Young­sters take on a tin gi­ant

The Rain­bow Troops

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Fitz­patrick

By An­drea Hi­rata Trans­lated by Angie Kilbane Vin­tage Aus­tralia, 304pp, $32.95

IN­DONE­SIAN writer An­drea Hi­rata’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal first novel, Laskar Pe­langi, about a group of dirt-poor schoolkids and their fight against the cor­po­rate rav­ages of tin min­ing in­ter­ests on their tiny is­land of Beli­tung, took his coun­try by storm when it was pub­lished in 2005.

Since then there has been a hit film adap­ta­tion made by star pro­ducer Mira Les­mana, a TV se­ries, a mu­si­cal (also writ­ten by Les­mana), three se­quel nov­els, ad­di­tional tourist flights put on by the national car­rier Garuda to the pic­turesque is­land in re­sponse to the tale’s pop­u­lar­ity, and a free school set up by Hi­rata for chil­dren whose fam­i­lies can’t af­ford to give them an ed­u­ca­tion.

Now comes an English trans­la­tion of In­done­sia’s big­gest-sell­ing novel: five mil­lion copies of­fi­cially, and prob­a­bly many mil­lions more sold with no prof­its for the roy­alty hold­ers thanks to the coun­try’s lack of ad­e­quate copy­right law en­force­ment.

Called The Rain­bow Troops and trans­lated by Amer­i­can Angie Kilbane in con­sul­ta­tion with Hi­rata, it’s a largely faith­ful ren­der­ing of the orig­i­nal. Some of Hi­rata’s more de­tailed pas­sages have been dis­tilled into sim­pler lan­guage but other, more in­tractable hur­dles of trans­la­tion pro­vide in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges.

For in­stance, re­fer­ring to the state-owned tin com­pany whose ac­tiv­i­ties dom­i­nate the lives of the novel’s chil­dren and their fam­i­lies as sim­ply PN Timah (lit­er­ally, state-owned tin com­pany) could not pos­si­bly have had quite the same res­o­nance in English as it does in the In­done­sian lan­guage, where the long his­tory of in­ter­sec­tions be­tween state and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests on the one hand, and vil­lagers with lit­tle in­flu­ence over their fu­ture on the other, car­ries ac­tual lin­guis­tic weight.

The colo­nial ex­pe­ri­ence of the Dutch East Indies is bound up in­tri­cately in the ex­trac­tion of valu­able nat­u­ral re­sources us­ing lo­cal — usu­ally ex­ploited — labour. With the Indies’ post-war tran­si­tion to an in­de­pen­dent In­done­sia came the na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of many of th­ese

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