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The Question of Red

January 8, 2017

The Question of RedLaksmi Pamuntjak, The Question of Red, 2014, translated by the author.

Love and hate are intertwined in human life.

Intolerance exists in every human society and country, says Laksmi Pamuntjak, and emerges as force and violence. Her novel, The Question of Red, is set during the massacres and repression beginning in Indonesia in 1965, in which possibly a million people accused of being Communists were murdered. It also covers the Muslim-Christian conflict of 1999-2002 in the Maluku Islands. That violence displaced 700,000 people and claimed at least 5000 lives.

Pamuntjak is pointing to the similarities shared by the two sets of events, and by other conflicts, going back to the archetypal civil war of the Mahabharata epic. She gives her protagonists, Amba and Bhisma, names from figures in that epic, which is central to Javanese culture.

“I once believed one must be prepared to sacrifice oneself to prevent the triumph of hatred,” says Bhisma. “But hatred doesn’t go away, I realise now.”

Laksmi Pamuntjak

Laksmi Pamuntjak

But nor does love go away. The Question of Red weaves two strands through its pages: a story of great love, and a chronicle of the history of those violent events. Love doesn’t go away despite the fact that Bhisma and Amba are only together for two weeks, which begin at the time of the abortive coup on 30 September 1965 and end when Bhishma disappears in the chaos following a military attack on a University in Yogyakarta.

Bhisma is not a Communist Party member, but some of his friends were left-wingers, so he was arrested and sent to the prison island of Buru.  There he continually writes letters to Amba, and buries them under a tree in the hope that she may eventually be able to read them.

Indonesian Edition

The Indonesian edition is titled “Amba”

Amba does what she needs to do to protect and nurture their child, but her life is overwhelmingly defined by the loss of Bhisma. In 2006, she receives an anonymous email telling her Bhisma had been on Buru Island, but has now died. She resolves to travel to Buru to find out the truth about her lover.

One of the pleasures of the book is the use of colour. Rather than the Us and Them of black and white, Amba follows colour and light. She rejects the man her parents choose for her: “I always knew I would fail him because I could not love tidily. … For me love could not be a duty. I only knew how to love body and soul. That meant loving a thousand colours, loving what makes you feel alive. It also meant loving imperfection.”

Bhisma is colour-blind – he cannot distinguish between red and green, and this results in a fateful turn in the story. Red is crucial to the story in several ways. It is maligned as the colour of Communism. It is reclaimed by Amba’s daughter Srikandi, an artist, when she is asked why there is so much red in her work:

I grew up with red, you see. It’s been the key colour of my life. I learned at school, of course, that red meant one thing, I think you all know what it is, and I understood how that was supposed to have made us all fear it. But I never bought it, this lie, because, wherever we are, red is inescapable: the red of apples and tomatoes, of the blood of the chicken you cut up for food, and for us women, our own menstrual blood. .. I was never scared of red, despite that stupid propaganda film we schoolchildren had to watch each year. … At home as a child I grew up with the most glorious shades of red. Ruby, scarlet, vermilion, puce, carmine, claret, burgundy, crimson, magenta, damask, garnet, maroon. I knew the power of each of those names. For that I have one person to thank, and that person is my mother. She was a warrior, someone who was not afraid of anything.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Photo: Alchetron)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, one of Indonesia’s greatest writers, was imprisoned on Buru for 14 years. (Photo: Alchetron)

The Question of Red is a complex, multi-layered novel spanning the period from the 1950s to 2011. Time shifts threaten to derail the story, but never do so. Despite its subject matter, it is a joy to read, because of the literary quality of the prose and the depth of the characters. Pamuntjak is bilingual and translated the novel herself. She has written two books of poetry in English, one of which was included in the 2005 UK Herald Books of the Year.

To me, Buru had abstractly represented the evil of the Suharto regime, but now I have a more concrete sense of the physicality of the island and the prison camps, and understand something of what life was like for the prisoners. Pamuntjak’s dedication for the book is: For those once incarcerated in Buru, who have given me new eyes. She has passed those new eyes on to her readers, whether they are Indonesians or citizens of other countries who love Indonesia.

'Map of Detention centres across Indonesia

Map of Detention centres across Indonesia, ca. 1976. From Tapol, Indonesia: The Prison State

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