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The Rainbow Troops: Indonesia’s Biggest Selling Novel

August 7, 2012

Andrea Hirata (photo from creative commons licence)

“My culture has a beautiful way of criticising without hurting.”

At the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival Andrea Hirata spoke about his novel Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops), which has sold five million official copies plus an estimated fifteen million pirated copies in Indonesia. The movie of the book, the highest grossing film in Indonesian history, was shown at the Festival, and I found it absorbing and moving.

Hirata was referring to the culture of Belitung, an island east of Sumatra known for its tin mines. (The European name for the island, Billiton, was taken by the Dutch company which used to own the mines, and which later merged with BHP to form BHP Billiton.) When Hirata was growing up, the mines were operated by a state-owned company that provided education and health care for its higher level staff. Lower status employees and those who didn’t work for the company, like Hirata’s parents, had no access to these facilities. Wealth and extreme poverty existed side by side.

This is the setting for the novel.  A small Islamic school with no resources struggles to stay open to provide an education for children ineligible for the highly-resourced company school. Many parents prefer their children to become coolies for the company rather than go to school, but when Ikal (based on Hirata) begins first grade, the school manages to get ten students. The teacher, a fifteen-year old girl, calls her pupils “the rainbow troops” and inspires them to learn and achieve.

The contrast between the two extremes of education resourcing reminded me of the public-private school debate in Australia. Jane Caro was also at the Byron Bay Festival, and one session was about her book, The Stupid Country: How Australia is Dismantling Public Education.

Andrea Hirata’s book is political, portraying exploitation and a form of colonialism, “giving voice to the voiceless”, but it treats injustice in line with his culture: “criticising without hurting.” To some extent this seems to have worked, moving the mining company and education authorities to make some changes. Another impact of the book has been an increase in Belitung tourism.

The English translation of The Rainbow Troops is being published by Random House and will be available in January 2013 (read the first chapter on Hirata’s website). This is a major event for the country’s literature: while many novels have been translated and published outside Indonesia, this is the first to command attention in the mass global market. Andrea Hirata seems unaffected – he has a quiet pride in his achievement, but one mainly notices his humility. He still sees himself as a home-town boy from a traditional family. “I may not know where I’m going,” he says, “but I’ll always know where to come home to.”

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