Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mochtar Lubis, Twilight in Jakarta (1963)

So in this one, Bella and Edward decide to take an Indonesian vacation.  The flight over is uneventful (though a number of passengers who are trying to sleep are annoyed by the sparkliness), but when they get there, it turns out that the Volturi--what?  But I just--no!

[The management would like to apologize for the extreme lameness of that joke.  Appropriate disciplinary measures have taken against the responsible parties.]

(I want to note, because I'm obsessive, that, in spite of the fact that the title in the picture of above features a 'D,' the version I read just uses plain ol' "Jakarta."  I don't know why you'd ADD the extra letter, which is not a part of the Indonesian title.  Okay.)

So I'm not planning on becoming some sort of expert in Indonesian literature, but Lubis is a well-regarded novelist (second in critical acclaim only to Pramoedya, if I have my information right), this novel was short and, somewhat surprisingly, available as an ebook, so I decided, what the hell, right?

Interesting trivia fact: it was also the first-ever Indonesian novel to be translated into English.  He wrote it during the fifties while under house arrest (because OF COURSE he was).  It was smuggled out of the country, translated, and published in English in 1963; the original Bahasa version wouldn't see print until 1970.

Let me tell you something, in no uncertain terms: this is a flat-out great novel.  Don't get me wrong: I think the Buru Quartet is a towering achievement and I'm glad to have read it, but there's undeniably a certain academic quality to its appeal.  I wouldn't recommend it to just anyone.  Whereas Twilight in Jakarta, I very much would; it doesn't matter if you're particularly interested in the country and its culture or anything--it's a very fine novel by any standard.  Apparently, it's something of a Roman à Clef, with many characters being thinly-veiled depictions of important figures in Jakarta's cultural and political life at the time; obviously, this is all going to be completely opaque to the average western reader (and probably also pretty obscure to a contemporary Indonesian audience, for that matter), but that doesn't matter at all.  The novel's power shines through strongly.

It doesn't have a strong plot.  It takes place over the course of most of a year (each chapter is named after a month, from May through January), and it features the doings of a broad spectrum of humanity in Jakarta, in very loosely-connected narratives: political higher-ups, journalists, intellectuals, middle-class workers, and the grindingly poor.  It is strongly critical of the scene it surveys: politicians and journalists are corrupt; intellectuals, whether they favor communism, Islam, or anything in between, are ineffectual (though it would be a stretch to say that Lubis is criticizing communism or Islam per se so much as he is those who cynically manipulate them for personal gain); and just about everyone, it seems, is easy to corrupt or to manipulate.  What's notable compared to Pramoedya's work--which, by its very nature, contains a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio--is that Twilight in Jakarta is basically all showing.  I must admit, I found that refreshing.

For such a short book (only two hundred pages), there are quite a few characters, and enumerating them all would be quite a task.  But just to give an idea: there's Suryono, a rich, dissipated youth languidly carrying on affairs with his stepmother and various high-class prostitutes; Raden Kaslan, his father, working with the dominant political party and giving businesses sweetheart deals in exchange for massive personal gain; Saimun and Itam, poor people barely making ends meet in various menial jobs; and Suneng and Hasnah, a lower-middle-class couple whose relationship is torn apart when their understandable desire for a better life leads to him getting reluctantly enmeshed in political corruption.  There are also sundry characters who only appear once or a few times, just to give a fuller idea of the city's life (one of which, it must be admitted, is the one thing in the novel that flat-out does not work, a tonally jarring veer into horror-movie territory as a man just released from prison murders the man he's staying with, along with his wife and child, with a hammer).  These characters are all very vividly depicted, and one becomes highly invested in their struggles (even the struggles of the corrupt or otherwise unsympathetic ones, which is most of them).

I was reminded a bit of Dos Passos' USA trilogy, in that Lubis simply depicts a wide cross-section of society, painting a deeply pessimistic picture of a country and its culture.  The situation in both cases seems hopeless because people are what they are and they are incapable of becoming other than that.  Leftist intellectuals may TALK big about what needs to be done, but they're as fallible as anyone else, and they never actually DO anything.  Suryono may have the occasional twinge of conscience, but never anything that actually lead to any ACTION.  However, I would say that Lubis is at least a little bit less of a pessimist than Dos Passos; his novel features surprising grace notes, as a few characters' narratives get ambiguously optimistic conclusions.  Society as a whole may be fucked, but there's still room for small personal victories.  This, to me, is important, as it prevents it from becoming a pure exercise in political nihilism, which--even if stylistically accomplished--I find to be kind of limited in value.

Seriously, people.  I mainly just read the novel from an idle desire to have a slightly fuller knowledge of Indonesian literature.  I didn't expect to be blown the fuck away.  But that I was.  If I were teaching a lit survey course, I would not hesitate to include it on the syllabus.  It deserves to be far more widely-read in the west than it is.


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