Friday, August 22, 2014

Mochtar Lubis, A Road with no End (1952)

In 1942, Dutch occupation of the Indies ended when the Japanese took over--a real out-of-the-frying-pan kind of situation.  It wasn't good, but after Japan's surrender, they relented, and Indonesia was finally a free country.  Unfortunately, that wasn't all: the Netherlands--in a serious asshole move--tried to reestablish their rule, leading to four years of bloody war before final independence was at last established in 1949.  

A Road with no End--Lubis's second novel, and now I've read all of them that have been translated, alas--takes place in 1946 and 47 as this struggle was ongoing.  The protagonist is Isa, an unassuming teacher who would prefer not to be caught up in the revolution, but everyone's doing it, so extremely reluctantly gets involved to the extent that he has to, in spite of being constantly terrified.  His marriage is suffering because throughout most of it he's been impotent, which may not be the world's most subtle metaphor.  We also have Hazil, a committed revolutionary who stands in contrast to Isa.  The "road with no end" of the title is the struggle for human rights and dignity: most immediately, shaking off Dutch occupation, of course, but, indeed, it has no end, even if you don't know what it's going to be next.  Once you're on the road, you're on it.  You must commit.  But will Isa ever be able to manage this?

I'm afraid I didn't like this as much as the other Lubis novels I've read.  The problem is that Isa's existence is so monotonous: terror terror terror terror terror.  One feels as though he ought to develop in some way over the course of the novel, but he doesn't, really, until the last few pages, where his moral victory feels both preordained and unearned.  This, and the whole impotence metaphor, just feel clumsy--the work of a young, inexperienced author.  The book depicts the chaos and violence of the revolutionary period effectively, but as a character study, I thought it fell pretty flat.


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