indeed the whole of South-East Asia. In an essay entitled ‘The Unrewarded’, which provoked a great deal of discussion on the Indonesian literary scene, the American political scientist and Indonesia expert Benedict Anderson ascribed this in no small measure to the poor quality of many translations. We can but hope for a small translation miracle, so that Indonesia will be able to make proper use of its great opportunity as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. There is much to be learned from this country, and from its literature.
    This text was first published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 27 January 2015.

    Marco Stahlhut holds a PhD in philosophy and literature. His Masters degree in Comparative Literature at the University of East Anglia was supervised by the eminent German author W.G. Sebald. Stahlhut’s book Schauspieler ihrer selbst [Acting themselves] was published in 2005. He has worked as a reporter on cultural issues for the ARTE television channel, and is currently a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) lecturer at the Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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