Indonesian Writing in Translation Edited by John M Echols

Indonesian Writing in Translation is a 2009 reissue of the 1956 Cornell anthology of translated modern Indonesian literature written in Indonesian during the 1950s. That classic, now a rarity, was originally published by two Djakarta publishing houses, Balai Pustaka and Pustaka Rakjat.

Because of the lack of available material, the compilation originated as a series of class exercises performed by some of the editor’s students at Cornell University as a part of his advanced modern Indonesian language course during the years 1952-1955, presenting a brief survey of the literature being published during the time.

Literary historians and critics generally divide Indonesian literature into “generations,” a convenient label for distinguishing groups of writers chronologically: the Generation of ’20, ’30 and ’45. The latter term is the only one that has gained widespread acceptance. The Generation of ’50 is well represented in this book.

At the outset, it’s important to keep in mind the distinction between Indonesian literature and the literature of Indonesia, the latter including the quite extensive writings in Javanese, Madurese, Sundanese, Minangkabau, and other local languages of Indonesia. This anthology includes only selections written originally in Indonesian, which are naturally more poignant in their original Indonesian version.

Modern Indonesian literature is generally acknowledged to begun in 1920 with the appearance of Merari Siregar’s novel Azab dan Sengsara Anak Gadis (The Miseries of a Young Girl). The appearance of Marah Rusli’s Siti Nurbaja in 1922, which depicts real life situations and characters instead of ones drawn from fantasy, is another important landmark in the history of the country’s modern literature.

The introduction is a virtual Who’s Who of prominent internationally oriented Indonesian intellectuals. At the end of the introduction is a short but useful bibliography of works about modern Indonesian literature in English and French. An appendix gives concise literary biographies of Abdul Muis, Armijn Pane, Amir Hamzah, Chairil Anwar, Hamka, Idrus, Sitor Situmorang, Alisjahbana, etc. Award-winning heavyweights such as Mochtar Lubis and Pramoedya Ananta Toer have made it onto the stage of world literature.

The book’s essays, short stories and poems range from simple boy-meets-girl encounters and the gentle tug of war between the generations to the practice of faith in Java’s priyayi class, the problem of forced marriages and the conflict between old and new. A very common theme is that of a Western-educated Indonesian youth’s conflict with tradition-bound family. There are prison tales, nostalgic childhood reminisces, terrifying skirmishes during the revolution.

The stories cover the periods during and after the independence struggle against the Dutch when the colonialists were finally readying themselves to finally leave the country. The trauma and physical remnants of the war are evident everywhere. “Happy Associations” records the impressions and sensations of a prisoner of war in a Dutch camp, developing into a tale of hot pursuit of a young platoon commander punctuated with violence, while “Djamal, City Guerilla” tells of a guerilla who infiltrates Yogya during the police action, but in the end turns out to be an cunning Dutch collaborator.

The innocent chance meeting on a train between a med student and a kindergarten schoolteacher in the short story “Meant for Each Other” is contrasted with the desolate imagery of the love poems of Charil Anwar, an existential poet so original that he came to greatly influence the development of the modern Indonesian language. The setting of “Sails Unfurled” in post-revolution Jakarta, a time of bicycles, horse carriages and phonographs, relates the exchange between children and their parents over what it means to lead a meaningful life.

Abisjahbana’s “Meeting,” a piercing story of a man who seems to absorb the grief of the whole world, would affect anyone who has ever lost a love one. Another powerful poem about grief is “Elegy” which shows how loss can still be deeply felt long after the war is over. Death does not always win. In the mystical “Ari’s Song,” a man cheats the reaper by miraculously recovering from his illness.

Hamka’s penetrating “Under the Protection of the Kabah” recalls the writer’s three month long pilgrimage to Mecca. The same writer’s “My Father,” set during the Japanese occupation, tells of an ulama (Islamic teacher) who is so steadfast in his faith that he refuses to bow to the emperor of Japan, thereby singlehandedly starting a spiritual revolution against the Japanese in Indonesia.

I enjoyed most the non-fiction stories that are obviously autobiographical. The dismayingly funny “Imperialists Fenced In” is about ungrateful war refugees who gradually and insidiously take over the compound of a kind host until a fence has to be built around the newcomers to check their expansion. The writer brilliantly compares the encroachment of his family home to the Dutch duplicity in the Linggarjati Agreement of 1946.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s wistful “Vanished Childhood” tells of the great writer’s early childhood in Blora and his relationships with housemaids, a crippled monkey, his loving father, his devoutly religious mother, masterfully comparing a boy’s rueful and ever-changing childhood with the ebb and flow of the nearby Lusi River.

“Spy Glass” is a wonderfully tactile description of the behavior of passengers on a train steaming towards Parungpandjang, dissecting in such detail the bodily functions, eating habits and smells and noises that it reminded me of the untrammeled exuberance of Beat Generation writers who were, coincidentally, contemporaries of the book’s contributors.

Indonesian Writing in Translation is obviously of value to students of comparative or Southeast Asian literature, but the compilation would also be relevant to the general reader. The settings, the characters, the conversations and the issues in these well-crafted pieces – though written over 65 years ago – could very well take place in contemporary times. Nihil novi sub sole.

Indonesian Writing in Translation edited by John M Echols, Equinox Publishing 2009, ISBN 978-6028397032, 212 pages, dimensions 15 cm X 23 cm (9 x 6 x 0.5 inches). Available for Rp279,000 at Ganesha bookstores: corner of Jl. Raya Ubud & Jl. Jembawan in Ubud; Jl. Petitenget 888 (inside Biku Restaurant) in Seminyak; Jl. Danau Tamblingan 42 in Sanur.

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