Menagerie 3 by Lontar Foundation

Menagerie 3 by Lontar Foundation

As is the case with every volume in Lontar’s enduring and lively Menagerie series, this potpourri of literary pieces has a great deal of variety. About half the book comprises the masterful short stories of Idrus written against the backdrop of tumultuous historic events, but the collection also includes a provocative black and white photo essay and accompany text from East Timor under brutal Indonesian rule, an anguish-filled 8-page prose poem, fictional accounts taken from life about the courageous actions of individual women, an essay on the conflict between liberal Islamic thought versus the forces of a more orthodox interpretation of Islam and an essay on restrictions placed on academic freedom.

Idrus (1921-1979), one of the best Indonesian writers of the modern era, ironically produced most of his best work in Malaysia during self-imposed exile. He rose to prominence during the Indonesian revolution and has remained a respected literary figure ever since. I love this writer’s directness, at opposite pole to the reserved Javanese obliqueness of expression with its many checks on passion and displeasure. What a find!

Idrus mapped out new ways to use the Indonesian language. He doesn’t mess around, but deals with simple human themes, employing a frankness that was uncommon in his day. There are no florid speeches or niceties as he relates events as they happen succinctly and at a refreshing fast pace. The introduction by Martyn Cove of Idrus’s life, which spans the colonial, Japanese occupation and revolutionary periods, is outstanding, one of the best “short stories” in the book.

Isrus’s realistic depictions of a very difficult time in Indonesia’s modern history are more visceral and tactile than a history book would ever be able to impart. As becomes apparent from reading – “Ave Maria,” “Evil Takes Revenge,” “Sketches from the Underground,” “Surabaya,” etc. – Idrus was a gifted storyteller who wrote about ordinary people who were distinguished by some odd characteristic, circumstance or misfortune.

“Surabaya,” the book’s most vivid story, recreates the tension, excitement and fear in the streets of the newly liberated city before Allied forces landed which triggered the Battle of Surabaya in October 1945, leaving thousands dead from bombing and tank fire. The empty streets, stray barking dogs, clouds of black smoke, explosions and rifle shots ringing out, predatory rapists and black marketeers and streams of desperate refugees are powerfully evoked. The writer stands back a distance from his characters, depicting no individual or group in heroic terms. While castigating the Allies, Idrus also criticizes the cowardice, selfishness, perfidy and greed of his own people, yet somehow the story is passionately nationalistic.

“A New Parliament has Opened in my House” is a clever piece describing the corruption of the new Indonesian parliamentary system of the 1950s. A mock parliamentarian session is held in the narrator’s own home, in which his four children evaluate and pass judgment their father’s performance. One can’t help but feel this is an allegory of the new country’s chaotic DPR where members acted with the ill-advised impetuousness of children. The riveting “Oh, Oh, Oh” is a tight, sparely written story of a train’s journey through West Java. Cruel and fateful events occur along the way – a cripple falling from the train, a policeman confiscating peoples’ contraband, the movement of the train like a remorseless and implacable force of evil, sadness and resignation.

Idrus was eyewitness to the terrible effects of the occupation, and resented the Japanese bitterly. “The Shorts” is a melancholy tale of a boy, his new pair of shorts and the prospect of a life of misery and hopelessness in the face of war. “From Kota to Harmoni” relates a fetid smelly train packed with passengers traveling from Kota Station to Harmoni and Pasar Baru in Batavia, revealing the strict class structure and iron military rule of the occupation.

A story with the sarcastic title “The New Java” is a harrowing account of the atmosphere found in wartime Java in a time of critical food shortages amid forced deliveries of rice to Japan, starving women selling their bodies, stick-figured street urchins, naked beggars wandering the streets and radio broadcasts night and day blaring propaganda.

Idrus lean and masculine writing style bereft of any flowery verbiage is strikingly evident in “Heiho,” a bitter tale (with a surprise ending) of a young husband joining the Japanese contingent for native Indonesians called Heiho, who were actually nothing more than houseboys and slave laborers. In “His Balance Recovered,” an Indonesian betrays his country while working as an NICA intelligence spy for the Netherlands East Indies Civil Administration until pangs of conscience lead him to turn himself in to the Republican police.

The essay “Lessons on Scholarship” by Melanie Budianta, a damming condemnation of Indonesia’s tertiary education system, relates how academic censorship is imposed upon a lecturer not by the government, senior lecturers or the school’s Dean, but by one of her students. It’s a warning on how religious fanaticism is able to severely handicap academic freedom.

Another provocative essay by Stanley Y. Adiprasetyo confronts the wholesale banning of books in Indonesia whose government holds some kind of record by banning 2000 books in the 30 years prior to 1996. Starting with the crackdown on the PKI in 1965 with the total banning of communist literature, the government went on to ban books on sex education, science, history and fiction. Even the autobiographical memoir of one of the country’s greatest national independence heroes, Aceh’s warrior queen Oei Tjoe Tat, was banned!

The nostalgic “Paris, April 29” by Bondan Winarno tells of a lonely Time magazine reporter who is living in Paris during the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Walking the streets, he briefly joins his fellow journalists at a celebratory party, but inwardly he achingly longs for the sweetheart he left behind in Saigon. “Abus” also by Winarno, relates a boy’s belated act of penitence for a prank he perpetuated years earlier on a devout but cranky old man.

“The Longan Tree” is a moving story of a woman’s eviction from her tranquil home to make way for an airport and huge tourist resort. The matriarch’s six children had already left the nest and made new lives for themselves in far away places all over Indonesia and Australia. In this house, where her husband died and generations of her family had lived, she raised six children, hid guns for guerillas during the revolution and where she cultivated a prized longan tree, a metaphorical symbol of endurance which is about to come to an end.

This volume stands out in the Menagerie series for its emphasis on freedom of expression, the empowerment of women and portrayals of flawed, cynical, irresponsible yet sympathetic characters. The 33 surreal, nihilistic and farcical works are conveyed with great force in a variety of themes – erudite and thoughtful essays, experimental metaphysical prose poems and dramatic photos – all counterbalancing each other and lending artistic spice. Idrus’s wrenching short stories have a contemporary feel even though some were written over 50 years ago. The hope and courage, as well as the venality and religious conflict in the new republic – all critical issues of the time – recur in the present day.

Menagerie 3, Lontar Foundation 2006, ISBN 978-979-808-3235, paperback, 260 pages. Available for Rp200,000 at Ganesha bookstores (

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