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Indonesian Literature in Translation

Arts | 22 April 2017

My first approach to Indonesian Literature in translation came unexpectedly through the Italian book club in Jakarta where we read the book Pulang  (Home) by Indonesian female author, Leila S. Chudori. I read the book, I met Leila Chudori personally and after this unforgettable initiation, I joined the Indonesian Literature in Translation Study Group of the Indonesian Heritage Society (IHS), Jakarta.

Home (2012) is Leila Chudori´s most mature book. It took seven years to be written and it is a huge love manifestation towards her country, her family and her daughter Rain, who gave her the motivation to start writing again. Who among us has not been refused or betrayed in life? Who has never missed the food, the smell or the colours of the land that we had to leave, for different reasons? Who has not dreamt of going back home? This book is addressed to all of us and especially to those who want to know more about Indonesian contemporary history and traditional culture. It also offers a realistic and, at the same time, romantic view of life.

Lintang Utara, our young and beautiful female protagonist in Home, was born in France, “a country with a beautiful body and fragrant scent”. However, her roots are in a foreign land “far distant from the European land mass, a place that gave the world the scent of cloves and wasted sadness, a land of fecundity, rich with plants of myriad colors, shapes and faiths, yet one that could crush its own citizens merely because of a difference in opinion” (p.138).

Dimas, Lintang´s father, our male protagonist, obliged to live in France for political reasons, loves to tell his daughter the story of  Ekalaya, a character from the Indian epic Mahabharata. “According to Ayah the lesson we find in the tale of Ekalaya is that a person is able to attain perfection of knowledge on his own accord, without having to study under someone. Ekalaya achieved his goal because of the strength of his commitment and will” (p.185).

Through his friendship with Bang Amir and their long speeches, Dimas can reach an idea of spirituality without identifying himself as part of a specific religious organization and a kind of humanity without color, symbols, political parties and doctrine. “Spirituality was something older and deeper than religion, something that was honorable and integral to the essence of mankind… We spoke together as friends, as two reporters curious about the relationship between man – that small and finite creature – with the greatness of nature” (pg.235).

Home is not only a story of personal and historical memories in a search for identity. It also shows that it is possible to change things, to give birth to a new humanity and a new Indonesia through lessons of the past.

In comparison to Home, The Longest Kiss (2010) is a story of Indonesia, without necessarily being a story about Indonesia according to the universality of its characters and themes. This country is always present but only in the background. This is a collection of short stories in which author Leila Chudori shows her love for literature, her faith in the power of words, dealing with the most existential questions that have always fascinated human beings.

In November, at the IHS Literature in Translation Study Group, we read this book and discussed it with the author Leila Chudori, whom we had invited to the session. During the discussion with Leila, she was almost excusing herself for her short story anthology, telling us that this was a choice of her editor and that she was young when she wrote it.

The book starts with a suicide. A loved mother killed herself apparently without specific reasons, and her daughter, Nadira, is searching Jakarta for chrysanthemums, her mother’s favorite flowers. “Why did my mother kill herself?” is the leitmotif that re-echoes throughout the whole book, together with other stories of unrequited love, search for freedom and identity, discovery and acceptance of diversity, the importance of parental honesty and naturalness in educating their children.

My interest and love for Indonesian literature has made my six years living here so formative and special. The work done by John McGlynn and the Lontar Foundation, which he founded with others in 1987, has made Indonesian literature accessible to readers like me. I give my deepest thanks to the Indonesian Heritage Society and its Indonesian Literature in Translation Study Group as well as the many enthusiastic and contributing IHS members who have shared this literary journey. We concur with Leila Chudori, when she says that “literature is not less important than food, knowledge, and faith as a major substance of life”.

Text by Rossella  Buri