Tuesday 15 October 2013

Dredging up the dark past: Indonesian writers at Ubud

Michael Vatikiotis is currently blogging from the 10th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.  Here he writes about some of the featured Indonesian authors.

Politics is a prominent and enduring theme of Indonesian art and literature.  Perhaps the easiest explanation for this is that Indonesia is a relatively new country, under 70 years old.  Most Indonesians have living relatives who were born before independence and they, together with subsequent generations, have experienced the highs and the lows of what Indonesia’s doyen of journalism and modern letters, Goenawan Muhammad, defines as a country still under construction. “Indonesia is a process; it is not a finished idea,” he declared at at the Festival.

Goenawan’s rather moving response to the challenge of defining “My Indonesia”, was to propose that his Indonesia is the Indonesia of his parents – a country worth dying for. His father was executed by the Dutch colonial authorities in North Java during the later stages of the armed struggle for independence. 

Throughout this year’s Festival, Indonesian writers have aired concerns about the state of the nation through the prism of literature, in performance, and in conversation.  Much of the questioning is about the buried past.  Leila Chudori launched Home, her novel about exiled Indonesian leftists washed up in Paris in the wake of the violent anti-communist crackdown. Soon to be available in an English translation, Leila’s powerful prose reveals the stark brutality of the period, when people accused of communist sympathies were cleansed “like lice and germs...The army was the disinfectant.  We, the lice and germs had been eradicated from the face of the earth, with no trace left.”

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s poetic epic Amba, newly published in English as The Question of Red, deals with the same era only transposed as a modern version of the story of Amba and Bhisma from the Mahabharata epic.  

Both Home and Amba have already been re-printed several times in the months since they were published, indicating a public thirst for stories about the political past as Indonesia heads into an uncertain political future. 

Another Indonesian author featured at the Festival this year was journalist Solahudin, whose new book, starkly titled, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia, traces the jihadist movement responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002 back as far as Darul Islam movement that made a violent bid to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state from the 1950s until its defeat in 1962.  Solahudin’s detailed research establishes a clear link with the failed revolt and chronicles the Islamic movement’s efforts to revive through the 1970s and 80s, which provided the launch pad for the modern generation of terrorists.

Whilst the momentum of Indonesia’s transition to democracy seems reassuring and offers grounds for optimism, strikingly many Indonesian writers are not taking things for granted.  Rather, they have used their relatively new-found freedom to explore the country’s troubled past, perhaps in the hope that it will help secure a better future.

Michael Vatikiotis