Since the fall of pres­i­dent Suharto in 1998, In­done­sian writ­ers have been un­cov­er­ing sto­ries that were taboo un­der his New Or­der, writes Chris Keule­mans

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

EV­ERY af­ter­noon, the cit­i­zens of Piedras Blan­cas stud­ied Ben­jamin Laredo ’ s cross­word puzzle. That is, un­til he fell in love and started to in­sert not just the name of the wo­man he adored from a dis­tance but also the in­sects, he­roes and plan­ets of the imag­i­nary world he de­signed around her. The read­ers of the news­pa­per were ex­as­per­ated. Laredo ’ s puz­zles had al­ways re­quired their ut­most, now they had be­come un­solv­able.

This is the story that Bo­li­vian writer Ed­mundo Paz Soldan reads to a packed au­di­to­rium in Jakarta. The Ko­mu­ni­tas Utan Kayu cul­tural cen­tre is hold­ing its fourth lit­er­ary bi­en­nale. I have also been in­vited and am es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in the work of the new In­done­sian writ­ers. But most of what I read and hear makes me feel like a cross­word puz­zler in Piedras Blan­cas. Ev­ery time the so­lu­tion seems within grasp, I come across words and sto­ries that don ’t fit into my frame of ref­er­ence.

Force ma­jeure is the theme of this bi­en­nale. Many of the 27 In­done­sian par­tic­i­pants re­flect on the dis­as­ters and mas­sacres their coun­try has en­dured in re­cent years. And al­most with­out ex­cep­tion they man­age to make the mys­tery of the vi­o­lence that man and na­ture are ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing even deeper than it al­ready is. No won­der, ob­serves poet and bi­en­nale di­rec­tor Si­tok Sren­genge. It is never easy to fathom how the forces of na­ture, hu­man agency and divine in­ter­ven­tion con­vene in such dis­as­ters. True,

‘‘ there have been ad­vances in science and tech­nol­ogy, but there are also sources of knowl­edge that lie hid­den in the mul­ti­ple in­ter­pre­ta­tions de­rived from myths and be­lief sys­tems, ’’ he says.

On the train from Jakarta, the over­crowded cap­i­tal, to Yo­gyakarta I read Nuk­ila Amal ’ s short story

Laluba . Out­side, the rice field ter­races and blue moun­tains drift by. Amal, a se­ri­ous wo­man with a sense of hu­mour that can flare up sud­denly, writes dense and stylish prose. Her story is sit­u­ated on Halma­hera, a Moluc­can is­land where a short, vi­cious out­burst of vi­o­lence be­tween neigh­bours oc­curred in 1999. The pro­tag­o­nist is a re­cent widow who wades preg­nant into the ocean early in the morn­ing, talk­ing softly to her child while be­hind them a mob sets her vil­lage on fire.

So sound­less. Warm. Sun­shine en­ters th­ese ‘‘ depths, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the wa­ter a clear blue. A shad­owed blue, grey­ing. Chang­ing green­ish grey. Green­ing fur­ther. Lit­tle fish come swirling, sur­round­ing, un­sur­prised. Be­hind them float shad­ows, glid­ing. Men. Pale white, blue, pur­ple. They look at us un­blink­ing, un­speak­ing; only their hair, fin­gers and clothes wav­ing . . . Ah, I can see your fa­ther, my child. He is com­ing to­wards us, glid­ing be­tween the men. Look at his hair, flap­ping like a horse ’ s mane, his tat­tered clothes flut­ter­ing like anemones. He is look­ing at you with a lu­mi­nous face and a smile as wide as clouds — at you, curled up, so timidly. ’’

Laluba is a gen­tle tale of fire, killing and a wo­man who of­fers her child an al­ter­na­tive fu­ture by bid­ding farewell to life. Her de­scent into the depths, in search of her de­parted hus­band, is hor­ri­bly peace­ful.

In In­done­sia, the dead are not dead. Not ev­ery­one can see them but they are al­ways around, un­der wa­ter or in the shad­ows.

Dur­ing my stay on Java, sur­rounded by the im­pen­e­tra­ble green and blue of the moun­tain­ous land­scape, it takes me no ef­fort to be­lieve this. The air is co­ag­u­lat­ing, so thick, and not just with ex­haust fumes. So many cen­turies of myths and reli­gions are whirling around that the spir­its of the dead can never be safely stored away into a sin­gle sys­tem of be­lief. In my Yo­gyakarta ho­tel room I am wo­ken up in the mid­dle of the night by a man ’ s voice, chuck­ling, a friendly, calm­ing pres­ence right next to me.

