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Review: Voices from the unheard

Review: Voices from the unheard
Published: Jan 04, 2014

Leila S. Chudori’s novel Pulang is an important addition to a growing literature examining the events of 1965-66 and its aftermath

Pam Allen

In a recent Tempo article, Goenawan Mohamad described 1965 as ‘a kind of code … for a catastrophic occurrence – and because of this, always simplified.’ He went on to observe that 2012 seemed to be a year of remembering, or imagining, 1965.

One of the most significant manifestations of that remembering was the special September 2012 edition of Tempo that featured interviews with people who had taken part in murdering communists or suspected communists in 1965-1966. In response to this and to the government-appointed Human Rights Commission report on the conduct of the killings, young people in particular have expressed their shock at discovering an aspect of Indonesia’s past of which they had no previous knowledge.

A similar broadening of the discourse on 1965 can be seen in works of fiction reimagining the events of 1965–1966. Such fiction was formerly the domain of authors who had personally lived through the events, such as Umar Kayam and Ahmad Tohari. Now, however, stories on this theme are fictional recollections of an imagined past.

The phenomenon of imagining 1965, alluded to by Goenawan Mohamad, has resulted in a flurry of creative output – fiction, theatre, film – over the last 18 months. Examples include the novels Cerita Cinta Enrico by Ayu Utami (2012), Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak (2012), Candik Ala 1965 by Tinuk Yampolsky (2011) and Ayu Manda by I Made Darmawan (2010).

Chudori's Pulang

A very important contribution to this literary phenomenon was the publication in December 2012 of Leila Chudori's novel Pulang (Going Home). Greeted with much acclaim by literary critics in Indonesia, this is Chudori's antidote to the 'official history of 1965', which was her diet as a school student growing up under the Suharto regime.

Like many Indonesians too young to remember the events of 1965, but kept in the dark about them, Chudori sought answers about what she calls the 'black hole' of Indonesian history. Because history books did not provide the answers, and because her parents' generation would not speak of the events, she sought to explore and imagine the answers through creative writing – in her case, a novel drawing on years of meticulous research based on real-life characters.

As Chuori describes in her article here, her first encounter with the 'black hole' was her discovery of Restaurant Indonesia in Paris. Founded as a cooperative in 1982, it has always been more than just a restaurant. Its original purpose was to provide employment for Indonesian political refugees, including Umar Said and Sobron Aidit, who were unable to return to Indonesia after the 1965 attempted coup. .

As well as promoting Indonesian culture through exhibitions, dance and performances, it has provided a forum for intense political and philosophical discussions. The key protagonists of Pulang – Dimas Suryo, Nugroho Dewantoro, Tjai Sin Soe and Ristjaf – are loosely based on those unlikely restaurateurs.

While the tumultuous events of 1965 are the backdrop of the story, this is not a novel about ideology or political power. It is about the impact of 1965 and its aftermath on the daily lives of the exiles, their families and friends, including those left behind in Indonesia. Inevitably this includes stories of love, lust and betrayal. It describes the constant low-level intimidation faced by the restaurant owners, regarded by the Indonesian authorities as dangerous on account of their political persuasions. It includes Dimas not being present when his mother dies in Indonesia.

But it also includes laughter, adventure and food – especially food. The completely inexperienced restaurateurs devise mouth-watering menus and prove adept at producing Indonesian dishes guaranteed to win the hearts of the diaspora in Paris and educate the French about Indonesian cuisine.

Notwithstanding several flashbacks to the 1950s, the action of Pulang begins in 1965 and ends in 1998: sandwiched between two cataclysmic events of modern Indonesian history. Dimas Suryo and his colleagues are attending a conference of journalists in Santiago, Chile, at the time of the attempted coup. As suspected communist sympathisers, their passports are revoked and they cannot return home. Moving from Chile to Cuba to China over the ensuing years, they eventually end up in Paris where they open their restaurant. Despite that enforced distance from their homeland, their yearning for and connection with Indonesia is the key thread of the novel.

Despite having a girlfriend back in Indonesia, Dimas marries a French girl during the 1968 revolution in Paris. They give their daughter an Indonesian name – Lintang Utara – that reflects the father's longing to go home. It is not until much later, as a young undergraduate student, that Lintang finally has the opportunity to visit the country of her father's birth, only to arrive in Jakarta on the eve of the chaotic 1998 demonstrations that eventually lead to the downfall of President Suharto.

As she has done in her other writing (see for example the stories in The Longest Kiss, her recently published translated short story anthology), Chudori manages to make Indonesia a constant presence on the pages of this novel without having to make repeated reference to it. It is, of course, an imagined Indonesia for the protagonists - a country symbolised for Dimas by the big glass jars of cloves and saffron in his kitchen. (Chudori has spoken of President Abdurrahman's visit to Paris when he asked what could be done for the exiles. Their poignant response: all they wanted was their green Indonesian passports.) For the next generation, Lintang Utara, Indonesia is 'a blood relationship that I do not know.'

In Chudori's own words, she wanted to explore in this novel the mindsets of Dimas and his colleagues who, although they had lived in Paris for most of their adult lives, 'still felt they were a part of Indonesia, no matter what kind of passports they were issued, and no matter how their government treated them.' Equally, she is exploring the worldview and sentiments of that younger generation of Indonesians who seek a definition of what she terms I-N-D-O-N-E-S-I-A (a deliberately disjointed visual representation of the word, indicating its unfinished status).

Currently being translated by John McGlynn, we can expect the English version of the novel in 2014. (See an excerpt from the English translation)

Leila S. Chudori, Pulang, a Novel, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2013.

Pam Allen (pam.allen@utas.edu.au) teaches Indonesian and Asian Studies in the School of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania.


Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}

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