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Jakarta Post

I, Indonesia

  • Adisti Sukma Sawitri

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, December 24, 2014   /  05:01 pm
I, Indonesia

In a stellar year for the country'€™s politics, the literary scene illuminated modern Indonesian voices that rebelled against ideological convictions and social constructs.

This year, two presidential candidates raced in a fierce competition that magnified ideological differences in Indonesia, a country economically blossoming and in the midst of a transformation into a modern society.

The race proved that elections were no longer mere democratic rituals for voters, but represented an ideological crossroads that the country had to face as a consequence of living in a democracy and an era of open information.      

In prominent fiction work this year, the ideological drive to depart from conservatism remained evident, but more in the form of allegories than narrations of struggle like the work of previous years.

Eka Kurniawan'€™s Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Love and Revenge) is an observation of masculinity that may come as an answer to a literary movement of woman writers who liberate themselves by discussing sexuality in their novels.  

With an emancipated voice of a male writer, Eka ridicules patriarchy with his protagonist, Ajo Kawir. A man that goes to a fight and always defeats his opponents does not make him a man. Female characters in his novel are equally flawed. A woman, no matter how strong and noble, may fall for primal desire.

The novel'€™s focus on sexuality and vulgar story telling, makes it almost perverse, which has become iconic with Eka, previously known for Cantik itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound).

But his bluntness feels close to honesty, making the story a credible portrait of the imperfect, interdependent relationship between the two sexes.

Wrapped in a Chinese kung fu-styled novel and almost as brutal and dark as Chuck Palahniuk'€™s Fight Club, Eka has maintained his place on the frontlines of Indonesian writers.

Others leaving their marks this year are Afrizal Malna and Remy Sylado, who offer philosophical fiction with similar

Remy, known for the best-seller romance Ca Bau Kan, starts a trilogy titled Perempuan Bernama Arjuna (A Woman Called Arjuna), a philosophical trip with an Indonesian consciousness.

The first of the trilogy follows Arjuna, a Javanese woman of Chinese descent, who studies philosophy in Amsterdam.

The Netherlands and the rest of Europe are known as where the flame of Indonesia'€™s independence movement started.

There, the country'€™s founding fathers and famed intellectuals received education and built awareness of the need for a collective fight against Dutch rule.

Making it evident that he intends to educate readers about philosophy, Remy puts the ideas of world philosophers as well as local poets and playwrights in Arjuna'€™s daily life as a student. In parts too candid, spiced up with humor, the book is rather a caricature than a literary pursuit.

Less interested in educating readers, poet Afrizal Malna, earlier known for Lubang dari Separuh Langit (A Hole from Half the Sky) puts a contemporary spin on his latest creation, Kepada Apakah (Regarding Things).

In the solitary world of Ram, also a philosophy student in Jakarta, the writer lays out most of the protagonist'€™s journey inside his mind.

Broadly attributing Friedrich Nietzsche'€™s Übermensch ideas, both Afrizal and Remy paint their characters as post-modern Indonesians in their pursuit for new values in their existence, while making religion, race and knowledge, as attributes. Arjuna and Ram are well-informed and still troubled about the country'€™s past and present, but look beyond the crisis and have other goals in mind.

In both works, Remy and Afrizal also feature Semar, a Javanese character of wisdom in the local adaptation of the Mahabharata epic that does not appear in its original version.

But as Arjuna rambles in her search for love, Ram is a Nietzschean man trapped in Marxist world with all its social struggles.

Arjuna and Ram may invite criticism as being elitist and self-absorbed with less emotion about their surroundings, completely absent of heroic missions to make an impact on their country.

Yet, regarding the multi-faceted identity of Indonesia, their apologetic natures come as a fresh breeze given the country faces a testing time in terms of pluralism, an issue that was magnified after the polarizing presidential election.

A similar character also emerges from Erni Aladjai'€™s Dari Kirara untuk Seekor Gagak (From Kirara to a Crow).

The Indonesian voice in the novel comes in Mae, who lives alone in Sapporo to pursue her studies in literature.

Lonely and forced to live within her means, Mae finds love and friendship a thousand miles away from her home in Jakarta. She falls in love with Ken, a troubled Japanese young man, who lives next to her apartment.

In her world, Sapporo may be a quieter Jakarta where urban people live in apartments and go to university on bicycles. The quiet, ageing society along with several Japanese customs like a penchant for ramen, going to public bathing places and other small touches make Erni'€™s Sapporo quite convincing until she oversimplifies the political-psychological conditions in Japan at the time of the Tohoku earthquakes.

But never mind the politics, this novel is about family and human relations. Ken'€™s father, a local politician admired by local citizens for his pacifist view to oppose the mainstream nuclear movement in the country, is an inadequate father and husband.

Erni'€™s characters are cosmopolitan, and bounded by the need for connection and love.

The movement to shed light on the country'€™s dark past continues with more historical fiction. One marvel is Iksaka Banu'€™s Semua untuk Hindia (All for Hindia), a short story collection that re-imagines pre-Independence Indonesia, once known as Hindia Belanda.

Iksaka Banu, mostly in the foreign but empathic eyes of a Dutch point of view, captures various conjunctures during the Dutch occupation. The images are vivid and flowing, are about how the period was more than just about resistance against power, but also about clashes of moral values and a changing world.

Iksaka'€™s success is his dexterity in crafting his stories, not only with meticulous details, but also in elaborating emotion, society and landscapes '€” in times and places he'€™s never been.

These 2014 gems bring out multidimensional, modern Indonesians, who are not exactly as polarized as what has appeared in the public space during the elections.

They tell stories of individuals who acknowledge differences and the past and are willing to forgive and make amends.

A learned man may not only try to seek revenge, but may focus on personal pursuits like love, or the new order of things, which in some ways resembles Nietzsche'€™s ideals.

These literary works also show that the country'€™s literary scene is still exuberant, with writers with deft storytelling, who are not only concerned about archiving the country'€™s memories, but are also focused on the fluid language of fiction and on painting possibilities that none of us have previously witnessed.

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