First published in 1927, Kwee Tek Hoay’s The Rose of Cikembang is an excellent example of the peranakan literature of the Netherlands East Indies that flourished between the 1900s and 1942 when the Japanese occupation in Indonesia began. Highly sentimental, the novel is rich in many of the controversial themes that Kwee was famous for: inter-racial love and the lives of its offspring, fate and karma, mysticism and reincarnation. In pre-war Indonesia, Kwee Tek Hoay’s novels were loved by urban readers. The Rose of Tjikembang, his most popular novel, was filmed twice, first in the early 1930s and again in the 1970s.
The novel details the crushing 19th century Dutch colonial system of “Forced Cultivation”, and the particular cruelty that pretty Javanese peasant women had to endure; they were little more than chattel, sometimes cherished, other times useful tools, to be passed from Dutch barons to Chinese middlemen to local elites. Written in Malay, Mukti’s book is one of the first novels written by an Indonesian in opposition to colonial authority. In 2013, the book’s translator, the late Catherine Manning Muir, received a “Best Translation Award” in Australia.(William Gibson in http://www.popmatters.com/tools/print/189981/)
Arrested as a leftist-activist in 1966, Putu Oka Sukanta was imprisoned until 1976. In The Starling, he speaks of the terrible degradation of humanity and the inner strength and solidarity of comradeship which emerge in the extreme conditions of imprisonment. The poems go on to explore the painful steps in the reconstruction of life and social meaning after the prison gates have opened.
In the early 1910s, Semaoen was sentenced to prison for sedition by the Dutch colonial government. The Story of Kadirun, a semi-autobiographical novel, flashes a spotlight on the unjust treatment towards indigenous people and gives an honest and comprehensive insight into the situation of the country at the time. Kadirun’s tale, with its picture of Javanese life during the colonial era, tells the readers what must be done to make the world a place fit to live in.
A landmark novel, The Weaverbirds is a tale of physical and spiritual struggles. The story spans from the formative days of Indonesia’s independence to Indonesia’s oil crisis in the mid 1970s. Larasati, the precious daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Antana, and Setadewa, the army-brat son of Capt. And Mrs. Brajabasuki, are childhood friends. But when they are older, they find themselves on the opposite sides of the country’s political spectrum. Even with their many differences, their relationship offers guidance to survival in a chaotic world.
In 1953, when Sitor Situmorang published his first collection of poetry, Green Paper Letters (Surat Kertas Hijau), he established himself as a prominent poet. In an essay he wrote some thirty years later, he would state that the poems of this collection expressed a single theme only: “love and wanderlust being two aspects of one and the same experience.”
To Love, To Wander, with poems dating from throughout Sitor’s productive writing career, is a travelogue, describing forty years of ontinuous love and wandering. It would be difficult to characterize his poetic work as a whole, even though the travelogue we could draw on the basis of a careful reading seems to deny every idea of development and change.
The main characteristic of Sitor’s poetry is the simplicity of its wording, the clarity of its syntax. The tales and descriptions bear a deceptive transparency: they suggest a coherence and control that is only confirmed in the regular rhymes and rhythms – but once readers set themselves to a serious interpretation, that transparency fades. The very lucidity leaves many open places that are not filled by making connections with other poems. Sitor’s poetry is a poetry of words, evoking concepts, calling up series of pictures and images that never come full circle.
The first Indonesian novel ever to be published in English, Twilight in Jakarta offers a grim cast of characters: corrupt politicians, impotent intellectuals, reckless journalists, manipulative Lefties, and impetuous Moslems, to name a few. Although the novel condemns political practices that were prevalent in 1950s Indonesia, readers will find that it still resonates today, when once again Indonesia adopts a multi-party system with political parties that compete and collaborate at the same time.