Alle G. Hoekema

How have Indonesian novelists looked at ‘1965’ and its cruel aftermath? Among the many memoirs, poems, short stories and novels on this theme, I have chosen six novels that have had a big impact. Three were written during the New Order and three more recently. All were widely discussed in the better newspapers and magazines at the time, and even the older ones continue to be read today. As a theologian, I was particularly interested in their religious views, which I thought would reflect their authors’ deepest sense of who we are as human beings.

Many Indonesians still hold harsh attitudes about the events of 1965. The world was shocked when those views went on display in the film The Act of Killing. But these novels are different. I found that all of them want to make clear to their readers that the reality of the events in late 1965 most probably differs from the official version. Most depict their (allegedly) communist protagonists with sympathy and understanding. In many, the events of 1965 were, moreover, not a one-off tragedy. Rather, they convey the message that such tragedies can happen again and we must prevent this. A world religion plays a major role in only a few of them. Instead, many draw their values from the ancient wisdom mythology of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

A happy land

The novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer was detained on Buru Island until 1979. His report, The Mute’s Soliloquy (translated in 1999) became known worldwide. It was intended as an historical recording of a cruel time, but it was also a piece of literature. Pramoedya never lost his skills as a storyteller. Read, for instance, what he wrote to his daughter, after she had visited him in a Jakarta prison, shortly before he was transferred to Nusakambangan and then to Buru:

You left on your honeymoon. Then I, too, went away—into exile. If a person cannot free himself from three-dimensional time—from either the past, the present, or the future—how must this be viewed? As God’s gift or His curse? During the Revolution when I was being held by the Dutch in Bukit Duri Prison, I memorized a Negro spiritual, the first line of which went “There’s a happy land somewhere …”—a symbolic promise for every person’s future. With hope as his guide, sweat as the symbol of his labor, the present as his starting point, and the past as his provisions, a person goes forward, toward a happy land somewhere. But because one can never be sure of reaching that place, the second line of the song goes “And it’s just a prayer away….” The song is a beautiful one, especially so when the time is right and one is not plagued by matters that set one’s nerves on edge. “Somewhere,” my child, but where? Where is this “happy land”? People are raised to believe that happiness is the land to which they are destined to travel. But that belief, which one so easily accepts as true, might just as well be a mirage. It’s August 16, 1969, and you are off on your honeymoon to a happy land. I, too, am off to a happy land somewhere, to Buru I’ve been told, an island in the Moluccas about the size of Bali.

When General Sumitro visited Buru with a group of journalists in 1994, Mochtar Lubis, certainly not a kindred spirit, asked him: ‘Pram, did you by any chance find God here?’ Pramoedya’s answer: ‘Which God? Quite a lot of divine envoys come to Buru.’ These are among the rare remarks in which Pramoedya, mostly in a negative way, expresses himself about religion.

Leftist sinners

Religion is important to Ahmad Tohari. In no less than three of his novels the 1965 drama is central. What is striking in all of them is that the Most Merciful Allah is not part of the cruel killings of alleged communists, but  apparently just by being leftists they had sinned! The first time this happens is in Tohari’s second novel, Kubah (cupola or dome of a mosque, 1980). It tells the story of a village clerk named Karman, who more or less by chance had been seduced to join the communist party, served 12 years at Buru and was finally released. Going back to his village, he discovers that his wife has remarried – as was indeed often the case. Then the novel unfolds in a rather moralistic way. Even the military personnel guarding him behave chivalrously; Karman accepts his fate; the villagers forgive him and Karman returns to the faith he had lost earlier. He finds a sense of belonging within the Muslim community by constructing a dome for the dilapidated village mosque.

Some critics praised the novel – it was one of the first in this genre. Others characterised it as dawah, Islamic preaching. Abdurrahman Wahid, who later became president, described it at the time as ‘the first to deal with reconciliation between PKI [Indonesian Communist Party] members and the general Indonesian society after the September 1965 events’. But he also thought it lacked suspense and was predictable. Though Ahmad Tohari is a devout Muslim, clearly his faith has been strongly influenced by the Javanese way of life. A poor, simple sailor, who earns his living by bringing bamboo rafts to a place downstream, meets Karman in hiding in 1965. He teaches him Javanese wisdom from the song Sangkan-paraning dumadi(about the origin and aim of all that has been created): ‘Aku mbiyen ora ana, saiki dadi ana, Mbesuk maneh ora ana, Padha bali marang rahmatullah’ (Formerly I did not exist, now I exist, tomorrow I will not exist any longer, back to God’s compassion).  Subsequent novels make it clear that the author shares this life view. It means that one has to take life as it comes and goes.