Early the fol­low­ing morn­ing we visit Candi Pram­banan, a park with el­e­gant stone Hindu tem­ples. Leg­end has it that Princess Loro­jong­grang re­fused to marry Prince Ban­dung and set an im­pos­si­ble con­di­tion: he had to build 1000 tem­ples for her in sin­gle night. When he reached the 999th, she lit a fire, so the roost­ers thought it was sun­rise and started to crow. Fu­ri­ous about her de­ceit, the prince turned her to stone, the last and most beau­ti­ful tem­ple in the park.

Last year, an earth­quake shook the foun­da­tions. The tem­ples were left stand­ing, but the dark stones tot­ter and threaten to slip out of bal­ance. Laksmi Pa­munt­jak wan­ders qui­etly through the mu­seum of this holy place. Al­ways im­pec­ca­bly groomed, her English flu­ent, she made a name for her­self be­fore turn­ing 30 with sharp po­lit­i­cal com­men­taries in the news­pa­pers and with the

Jakarta Good Food Guide . Now she is work­ing on a novel in which she trans­fers the tragic story of Amba and Bhisma from the Ma­hab­harata to the Moluc­can is­land Buru. Af­ter the 1965 coup, many po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were de­tained there, of­ten for life, sus­pected of com­mu­nist sym­pa­thies. We can al­ways give new mean­ing to the an­cient epics, ’’ she tells me in the court­yard of the mu­seum.

The char­ac­ters, and es­pe­cially the women, have no psy­chol­ogy, no in­ner per­son­al­ity. ’’ She gives



me the man­u­script of The Blue Widow Book . This is how she re­calls the mas­sacre that forced the king to re­lease his fu­ture bride Amba to the tri­umphant war­rior Bhisma: What fol­lowed was less clear. It was swift, what­ever had hit them, and light, like a ce­les­tial bird, like the edge of a sud­den mantra that forged into the weave of their me­ters and held them hostage. No­body knew where he came from, he was so fine and fair, and it had taken the en­raged suitor, who was promised the eldest daugh­ter, just as long to recog­nise the whole thing as an au­da­cious act of lar­ceny. There fol­lowed bones break­ing, blood cours­ing, un­til the heads of half an army were float­ing where the sun lit up a sad, claret stream. Hu­mil­ity was day­break, as when the de­feated king bid his in­tended bride good­bye and beat a re­treat to his king­dom in the west. Val­our wore many faces.

But there were other things. Be­cause there are al­ways other things. In their sto­ries, this new gen­er­a­tion of In­done­sian writ­ers pile his­tory on his­tory. And to pile is not the right word to de­scribe what they do be­cause the lay­ers of the story blend into each other with no warn­ing: from saga to re­cent his­tory, from en­coun­ters with the dead to ev­ery­day busi­ness, from past to present and back again.

As an out­sider you would need an en­cy­clo­pe­dia of writ­ten and un­writ­ten his­tory and the per­se­ver­ance of a cross­word puzzle junkie to fathom this prose.

Since the fall of pres­i­dent Suharto in 1998, In­done­sian writ­ers have been tak­ing the lib­erty to un­cover sto­ries that were taboo un­der his New Or­der. The 1965 coup, the witch- hunts for com­mu­nists, the labour camps, the stu­dent strikes, the vil­lages that were razed to make place for high- rises. Maybe it is ex­actly be­cause they had been shrouded in si­lence for so long, cloaked in shad­ows, that th­ese sto­ries blend so flu­idly into the whole stock of myth and tra­di­tion from which th­ese writ­ers take their in­spi­ra­tion.

The be­lief in the pu­ri­fy­ing qual­ity of lit­er­a­ture comes from un­ex­pected sides. When we visit an Is­lamic school, full of well- man­nered boys and girls with head­scarfs, the young teacher sud­denly stands up to speak: Reli­gions have

‘‘ caused death and de­struc­tion for ages now. Lit­er­a­ture can help peo­ple to un­der­stand each other. So it is time for lit­er­a­ture to take the place of re­li­gion in this so­ci­ety. ’’

That is quite some re­spon­si­bil­ity. Si­tok, our host with the swag­ger of a ro­man­tic Cuban revo­lu­tion­ary, is glad to take it on his shoul­ders. His tril­ogy in po­etic prose, first pub­lished in weekly episodes in a news­pa­per, is about to ap­pear as a book. Here, he goes back to the birth of the Repub­lik In­done­sia in 1945. Again, it is very early in the morn­ing: Af­ter­wards, my love, af­ter­wards this mys­te­ri­ous spirit will qui­etly depart from your dream, tip­toe­ing on blades of grass and shrubs, slip­ping through each crack in the roof, blend­ing with kitchen ashes, hatch­ing seeds of flame in the belly of the stove, while out­side the singing of in­sects are no more sonorous than the tin­kling of dew on leaves and twigs . . . Be­fore the break of day, it will walk far away to­ward the half- light of dawn, swing­ing to the rhythm of a faint song. How­ever po­et­i­cally writ­ten, this too is a tough story. It is about Ku­til, the leader of a com­mu­nist move­ment that vi­o­lently re­moved the old re­gents of Cen­tral Java af­ter 1945. The gov­ern­ment of the new repub­lic re­garded Ku­til as a threat to their power: he was the first po­lit­i­cal pris­oner to get the death sen­tence. His name still doesn ’ t show up in the his­tory books at school. Si­tok ’s book is about him and about a writer who claims to have been work­ing on Ku­til ’ s bi­og­ra­phy for years. In re­al­ity, this writer — lazy, con­ceited, a big mouth of lit­tle ac­tion — has hardly set a word on pa­per. It ends with his girl­friend walk­ing in with a freshly pub­lished book by Si­tok on Ku­til.

