Twilight in Jakarta is a vivid and compassionate dissection of the social and political life of Jakarta in the formative years after independence. This important book reveals the dark currents of poverty, corruption and vice which course just beneath the surface of one of the great cities of the Third World, where the lives of intellectuals, poets, essayists, sociologists, swaggering businessman and labor leaders are enmeshed with thugs, pickpockets, petty thieves, loan sharks, coolies and street people who live in grinding abysmal poverty.
The novel, one of the greatest works of modern Indonesian literature, was highly controversial at the time of its release. A thinly veiled attack on the widespread abuse of power and on the reckless policies of the Sukarno government, the book was banned and earned the writer a stint in in jail. The book was originally released in English (1963) and in Malay (1964) before it was published in the author’s native tongue in 1970 under the title Senja de Jakarta.
This ambitious, sweeping, pitiless portrait of a city has scores of characters in a dozen districts following a multitude of lifestyles, occupations, situations and circumstances. Like a 19th century Russian novel, with the narrative constantly dipping in and out of each character’s life, it’s sometimes difficult to keep abreast of when each respective drama left off and where the action is leading.
These gritty stories take place in the early 1960s, a tumultuous time in the country’s history that was to presage the bloody political upheavals of a few short years later. The use of Djakarta, the old spelling of the city, reference to the extinct ringgit monetary system and the use of becak to get to work evoke a city lurching towards recovery from the rocky postwar period.
Very early on we are introduced to the book’s central figure Suryono, a young, Western-educated official working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We find him reminiscing about his recent life in New York City. He is in a relationship with his stepmother who is his same age in her late twenties. Then there is the media moghul looking for political favors and the civil servant Sugeng and his complaintive wife, expecting another child, who gives into the temptation to seek payoffs in his desperation to find a larger house to live in. As we read on, the interconnectedness of each individual is revealed.
An obvious metaphor can be found in the title itself, which imparts a slightly ominous, if nostalgic feel. “Twilight” connotes an ending, an unraveling which alludes to both the culminating events that brought down the Old Order but also to the physical existence of a number of key characters as they meet their sad and unfortunate fates, often violently.
Juxtapositions are stark and show the sharp divisions in society. A cart drawn by an emaciated horse crashes into a new Cadillac parked in front of an expensive restaurant. In a Dostoevskyian heart-wrenching scene, the car’s owner flies into a rage at the sick, hungry penniless driver. Like many vignettes in the book, this event is an analogy for the whole corrupt Sukarno regime. Mochtar Lubis (1922-2004) was a distinguished writer and journalist who was held as a political prisoner by both Sukarno and Suharto for his criticisms of their Old Order and New Order governments in the media. Lubis was the editor of the controversial daily paper Indonesia Raya that was known for its dedication to exposing of government corruption.
Yet with all the writer’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden, it’s clear that he has little patience for the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) who claims to hold the interests of the “little people” (wong cilik) at heart. In the words of one the book’s main characters, the PKI “fights with lies, deceit and empty promises.” Lubis seems disdainful of Achmad, a passionate communist, who is portrayed as manipulative and willing to do anything to achieve the party’s political goals. One of the main characters even gives his life fighting the communists.
Lubis, on the other hand, supports the armed forces that he believes is the only entity that possesses the discipline and brute able to restore order and civility to society. As one character laments, ‘the regions were constantly neglected, the center (Jakarta) sucking out the wealth (resources and labor) of the regions and spending it only on luxuries in the capital.” Some passages serve as an unambiguous apologia for the harsh overthrow and delegitimizing of the Sukarno’s Old Order (Orde Lama).
It’s not easy translating vernacular Indonesian, but the translator – even working with the absence of pronouns (not used in Indonesian) – has successfully retained the author’s fondness for repetition in driving home the poignancy of a scene. Though inevitably much of the colorful, phonetically idiosyncratic flavor of the original dialect spoken by uneducated city dwellers is lost, this astute translation by famed Indonesianist Clair Holt still manages to keep the naturalness of everyday speech fresh and realistic and to create believable scenes in the reader’s mind. The Jakartan idiom is captured by using English contractions “o” (of), “’s,” (is) “how ‘bout” (how about), “nothin’” (nothing), “’round” (round) and such vulgar forms of address as “Lu” (slang for 2nd person singular).
One is reminded in the book’s stringing portraits of the rich and powerful that so little has changed. Just peruse the first three pages of every issue of Indonesian newspapers, filled with stories of corrupt politicians and businessman out to enrich themselves in anyway they can, for confirmation that corruption and nepotism are still as rampant today as in the 60s.
The writer is also uncannily prescient when he describes the political campaigns of the day that use nationalist rhetoric full of “all sorts of irrational, emotional attitudes and ideas, mixed up with myths and hero worship….” and “the emptiness of nationalistic slogans and their lack of creative power.” These are accurate characterizations of speeches by some of Indonesia’s current political candidates who ran for nationwide legislative elections earlier this month. It’s sobering to realize that those words were written over 50 years ago.
Twilight in Jakarta by Mochtar Lubis, translated by Claire Holt, ISBN 978-981-4260-65-7, paperback, 232 pages, dimensions 19.5 cm x 13 cm. Available for Rp150,000 at Ganesha and Periplus bookstores.
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