The Jakarta Post
It can be said that the themes embedded in pencak silat, an ancient Indonesian martial arts form, are deeply entrenched in the identity of the archipelago.
Silat is one of the oldest forms of self-defense still taught and studied in Indonesia to the present day. Books telling silat stories have been published and enjoyed by Indonesian readers for more than half a century.
Kho Ping Hoo, a legend of the genre, wrote silat stories set in both China and Indonesia for over 30 years between the 1960s and the 1990s.
Kho Ping Hoo's silat is not just an avenue to cheap thrills in the form of paperback novels. His books contain a compelling and unified intellectual system and aesthetic that can deeply influence one's vision of the world. So says professor Faruk HT, one of Indonesia's preeminent literary critics.
Presently based at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM), Faruk is the head of the university's post-graduate program in literary studies and head of Pusat Kebudayaan Koesnadi Harjosoemantri (Koesnadi Harjosoemantri Cultural Center).
When asked about his intellectual and literary influences, Faruk admits that Kho Ping Hoo's silat stories were his first lessons in philosophy. Buddhist and Confucian philosophy permeate Hoo's silat stories, and that it was these philosophical traditions, that, according to Faruk, encouraged him to begin thinking logically and critically about the world.
The passion for reading was passed onto Faruk from his mother. Every time Faruk's mother would come back from the market, she would bring him Kho Ping Hoo books. In this way, Faruk would begin to carry critical thinking into his daily life.
When asked about his dreams as a child, Faruk admits that he wanted to travel the world. To accomplish this dream, he chose to study Indonesian literature. As a young man, he had observed Indonesian writers such as WS Rendra and Subagio Sastrawardoyo travel abroad to foreign countries, and thought that if literature had taken them abroad, it could take him there one day as well.
Faruk's literary ambitions drove him from his native home of Kalimantan to Yogyakarta to register for Indonesian Literature at UGM.
In Yogyakarta, he encountered a second set of books that would come to influence his way of thinking. In particular, Achdiat Karta Mihardja's The Atheist and Friedrich Nietzche's Thus Spake Zarathustra would prove to be lasting influences.
Nietzche's radical notions inspired him to write a short story, titled Tuhan yang mati (The Dead God). This short story was published in a majalah dinding (community board) and would become Faruk's first literary work to be read by other people.
While still at university, Faruk began to write and compile academic literature and critical papers, and after graduation, he would spend more time writing literary criticism than literature itself.
His notes from university, and the criticism he has since generated, has subsequently been used as reference material by generations of young Indonesian university students.
His abilities as a literary critic were considered sharp by his peers, and so he decided to focus his life to pursuits of exegesis. Faruk's works have been published widely in Indonesia and his desire to travel abroad was soon achieved. Through Indonesian literature, Faruk has traveled to Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Korea and Holland.
Indonesian literature is not widely read in Indonesia. When asked why this is the case, Faruk declares that the problem has its basis in the nature of Bahasa Indonesia itself.
'Has Bahasa become a way of life for the majority of people living in this country?' he questions.
The rhetorical question answers itself. The archipelago is a cauldron of competing languages, and as Faruk notes, 'Indonesian society does not speak Bahasa fully as a native language. This issue isn't easily solved. And aside from that, Indonesian literature tells stories about an Indonesian culture, primarily from a city-based or Western perspective, that feels foreign for many in Indonesian society.'
Furthermore, according to Faruk, Indonesian literature is spread and broadcast primarily through educational bureaucracies, where literature is treated as a supplement or attachment to lessons in Bahasa Indonesia.
This particular treatment of Indonesian literature does not endear it to students, and so Indonesians, from an early age, assume their nation's literature to be an unimportant thing.
But can we really say that Indonesians have no attachment to their country's literature? Faruk says that Indonesian society is in fact naturally literary, but perhaps its literature is not a nationalistic literature, but instead a literature of the blood.
To analyze and interpret such a condition constitutes one of the necessary functions of an academic specializing in literary study. But in reality, there aren't many academics in Indonesia who undertake this role wholeheartedly.
The condition of contemporary Indonesian literature could be said to be even more complicated than the situation described above. Recently, concerns over the politicization of Indonesian literature have emerged.
There are concerns that within the life of Indonesian literature, certain groups are beginning to dominate. This drift in Indonesian literary life has prompted Faruk to support and facilitate Seminar Politik Kritik Sastra di Indonesia (Seminar on the Politics of Literary Criticism in Indonesia) to be held at Pusat Kebudayaan Koesnadi Hardjosoematri, UGM, on Nov. 24 to 25.
During this event, it is hoped that a healthy and productive dialogue between competing groups in Indonesian literary circles will emerge.This seminar will also discuss what exactly the position of a literary critic in Indonesia should be. Should it or should it not be a political position, and if criticism is to be politicized, where should it be situated?
The seminar hopes to elucidate the history of literary criticism in Indonesia from its earliest period onward. Invited speakers scheduled to present at the seminar come from various places throughout Indonesia including Semarang, Bali, Jakarta and Yogyakarta.
In his desire to always think critically, Faruk hopes the problems plaguing Indonesian literature can be discussed in a healthy manner.