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