This week sees the latest staging of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and 2015’s guest of honour is Indonesia, a country which is currently a blank on my literary explorers map. In honour of the event, then, I’ve decided to devote the week to Indonesian fiction, with three reviews of books by Indonesian writers for your pleasure – and here’s my final review for the week 🙂
Leila S. Chudori’s Home (translated by John McGlynn, review copy courtesy of Deep Vellum Press) takes a look at the history of Indonesia between 1965 and 1998 through the eyes of a family caught up in the tumultuous events of the period. Dimas Suryo is a journalist with slight leftist leanings, so it’s lucky that he is out of the country in 1965 when a Communist coup fails, thereby avoiding the inevitable and bloody backlash. Safety comes with some serious strings attached, though – while he is free from the fear of arrest and torture, he can never go home.
Ending up in Paris, he gets married and eventually starts a restaurant, Tanah Air, with three of his fellow expats. Moving forward, the story shifts focus onto Dimas’ daughter, Lintang Utara, a student of journalism at the Sorbonne. Urged by her supervisor to examine her roots, she decides to make her final project a video on the victims of September 1965, a decision which leads her to visit Indonesia for the first time. Little does she know that the time chosen for her visit, May 1998, will be every bit as historical (and dangerous) as the days when her father left…
Where Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound looked at some of the events mentioned above in a localised (and allegorical) way, Home provides the clueless foreigner with an explanation of what life in Indonesia at the time was really like. The novel is bookended by two historical events: the first is Suharto’s use of a failed coup to annihilate his enemies, leading to a mass murder of genocidal proportions; the second is his eventual downfall three decades later. In introducing a family caught up in these events, Chudori is able to introduce the reader (many of whom, even in Indonesia, have little idea of the ‘real’ version of events) to what actually happened.
In a nice parallel, we first meet Dimas in Paris in 1968. It’s here he meets his future wife, Vivienne, and while he adores the headstrong Frenchwoman, he can’t help feeling that what she and her friends are protesting against hardly merits the effort:
“To myself, I thought that when it came to the state of a nation, she had no idea what ‘fucked up’ meant.”
p.8 (Deep Vellum, 2015)
He knows (and Lintang will see thirty years later) that riots in a civilised country can’t be compared to what has gone on in Indonesia. Gradually, through flashbacks and Lintang’s experiences, we learn of the chaos in Jakarta, and the bloody rivers full of bodies elsewhere in the country.
Despite the dangers Indonesia holds, and the attractions of the French capital, Dimas maintains his desire to return home. Never having truly arrived in Paris, he dreams of one day going back, even if only to be buried in his mother country, and the turmeric and cloves in the jars he keeps, the restaurant, the kretek cigarettes he smokes (whose scent makes them his own personal Madeleines…) all serve to remind him that he’s a man in a foreign land. Years later, when Lintang arrives in her father’s home country, she experiences the same feeling, a nostalgia for a place she’s never known, and begins to wonder just how Indonesian she actually is.
Luckily, on arriving in Jakarta, Lintang receives the support of her extended family, benefiting from the close-knit Indonesian family culture. It’s this, perhaps, that Dimas misses most of all during his lengthy exile in France, unable to see his brother and the rest of his family. However, this benefit can quickly turn to a drawback if your blood ties are not what the ruling regime would consider suitable. Lintang is soon to discover that many people back in Jakarta are forced to conceal their identity lest their past come back to haunt their present life (and job prospects…).
These effects of communist activity are not restricted to the immediate family as even distant relatives can be affected by the taint:
“Every day, at least ten to fifteen people came to have passport-sized photographs taken to attach to government-issued letters of certification that they were not a communist, had never participated in any activity sponsored by the Indonesian Communist Party, and had not been involved in the so-called attempt to overthrow the Indonesian government now known as Gestapu, the September 30 Movement.” (Prologue, p.v)
This scene takes place a few years after the events of 1965, but we later see that it still holds true in the nineties,. Many educated people are unable to get decent jobs because of links to those accused of being communists decades earlier.
As well as examining family ties, the writer addresses what she sees as a cover up of Indonesian history, with generations educated to believe the Communists (many of whom were brutally slaughtered after the failed coup of 1965) were somehow responsible for all the country’s failings. The government has clear guidelines on how those who escaped are to be treated by loyal citizens abroad, leaving Lintang amazed by her treatment on a visit to the Paris embassy:
“Just imagine, Maman, for people like me who weren’t even born at the time of the September 30 movement and live far distant from Indonesia, they still require a prescription for what to think.” (p.219)
If this is true in Paris, it’s even more so back in Indonesia. Through a white-washing of history, aided by stunning museums and compulsory school lessons, the regime attempts to make everyone believe its side of the story. Slowly, though, the cracks appear, and history shows that when they do, things can change very quickly.
While Home contains some good writing, with lots of information to impart, it can get a little prosaic at times. It’s never less than fascinating, though, an absorbing tale pulling the reader deeper into the world of Dimas, family and friends. The novel is also well-structured, with the mix of styles and narrators (some first-person, others third-person) helping disguise the fact that it’s essentially a story of two parts. The first half mainly takes place in Paris, setting us up for the trip to Jakarata; by the middle of the book, we believe (as Lintang does) that we’re ready to return to Jakarta. The truth is that we’re not…
Home would be a wonderful introduction to Indonesian literature for readers with an interest in political, historical novels. It is long, but it’s also very accessible, and the background information it contains on the political events which rocked Indonesia in the twentieth century provide valuable background information for better understanding other books (such as Beauty is a Wound) from the country. Chudori’s work marks a fitting end to my Indonesian Literature Week, but that’s not the end of this story. Having found (and received) a few more titles recently, I may well be tempted to revisit the country in the not-too-distant future – do join me then 🙂