Book Review by Lisa Hill
The Atheist is the February choice for our Indonesian bookgroup. First published in 1949, this novel is recognised as a masterpiece of modern Indonesian literature and was included in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Worksbefore that translation project (1948-2005) was defunded by the UN. Interesting too — considering its subject matter and the Indonesian hostility to atheism because of its association with Communism — is that the novel received an award from the Indonesian government in 1969*, not long after the Indonesian Communist Purge of 1965-66 with an estimated death toll of between 500,000 to one million deaths. Perhaps, given his membership of the Socialist Party of Indonesia, it was just as well that in 1961 Achdiat Mihardja took up work as a lecturer in Indonesian Language and Literature at the ANU, and Canberra remained his adopted home until his death in 2010, aged 99.
It’s interesting to me that this book remains in print and well-known, if the pages and pages of reviews at Goodreads are anything to go year. The significance of this book is that, in 1948-9, with the possibility of the creation of a new independent nation clearly in sight, an Indonesian intellectual was imagining what kind of society the Dutch East Indies might become if/when it became free of the colonial masters who had ruled it for centuries. Indonesia had declared its independence in 1945 two days after the Japanese surrender, and it was fighting a bitter war with the Dutch who were determined to hang onto their colonial possession. Mihardja knew that independence was inevitable and he knew that decisions made about a constitution and government would be critical to its future.
So The Atheist explores the ethics and consequences of a capitalist or a socialist future; and through its main character ponders the possibility of an Islamic or a secular society. By contrast, books exploring Australia’s possible post-colonial future, have lapsed into obscurity. In 2018 I went to a Rare Books Week event here in Melbourne presented by scholar Zachary Kendall: it was called ’19th Century Visions of Australia’s Future’. Zachary showcased a collection of books written here in Australia at the turn of the 19th century, and how in the leadup to Federation, in utopias and dystopias, writers were contemplating what kind of society we might have. The themes that Zachary identified in his collection were Socialism, Federation and independence, Foreign invasion, Women’s rights, Secularism, Christianity, and Spiritualism. Unsurprisingly, these themes are also present in The Atheist.
This is the blurb from the back cover of The Atheist:
Using three narrative voices, the novel tells of the spiritual and intellectual crisis of Hasan, a young Muslim who is raised to be devout but comes to doubt his faith after becoming involved with a group of modern young people: Rusli, his Marxist-Leninist childhood friend; Anwar, an anarcho-nihilist artist; and Kartini, a beautiful young divorcée.
Upon publication, Atheis caused considerable discussion. Religious thinkers, Marxist-Leninists, and anarchists decried the novel for not explaining their ideologies in more detail; but literary figures and many of the general public praised it.
The structure of the book is unusual. Wikipedia is helpful here:
The plot of Atheis is non-linear. A. Teeuw, a Dutch scholar of Indonesian literature, models it as below, with A representing the time frame covered in Hasan’s manuscript (from his youth until splitting with Kartini), B representing the time frame in which the narrator meets with Hasan and receives his manuscript, and C representing the events around Hasan’s death.