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Achdiat Karta Mihardja

July 15, 2010
Bapak and Ibu in 2009


The great Indonesian writer and thinker Achdiat Karta Mihardja passed away on Thursday 8th July, 2010 at the age of 99 in Canberra, Australia.

The twin passions of Pak Achdiat’s life were writing and Tati Suprati Noor, whom he married in 1938. The photos show that after 72 years of marriage they were as much in love as when they were engaged.

From the beginning Pak Achdiat was different, his quick and enquiring mind rebelling against traditional ways of thinking, questioning everything.  His brothers and sisters marvelled at how he came to be in their family. He rejected his aristocratic title and became a democrat and a socialist, believing that all human beings are created by God on the same level.

In the 1940s Pak Achdiat worked as a journalist, teacher and editor. During the Indonesian Revolution he published a pro-independence newspaper in Garut, and was part of the underground resistance, passing on information to the revolutionary forces. When the Dutch invaded West Java and bombed Garut he fled with his family to the nearby mountains.

After independence he worked as an editor and lecturer and eventually headed the Jakarta Cultural Division of the Department of Education. In 1961 he moved to Australia to teach Indonesian literature and culture at the Australian National University.

Pak Achdiat produced novels, short stories, plays and non-fiction. He achieved fame in 1949 with his first novel, Atheis (The Atheist), which became a set text in schools and universities. The novel explored the conflict between traditional and modern world views, in particular Marxism and Islam. The main character, Hasan, a devout Muslim, meets by chance an old school friend Rusli and falls in love with Rusli’s friend Kartini. Rusli is a Marxist and atheist, and Hasan resolves to convert him to his own beliefs. Instead he loses his faith under the influence of Rusli and his friend Anwar, an artist and anarchist. Although committed to Islam, Pak Achdiat took risks by allowing Rusli to present his views forcefully, so that some suspected him of atheism, and the novel became controversial for its open investigation of alternative world views.

In the novel Debu Cinta Bertebaran (Scattered Dust of Love, 1973), set in Australia, Pak Achdiat used the characters to portray various modes of loving and ways to strengthen and foster love. The central theme is a ‘harsh irony’: humans are given the capacity to love, but the world is heavily covered with ‘ubiquitous dust’ that prevents love from being perfect – the dust of prejudice, suspicion, misunderstanding, betrayal, hatred. The novel hints that some of this dust may arise from the cold rational thinking associated with modern world views.

 Pak Achdiat’s final book, Manifesto Khalifatullah, published in 2005 when he was 94, portrays the confrontation between secularism and religion. He described it as the answer to Atheis, and said its message is that ‘God created humankind to be His representative on earth, not the representative of Satan’. For the man who started by questioning everything, there were no longer any doubts. In the metaphor of Isaiah Berlin (the origin of the name of this blog), Pak Achdiat started his search in the manner of a fox and completed it knowing ‘one big thing’, like a hedgehog.

These three works illustrate his development as a thinker. The common thread is an inquiry into modern, Western world views – materialism, rationalism, secularism – with the critique of those ideas becoming more clearly stated over time. His dedication to the search is inspiring. Reading him, meeting him, and working with his daughter Wenny on her memoir, I am convinced of his essential goodness.

Farewell Pak Achdiat, courageous and honest seeker of truth.

(Note: Above photos were kindly supplied by Bu Wenny Achdiat.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    July 25, 2010 6:17 pm

    This is an excellent eulogy to Achdiat Karta Mihardja, and made very interesting reading as well. I’m looking forward to reading his daughter’s memoir. It must be very difficult to be the child of a famous person.

  2. Mia Campioni permalink
    August 20, 2010 2:35 pm

    My Indonesian is not good enough so where can I get an english or dutch translation of Pak Achdiat’s Atheist?

  3. Bryce permalink*
    August 20, 2010 11:10 pm

    Hi Mia, The reference for the English translation is: Achdiat K Mihardja, Atheis, Translated by R J Maguire, University of Queensland Press, 1972. You could try Asia Bookroom in Canberra On 2/8/2010 a second hand copy of the English translation was advertised for $30 in their email list, but has now been sold. If you give them your details they’ll let you know if another copy comes in. You could also try Nusantara Indonesian Bookshop in Croydon, Melbourne, (03) 9723 1195, although sometimes it’s hard to get a response from them and their website never seems to work. There are some on Amazon, but very expensive and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether they are the English translation or the original Indonesian.
    Otherwise you could try inter-library loans. Most Australian state and university libraries have it and the National Library of Australia has it.
    Hope your search is successful.

  4. April 14, 2014 11:51 am

    Have just finished reading Daughter of Independence – a triumph Bryce! I can’t believe how little I knew of Indonesian history in my own lifetime, and nothing at all of the intellectual and literary world. Thank you for this sensitive and informative book – it can’t have been easy writing in the first person for someone else, but I think you have pulled it of masterfully. Castlemaine library now has Daughter of Independence in their collection as they purchased it at my request. Now I am on the search for some of Achdiat K Mihardja’s works.

  5. Bryce permalink*
    April 14, 2014 3:36 pm

    Thank you, Beverley, for your kind comments. After sending one’s work out into the world, it’s always a joy to receive feedback from readers. And good to know the book is now available in Castlemaine library. Re Achdiat’s works, I recommend starting with Atheis (English translation by RJ Maguire, UQP) which should be available through inter-library loan, and is sometimes for sale on Abebooks or Fishpond.
    I sometimes use readers’ comments in publicity. Can I have your permission to use a sentence of two from your comment in that way?


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