Drought by Iwan Simatupang

For more than 100 years, the Indonesian government’s solution to overpopulation was the magic cure-all transmigrasi, first instituted by the Dutch in 1905.

Transmigration involves relocating people from densely populated “inner islands” such as Java, Bali and Lombok to more sparsely populated Outer Islands like Kalimantan, Nusatenggara, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Papua. Under the massive program, millions of people were brought in to settle the country’s hinterlands. At its peak between 1979 and 1984, 535,000 families were relocated, an influx that had a major impact on the demographics of some regions.

Set in the 1960s, Drought is the story of an ex-student, ex-soldier and ex-bandit who transmigrates to restart life as a farmer. In 1972, whenDrought was published, transmigration programs were well underway in southern Sumatra, the setting for the novel, where a vast patchwork of settlements and many racial groups occupied the region. Living conditions were supposed to have been better than on the transmigrant’s home islands, but many of the communities failed because of underfunding, cultural and social conflicts, an ill-prepared resettlement infrastructure, a lack of marketing opportunities for produce and an inadequate supply of tools and equipment coupled with poor   farming skills. It was rather like transplanting a malignant cancer from the breast onto the leg.

Drought is one of the most searing and visceral portraits of a drought that I have ever read. A dry hot feverish  atmosphere sets the mood from the very first page and permeates the whole narrative thereafter. Everything that could happened in a drought happens. The story opens on a bleak scene at the end of the world, a cracked and pitiless never-ending landscape of desolation. Supplies of food and kerosene have long since run out under the unbearable sun. Empty kettles and pots are strewn about a dry spring surrounded by a group of thirsty farmers confronting a helpless officer from the Department of Transmigration.

Characters are given impersonal titles: Fatman, Glasses, The Old Man, The Beard, etc., which creates emotional distance. The main character is simply known as Our Hero, a former university student who never sat for his final exams but became a transmigrant. Because unskilled vagabonds, confused scholars and amateur philosophers were discouraged from joining, he had to apply as a “spontaneous transmigrant.” He took a crash course on farming and was sent to a hostel where he became a section leader before shipping out to a distant bare wasteland. The men dig wells, rid the scrub and long grass of roots and sumps and install pipes to channel water to nearby fields. They were lucky to get three years of harvests before the land became infertile.

Although the novel has a lyrical quality and is rife with one line aphorisms, there’s no real plot. Or rather, a beginning but not a middle or end. The oppressive and soul sapping drought is the only constant throughout. The Hero’s stream of consciousness fantasizing is bewilderingly all over the place.

Volumes of text is taken up with farcical rhetorical rifts and metaphysical musings. The writer seems compelled to catalog his knowledge, perhaps in order to demonstrate an erudition that he wished he possessed. But merely listing Western pop icons, historical events and schools of  philosophy does not constitute deep intellect. There are rants about LSD, Stokey Carmichael, the bullfighter El Cordobes, the Beatles, the causes of the Cold War as well as homilies to literature, society, education, religion, revolution, criminality, philosophy, bureaucracy, adultery and sexuality.

Many of the social and political dimensions of transmigration are described. The drought causes delirium, erratic behavior and breeds strange people. The whole cast of tough, weird and unpredictable characters bring into question the normalcy of conventional society – bureaucrats, psychiatrists, inspired madmen, religious teachers, a beautiful woman known simply as V.I.P., a bandit who committed robbery, rape and murder and an electrical engineer who had impregnated one of his pupils.

Our Hero himself is in and out of psychiatric wards. The publishing house’s blurb states that the book reflects the author’s joy of life, but I found the story glum, cynical and full of suffering. Instead of “joy,” I would use words like intense, passionate and anguished to describe the writer’s voice. The backdrop is a nonstop Waiting-for-Godot landscape of dry wells, hungry dogs, broken pots, deserted houses, bare yards, empty roads, loneliness, starvation and death.

The dramatic scenes, though well-written, aren’t developed enough to have any impact. What are we to make of sentences like “Aristocracy of the soul is the topmost peak of the pyramid of constant struggle”? I personally feel that the story would have been more compelling had there been less cerebral ruminations and more real life accounts of what it was actually like      for transmigrants to undergo the hardships and tragedies of a severe drought during the 1960s. Some of the writer’s    experiences in Sumatra and during the revolution undoubtedly found their way into his book.

Simatupang was born in 1928 in Sibolga, North Sumatra. He took part in the 1945 to 1949 revolution against the Dutch and was captured in March 1949. Though it is not evident in his biotata, the vivid imagery indicates  that he must have experienced the blistering, merciless environment of a drought and the destitution of daily existence in a transmigration village.

Writers like Iwan Simatupang would be unknown in the West had not the Lontar Foundation resurrected obscure Indonesian writers in their translation program. Drought is the English translation of Simatupang’s novel Kering published by P.T. Gunung Agung in 1972, but the writer’s most famous works were published posthumously: The Pilgrim in 2011 (also translated by Harry Aveling) and Square Moon and Three Other Short Plays (1997).

Drought doesn’t paint a pretty picture of transmigrant life – even if there isn’t a drought. The book’s tough and unpredictable characters are first-hand witnesses of cruel and perilous time. Finally, at the very end the rain which everyone had desperately needed for so long starts to fall torrentially, bringing more rain than anyone could ever have imagined and with it the anti-climax to this surreal and nihilistic tale.

Drought by Iwan Simatupang, translated by Harry Aveling, Lontar Foundation 2013, ISBN-978-979-808-3860, paperback, 176 pages.


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