I cre­ated my own com­pe­ti­tion, ’’ Si­tok says ‘‘ with a grin over lunch in a lux­u­ri­ous villa that has been re­built stone by stone af­ter last year ’ s earth­quake. And, nat­u­rally, I won. ’’

‘‘ In the bus, pro­ducer Rama Tha­ha­rani tells me that three spir­its live in her house in Jakarta: one of them, a sweet old lady, sat smil­ing at her in the kitchen one day. That was the only time she saw a spirit, but she can smell them. The evil ones smell foul, the benev­o­lent ones smell of jas­mine.

Tonight we read in the open air, at the foot of the mag­i­cally il­lu­mi­nated Borobudur, the monumental tem­ple com­plex in Cen­tral Java. Af­ter a week of spir­its, cross­word puz­zles and over­whelm­ing hos­pi­tal­ity we stand to catch our breath. The up­per­most stupa of the old tem­ple hov­ers like an as­tral body over a stage pop­u­lated by man- sized straw- fig­ures. I de­cide to gaze on them long enough to see them start mov­ing, but I am dis­tracted by Ayu Utami. The au­thor of the

Sa­man , about the loves ground­break­ing novel and trou­bles of a Catholic priest, jumps on stage

Mono­logue and reads from her novel in progress, of Two Ag­ne­ses . O n her first school­day, lit­tle Agnes is seated next to a highly pe­cu­liar boy:

You know, he says, I was not like this ‘‘ ’’ ‘‘ be­fore. His face was so close that she

’’ for­got what he had looked like be­fore. So close that his round cross- eyes nearly con­verged. He was as thin as a fish seen from the front. His ears were a pair of fins twitch­ing softly. The fish said that he had not been like this be­fore.

Now I m in pur­ga­tory. ‘‘ ’ ’’ As far as lit­tle Agnes knew, pur­ga­tory is a place where souls make amends for their sins that are for­given be­fore they en­ter heaven. For­given sins are small sins. And small sins are . . . sins of­ten done by small kids . . .

Ev­ery day af­ter school, lit­tle Agnes would go home to where she is wel­comed by her mother and a milk bot­tle. But this spe­cial friend would go home to a door that leads to a cave where he would burn his sins. Ev­ery day. Imag­ine. Lit­tle Agnes wanted to ask more about this place called Pur­ga­tory. What does the boy do there? Are his fa­ther, mother and sib­lings there too? Does he keep cats or dogs? Are the pets also roasted so that their sins melt down like chicken fat drib­bling on to the bot­tom of the stove? Utami reads with a bouncy mood, sound­ing as if lit­tle Agnes couldn ’ t have had more fun than sit­ting next to a dead boy in class. And that is just one story in a fes­ti­val where the Box­ing Day tsunami, the wars in Aceh and the Moluc­cas, the cruel ab­sur­dism of the New Or­der and 2006 ’ s earth­quake play their role in po­ems and sto­ries that sound like mu­sic one mo­ment, only to strike re­lent­lessly the next.

About mid­night the dancer of Ki Slamet Gun­dono, the clos­ing wayang act, falls into a trance, her scream pierc­ing the dark. Aus­tralian poet Sam Wa­gan Wat­son suc­cumbs to acute Stend­hal syn­drome: dumb­struck by an over­dose of beauty. He is hardly ca­pa­ble of speak­ing when we lead him to the bus.

Dochera , Ed­mundo Paz Soldan ’s story, is not just about cross­word puz­zles, it is also a love story. Ev­ery day love seems within grasp, ev­ery day she re­mains elu­sive. And al­though the puzzle be­comes more im­pos­si­ble to solve, as Laredo gets lost in the fan­tasy about the wo­man of his dreams, the cit­i­zens of Piedras Blan­cas keep buy­ing the news­pa­per to give it yet an­other try. To me, the new In­done­sia and its lit­er­a­ture have the same ad­dic­tive at­trac­tion. And on the day I re­turn to Am­s­ter­dam, the pa­pers say a new earth­quake has struck, a new tsunami is threat­en­ing the Su­ma­tra coast. Force ma­jeure. First pub­lished in Dutch in the mag­a­zine Vrij Ned­er­land.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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