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The language of the gods

Published: Jul 30, 2007

The author of a recent play reveals how the personal and the political intertwined as he wrote it.

Louis Nowra

Sometimes a play has a long genesis. My latest, The language of the gods, set in the Sulawesi of 1946, had one longer than most. In many respects its gestation can be traced back to my childhood in Melbourne. One of my first memories is of a terrifying wooden statue about half a metre high that rested on our mantelpiece. It was seated on a throne and had a wide mouth full of vicious shark-like teeth. It also had bat-like wings and large popping eyes. Later on I was to find out it was a Garuda. It was one of the few mementos my mother kept from her time in Java.

Hers is an unusual story for the times. During the second world war she married a Javanese man who had fled from the Japanese with the Dutch and was living in Queensland. After the war he took her back to Java. Her marriage was a brave, even stubborn thing to do because in those days very few white women married brown men. Later on she was to divorce and I became the product of her second marriage. When she became nostalgic she would talk about her first husband and her time in Java. We lived on a housing commission estate and I think we would have been the only family who ate Indonesian food, which she'd learnt to cook in Java.

But this was not the only Indonesian connection I had as a boy. My two aunties had also married Javanese men who, unfortunately for them, had chosen to fight for the Dutch during the war of independence (1945-49). Both men became exiles in Australia and were on a black list of those Indonesians not allowed to return home. What I vividly remember is how upset they were when, years later, they still weren't allowed to go home to visit their dying relatives. It seemed unfair to me, given I admired these men, but it also gave me a sense of the consequences of choosing the wrong side in a political struggle.

Although I had visited Indonesia briefly I didn't have a deep and personal interest in it. In 1986 I heard that there was to be an Indonesian translation of my play The precious woman, which is set in China during the 1920s warlord era. I was curious as to why such a play would have been chosen, and doubted that I would hear anything more. But a translation was made by actress and lecturer in English Tuti Indra Malaon, and I looked forward to going to Jakarta to see the production, to be directed by the veteran film-maker Teguh Karya. However, from then on I heard nothing. Then in the early 90s I was visited by an academic from the University of Indonesia, who told me the reason why the play didn't go on was that there had been 'problems'. What the problems were I didn't find out until The precious woman was published in a dual language text (English/ Indonesian) in 1997. In it, the editor Philip Kitley explained that when Teguh was about to direct the play the political climate had changed drastically. Cultural productions with any sort of Chinese associations were viewed with suspicion.

Just as my uncles' lives were changed by politics, so a play of mine had been stopped by politics. It reinforced my previous view of Indonesia as a place where politics were personal and dangerous. But then a curious thing happened. I was invited by a Japanese film company to write a screenplay based on a novel they had bought. The book was a woeful mixture of bad plot and New Age gibberish set in Bali. Having been to Bali and read a little I realised this supposedly factual book was fiction. I asked the film company if I could research the topic in Sulawesi. The whim was based on my childhood fascination with the shape of the island. My mother's talk about Java always sent me to an atlas, but I thought the shape of Java was boring compared to Sulawesi, which seemed like an octopus caught in an electric blender. Going to Sulawesi proved to be one of the most important times of my writing life.


I travelled to Sulawesi knowing little about it and found in the Tana Toraja region a world so far removed from the Balinese or Javanese cultures that I was shocked. I forgot to research the screenplay I was working on and instead travelled widely, profoundly moved by the simplicity of the dancing (compared to the baroque Balinese), the funeral ceremonies and the music. Then one day I discovered a reference to the Bissu, the transvestite priests, a tradition that goes back some four to five hundred years. A town was mentioned where there might still be some Bissu. I hurried down south to Segeri with my translator, who tried to talk me out of it. 'These men,' he said, 'are not normal.'

We found a Bissu who was a curious mixture of camp and dignity, of the temporal and of the priest. He showed me photographs of himself and then took me across the road to a wooden house where he used to hold many ceremonies. In the back room was a wooden chair, a throne, which held offerings. He spoke of how he talked to the gods and how he could walk through fire and cut himself without bleeding. He was one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met. I was deeply moved, because he represented a tradition that was dying out. Once there were many Bissu, now hardly any, once the wooden house throbbed with many dancers, now few young boys wanted to learn, once the Bissu's magic was feared, now only the old thought these men had powers. Back in Australia I read as much as possible about the Bissu.

Then I came across the infamous soldier Captain Westerling, who created bloody havoc in the Celebes (as the Dutch called Sulawesi) during their 'Police Action'of 1946-47 directed at Indonesians wanting independence. I read his memoirs and thought he was a cross between a psycho and Errol Flynn. I read as much as possible about the Dutch in the Celebes. And then I came upon the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus and his extraordinary novel The hidden force. Somehow all these things coalesced in my mind and from it came the idea for my play The language of the gods.

The play is set in 1946, when Braak, the Dutch administrator, having returned to the Celebes from exile in Australia, with his new Australian wife Alice, finds a country on the verge of upheaval. He adores the traditional Indonesia as represented by Dely, the Bissu, but realises that even though he loves the Indies, like the rest of the Dutch, he will be cast out, and because of Captain Westerling's rampage the locals are beginning to hate him. He can't control Westerling, or his own private life, and the very person whom he respects, Dely, will be the one to destroy him.

I suppose you could say that the play is in keeping with the idea I have had ever since I was young that in Indonesia politics is personal. Even though he would have liked to have separated the two, Braak in the end realises too late that he can't. This probably makes the play sound too much of an ideas-driven work, but really it is a character-driven story and certainly not moralistic about who was right and who was wrong in those fraught times.

The opening night in the Playbox Theatre on 8 September was a strange one. The chaotic situation in East Timor was on everyone's mind, so there seemed to be a desire that the play have parallels to it. But it was written without any such parallels in mind. Yet history is a curious thing. It repeats itself, Hegel said as farce but he was wrong. Sometimes when history repeats itself there is an overwhelming sense of deja vu, which does not make one laugh at all but makes one cringe at how little we learn from past mistakes.

Louis Nowra (lnowra@aol.com.au) is a playwright, novelist and screenwriter. Scripts of 'The language of the gods' and 'The precious woman' are available from Currency Press (email currency@magna.com.au, web www.currency.com.au).

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

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