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Filling in the Black Hole in Indonesian History

January 12, 2017

9786029144369-cover.inddLeila S Chudori, Home, Lontar Foundation, 2015. Translated by John H McGlynn.

Imagine that you have left your country to attend a conference. While you are away the military takes control, bans the largest political party, and starts jailing, torturing and killing members of that party. Then you find that your passport has been revoked. You were not a member of the party, but some of your workmates were, and that’s close enough.

You can’t go home.

As time passes you realise you can never go home. This is what happened to thousands of Indonesians after September 1965.

Growing up under the Suharto regime, Leila Chudori knew nothing of these people until she travelled to Paris and met exiles running an Indonesian restaurant. Her novel, Home, was prompted by their stories.

The first part of the book follows Dimas Suryo, who works for a news agency where some journalists support the Communist Party and others the Islamic Party. Dimas sits on the fence – he is attracted to Marxist ideals but also likes talking with an Islamic friend about spiritual matters. Reluctantly he agrees to attend a leftist journalism conference in Chile in place of a colleague who finds he cannot go.

leila-chudori

Leila S Chudori (Asian American Writers’ Workshop)

Unable to return home after the military takeover, Dimas makes his way to France and joins other exiles to establish an Indonesian restaurant. He marries a spirited French woman, Vivienne, and they have a daughter, Lintang Utara. This section of the story is infused with Dimas’s longing for his homeland.

The second part of the book switches to Lintang’s point of view. She is studying cinematography at the Sorbonne and, for her final assignment, decides to make a documentary film about the victims of the Suharto regime. She begins to explore the Indonesian part of herself. She manages to get a visa to Indonesia by concealing her relationship to her father.

restaurant_indonesia

Restaurant Indonesia, 12 Rue de Vaugirard, Paris, inspired Chudori to write her novel.

 

In the third and longest part of the book, Lintang arrives in Indonesia in May 1998, just as it is about to, again, explode. Now the point of view is shared between her and two brave human rights activists, sons of friends of Dimas. Lintang, busy filming, experiences the student demonstrations, the demands for Reformasi, the shooting of the Trisakti University students and the resignation of Suharto. This is the most gripping part of the book because of the dangers and the speed of the action.

I felt a strong connection to the characters in Home – I cared about them, even Dimas, who could be infuriating and self-sabotaging at times. Lintang is the most sympathetic character.

I felt ‘at home’ in Chudori’s easy style and, as an Indonesian cuisine tragic, I loved the many references to food and meals. The book has some marvellous set pieces, such as a dinner party in Jakarta, in which Lintang reacts when the wealthy hosts unknowingly insult her father and his restaurant.

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May 1998 Trisakti Incident (Publication of Indonesian Government without copyright notice)

 

Indonesians who grew up after 1965 have been kept in the dark about the events of that time, but now novelists are filling in this ‘black hole’ in the country’s history. Pulang, the Indonesian edition of Home, was published in 2012, the same year as Laksmi Pamuntjak’s Amba. (My review of the English edition, The Question of Red, is here.) The two books complement each other:

  • Pamuntjak tells of Suharto’s victims within Indonesia while Chudori focusses on the exiles.
  • Pamuntjak’s two main characters are extraordinary, larger than life, like characters from mythology, while Chudori portrays ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
  • Chudori is a highly skilled writer, but her prose does not sing as sweet as Pamuntjak’s more literary style.
  • Home is the lighter novel, easier to read, while the reader needs to invest more in The Question of Red.

Pamuntjak says that people need to know what happened, and fiction is one way of getting the information across – “because it is more fun reading stories than long historical accounts.”

I found both books absorbing and rewarding and, yes, despite the heavy subject matter, great fun.

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