Revitalizing the classics

Local masterpiece: Publisher Balai Pustaka recently released Indonesian Cultural Heritage Series, a set of eight classic literary works by Indonesian writers from the 1920s to the 1940s, in a bid to make the works as appreciated as their Western counterparts. (JP/Anissa Febrina)
Local masterpiece: Publisher Balai Pustaka recently released Indonesian Cultural Heritage Series, a set of eight classic literary works by Indonesian writers from the 1920s to the 1940s, in a bid to make the works as appreciated as their Western counterparts. (JP/Anissa Febrina)

Most of us remember them as names in our Indonesian literature textbooks, and their works as part of the reading list we have to choose from to make summaries.

Often, that’s as far as those names and works go — names in our memories and titles of books that
we say we’ve read once, despite them having a literary quality that makes them worth at least a second reading.

And perhaps, when we hear those names and titles — Marah Rusli’s Siti Nurbaya, Abdoel Moeis’ Salah Asuhan or Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s Layar Terkembang — we rarely consider them classic literary works that deserve a space on our book shelves beside Dickens and Austen.

But a set of republished and repackaged Indonesian literary classics that includes those titles might just change our mind.

“We want local masterpieces to be as appreciated as Western literary works, so people can be proud showing the works off in their private libraries,” said Zaim Uchrowi, president director of state-owned publishing company Balai Pustaka.

Balai Pustaka recently launched its Indonesian Cultural Heritage Series, a set of eight classic literary works by writers from the 1920s through the 1940s. Previously, works of this nature were kept for school texts and occasionally as novels, with print runs of less than 1,000.

Last month, the company also republished Budi Darma’s novel Olenka, which was previously out of print.

“Classic works such as these should be read and reread to really get the grasp of their quality, how their stories offer a progressive view for their era,” poet Taufik Ismail said.

“Their image should be changed from textbook material to classic masterpiece.”

Apparently designed for upscale literary buffs — each set is priced at around Rp 2 million — the set offers more than a good read, as the covers feature traditional cloths chosen textile designer Obin Komara to match the context of each story.

Kartini’s Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang bears the old Jepara batik pattern, for example; Marah Rusli’s Siti Nurbaya features the pattern of traditional West Sumatran woven cloth.

“Most of the textiles came from Mien Soedarpo’s collection and my own,” said Obin, who managed to compile all the additional material to “repackage” the books in a mere fortnight. “I also write a bit about what and how the textiles were worn in their era.”

The result is something that people will want to collect and, hopefully, read.

That’s partly an effort to change the books’ previous dull image and partly as a way for Balai Pustaka to revamp its own image as a textbook publisher.

“We used to publish a lot of literary works before being given government a contract to do text books,” company commercial and operational director Ferry Kono explained. “But recently, the contribution of the former to annual revenue stands at only around 3 percent. We want to reverse that.”

At a glance, looking at the finely packaged set, with a print run of 3,000, the hope for the revitalization of Indonesia’s classic literary works floats. However, in contrast to Penguin and its pocket series for classic texts, Balai Pustaka has yet to plan a re-launch in a more affordable package.

“We still suffer losses,” Uchrowi said. “So in a way it’s a start that hopefully can roll into further development of republished literary works. Our next phase is to get the works translated into English.”

The problem of profitability is the reason publishers tend to rarely reissue classic works. Lentera Dipantara — a publishing company that has since 2003 reissued the works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer — for example, only printed between 3,000 and 5,000 copies of the writer’s short stories.

“We try not to reprint when books in the market have not been sold. It’s part of our business ethics,” said company founder Astuti Ananta Toer, the writer’s daughter. Pramoedya’s books were previously published by Hasta Mitra.

The business of classic literary works has never been a robust one. While a teenlit or chicklit novel can sell 4,000 copies in mere months, shifting 1,000 copies of books from the “heavier-to-read” literary genre, such as the work of Sapardi Djoko Damono, can take more than a year.

While for publishers it’s all about either business or ethics, for readers in search of these books it’s about being persistent enough to search for a secondhand version or patient enough to wait until publishers decide to reprint them.

Murina Razan Syikha is one such literature lover.

“I’ve tried in almost every bookstore in Jakarta but could not find Arok Dedes [part of Pramoedya’s less known second tetralogy],” the 32-year-old said. “One day, out of desperation, I almost agreed to buy a second-hand of it for Rp 300,000.”

Lucky for her, before the transaction took place, she heard from a friend that the book had been reissued.

“It took us a while to be able to republish that one because I was working on my own,” said Astuti of Lentera Dipantara, which republished Arok Dedes in April. “We’re also still looking for the missing parts of Mata Pusaran, part of that tetralogy. We only have pages 1 to 150 and pages 200 to 300.”

Writer Muhidin M. Dahlan’s story of his search for Mangir, part of the same tetralogy but published by Kelompok Penerbit Gramedia, is also familiar to many literary buffs who seek books that are out of print.

“I asked in flea shops and small book kiosks. But they all say no to Mangir,” Muhidin wrote on his blog. The book is still a rarity as KPG has not reissued the work.

Indeed, there are dozens of quality Indonesian writers whose works have become rare as publishing companies show no interest in reissuing them despite demand.

Iwan Simatupang’s Merahnya Merah and Ziarah, which both were reissued by Gunung Agung in 2003 have again become rare books, with the small print run mostly sold. Even poetry books by renowned poet Chairil Anwar are not easy to find.

On the bright side, perhaps, the rarity of such works contributes to making them classics.

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