May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

The book bridge

Published: Sep 12, 2007

Carly Hennessy

The Lontar Foundation, set up in 1987, is a non-profit publishing house that prints Indonesian literature translated into English. Lontar is the only publishing house to devote itself to translated Indonesian literature, and is heavily involved in the local literature scene and its promotion abroad.

You can find Lontar publications tucked away on university shelves and in the world literature section of local bookstores. These books are not designed for lofty academia, but for the interested and educated layperson.

Short stories are an accessible form of literature. Most of the stories published in Lontar's Menagerie series first appeared in Indonesian newspapers and journals. The series gives the outsider a candid look into the secret, hidden lives of Indonesian people. Many local newspapers have culture sections which feature up-and-coming or established authors. Feeling the pinch of the current economic situation, some are cutting back their literary content.

John H McGlynn is editor and co-founder of Lontar. He has lived in Indonesia for 23 years. Having completed an MA in Indonesian literature, he set up the foundation with noted Indonesian authors, including Goenawan Mohamad and Umar Kayam.

McGlynn says it is difficult to generalise on common themes that run through Indonesian literature. Human concerns are fairly universal, but the mode of expression can differ greatly. Personal and social contradictions, as well as disillusionment, are strong elements. However, the Western notion of involving oneself in politics and satirising larger issues seems to be absent in much of Indonesia's published writing. Indonesian literature is not topical enough, according to McGlynn.

It is true that a study of the personal microcosm tends to mirror that of larger issues. Yet an inherent self-censorship seems to be at work. Among the reasons why Indonesian literature tends to centre on the personal not the topical, on the intimate not the national, could be the concept of gotong royong - realising that one is part of and responsible for the smooth running of the community. It is part of the Javanese notion of hierarchy.

Lacking political punch or not, the short stories featured in Menagerie 2 are not short on literary punch. 'The decline of the local prayer house' (A A Navis) was first printed in 1955 and is a consummate short story of a pious man dealt a major religious disillusionment on the eve of his death. A clever twist in the plot turns the reader's mind to thoughts of God and human purpose.

Photo-journalism is also featured. 'Not an end station: The Bogor mental asylum' shows us the stark images of institutional life. The photographs show both static scenes and the fluid motions of the patients, creating an essay of human feelings and mentality.

The essay in Menagerie 3 entitled 'Political prohibitions' (Stanley Y Adiprasetyo), does break free from merely personal concerns. Outlining the current censorship situation, Adiprasetyo asks why banned publications are so popular with the public - photocopies circulate widely between friends - and questions the purpose of banning a publication.

In the long term, McGlynn hopes to create an extensive back list of published materials that can then be distributed through the one overseas publisher. This would aid in the structuring of an undergraduate university course in Indonesian literature, something not currently available in North America or Australia - where study of Indonesia rarely touches literature. Lontar's translations are opening up new avenues of study and understanding abroad.

Translators must ensure they do not extinguish the original voice of the author. 'To capture the nuances, the author's style, main themes and sub-themes is the challenge,' says Ben Reader, a translator for the upcoming Menagerie 4. Reader finds it is often difficult to 'translate words and terminology that can't be captured by a single English term.' He feels that it is important to take an overall view of the story and to translate that, rather than look at the words as separate entities.

Many new books are in the publishing pipeline. Menagerie 4 explores Bali through fiction, poems and essays. Javanese and Balinese classics are also due for release - the tentatively titled Stolen Petals is a compilation of ancient love poems and laments from 12th century Java. A picture book portrays the wayang golek through the eyes of the dalang (puppeteer).

Translated fiction does more than satisfy the curious; it helps fill in the gaps of a complex culture and society. It is an inside glimpse at life that many miss as they go through the motions of living and visiting Indonesia. Lontar's efforts bridge gaps and create an understanding that goes beyond the surface, into the rich experience of Indonesian culture.

Carly Hennessy ( was a journalist in Jakarta who now lives in Brisbane. Contact the Lontar Foundation at: Jalan Danau Meninjau 90, Pejompongan, Jakarta 10210, tel +62-21-573 2993, fax 572 0353, email:

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

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A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.