Ahmad Tohari: "If only
our leaders read literary

Ahmad Tohari is very familiar to all literary buffs as a novelist, short story writer and essayist critical of various social and religious issues.

With a big name through his 1982 village dancer trilogy, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, the author expressed his concern over Indonesian national leaders, whom he said were less literature-conscious.

"If only our leaders read a lot of literary works, the nation would not be in the throes of difficulty. Their conscience gets dull for being unaccustomed to literary insight," Ahmad Tohari told The Jakarta Post recently.

The lack of literary awareness among most officials, according to Tohari, has led to widespread corruption. "They become insensitive to the suffering of ordinary people, tending to be arbitrary," said Ahmad Tohari.

By reading literary books, Tohari expressed his belief that one's character would be more refined, with higher empathy as that emanating from the soul of pieces of literature created with subtlety.

Born in Tinggar Jaya village, Banyumas, Central Java, on June 13, 1948, the writer has since childhood been angling as a hobby.

He revealed that most of his stories had come out of the river near his home, including his famed Ronggeng, now already translated into Japanese, Dutch, German, Chinese and English.

Speaking of Indonesia's literature, he said its current developments were encouraging. "It's particularly true of short stories and poetry, qualitatively and quantitatively. But I don't see many new novelists with quality works, which should arouse our concern," he added.

The small number of good novels today, in Tohari's view, is due to the public culture that still lacks interest in reading and also the prevalence of poverty. "How can the people at large get access to very expensive books, while they find it hard to make ends meet?" he queried.

"I can be sure that the number of literary book readers in Indonesia is far less than one percent of the population. Most of our politicians don't like literature so that their policy making are arbitrary," indicated Tohari.

He compared the habit of reading novels among high school graduates in Indonesia with that in other countries. "In the US they read over 35 novels on average, in Japan 25, in Malyasia 18, in Singapore 22 and in Indonesia less than one," said Tohari, who claimed to have read all classical novels since secondary school years.

Literary career

In the beginning, he never thought of working as a novelist. "I used to crave to become a medical doctor, so I joined the school of medicine of the Jakarta Islamic Hospital Foundation," related Tohari, who studied medicine from 1967 to 1969 and later dropped out for economic reasons.

As a literary enthusiast since his teenage, he started writing short stories, poems and essays in the 1970s while working as a part-timer with Bank BNI 46 in Jakarta, though none of his stories were published in the media.

His literary achievement was apparent after five years, when in 1975 he was named the first favorite short story writer in a Dutch Radio Hilversum contest. Since then, his works have been published in many of the Jakarta media.

In 1978 his novel, Di Kaki Bukit Cibalak (On the Foothill of Cibalak), won a novel writing contest organized by the Jakarta Arts Council. It tells the story of a village head election, which is packed with intrigues.

His career further rose with his 1980 novel, Kubah (Dome), followed by his landmark series published in 1981 in Kompas daily, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk.

Internationally recognized, the writer joined the International Writing Program (IWP) in the US for three months at the invitation of IOA University in 1990. In 1995 he received the South East Write Award in Bangkok.

He has since been lecturing on literature and culture both at home and abroad. So far he has written 11 novels. The latest one, Orang-Orang Proyek (Project People, 2003), is about a moral conflict experienced by a young and honest engineer working amid corruption, collusion and nepotism.

Still engaged in writing essays and short stories in the printed media, Ahmad Tohari has also produced the following novels: Kubah (1980), Lintang Kemukus Dini Hari (Early Dawn Comet, 1985), Jantera Bianglala (Rainbow Wheel, 1986), Senyum Karyamin (Karyamin's Smile, 1989), Bekisar Merah (Red Fowl, 1993), Kiai Sadrun Gugat (Kiai Sadrun Condemns, 1995), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (Land and Water Circles, 1995), and Nyanyian Malam (Evening Song, 2000).

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