Kubah passed censorship without problems. Ahmad Tohari’s trilogy, The Dancer (Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk), published a few years later, did not. He was told to cut a section in which an innocent young village dance girl was arrested and imprisoned for her alleged communist sympathies. By his agreeing with such censorship, some readers and reviewers felt disappointed.

Mangunwijaya in Yogyakarta 1991. Source: Gerry van Klinken

Good and bad

Y.B. Mangunwijaya was a well-known public intellectual, novelist, and a Catholic priest. His Durga Umayi (1991) is, in more than one sense, difficult to read. As if to tease his readers, the author uses long, complex and poetic sentences. The story of a young village woman named Linda, who represents Indonesian society, is in fact a bird’s eye sketch of Indonesia’s modern history. Using many identities and names, she manages to adapt to every political situation. Now she is a spy, then a prostitute, and later the mistress of a high-ranking politician or entrepreneur. At one moment she is a comrade in the literary organisation Lekra and a cadre in the women’s organisation Gerwani, both affiliated with the communist party. During the New Order ten years later she is a large landowner and international entrepreneur.

The title Durga Umayi refers to a wayang (shadow puppet) story about Batara Guru and the beautiful Dewi Uma. Wayang allusions feature in several of Mangunwijaya’s novels. Here both curse each other after having had public sex in the skies. Batara Guru changes into a wild boar. Dewi Uma is fated to become Batari Durga, a bad woman living in exile in a place smelling of death. The title suggests that Indonesia has both good and bad sides. Both are to be found in the colonial times, during the Japanese occupation, and the early years of independence. Both are within the PKI and its leftist organisations before 1965, and both are in the corrupt bureaucracy of the New Order. At the same time, in a playful and often humorous way, Mangunwijaya warns like an Old Testament prophet. The reference point throughout is the emancipation announced in the Proclamation of Independence in 1945.

A fundamental change of mind

Finally, three young female novelists, all of whom have been professional journalists, wrote very candidly about 1965 after the fall of Suharto in 1998.

Ayu Utami dedicates several pages in her novel Manjali dan Cakrabirawa (Manjali and the Students Regiment, 2010) to a critical assessment of the events of Lubang Buaya. This place on the outskirts of Jakarta became an anti-communist icon under President Suharto after conspirators affiliated with the G30S (30 September Movement) plotters murdered seven generals there on 1 October 1965. Utami concludes that the killings had been conducted in a secret operation by an army unit, the Cakrabirawa battalion of Colonel Untung, and not by the PKI as was subsequently claimed by the Suharto regime. Then she continues with a moving story about an old woman, living in seclusion in the woods. She had been a member of the communist women’s organisation Gerwani, had served 10 years in prison and was now desperately searching for the grave of her husband, executed as a member of the Cakrabirawa battalion. It turns out the old widow is the mother of Musa Warana, a soldier and friend of Yuda and a fervent anti-communist loyal to Suharto. Yuda (what’s in a name!) is a sometimes treacherous friend of the supremely humane protagonist Parang Jati in three of Utami’s novels. Musa had been taken away from his mother as a baby while she was in prison. He was now a staunch anti-communist. When this soldier discovers the astonishing fact that his parents were communists, he finds it difficult to accept.

Ayu Utami implicitly places the G30S tragedy in a religious framework. Her novel wants to say that looking at the truth of Indonesian history, which is a first step towards reconciliation, requires a fundamental change of mind. ‘The PKI was not holy’, she has one of the protagonists say. ‘The military regime, too, is not holy. So, let us not consider this history as a collision between the armies of satan and angels. Look at man (Lihat, anak manusia)’. The last phrase is an allusion to the famous Ecce Homo in the Gospel of St John, chapter 19.

In her novel Pulang (Coming home, 2012) Leila S. Chudori introduces her readers to four political exiles. They try to make a living in Paris by starting a restaurant. Her book was inspired by the true story of ‘Restaurant Indonesia’. They experience rude intolerance from Indonesian embassy officials. They suffer pangs of longing for loved ones left behind to be persecuted or harassed. The embassy is unwilling to give them permits to visit Indonesia. The wife of one of them remarries in Indonesia, to a military man. The marriage of another, with a French woman, fails because he cannot forget his beloved in Jakarta. However, here, too, there is hope. Younger diplomats at the embassy are more relaxed about 1965 than the older ones. The novel ends in a hopeful Jakarta, as Suharto steps down.

Idealism and fate

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel Amba (2012) became a bestseller. It takes the reader back to Buru. Woven into a moving love story is the life of the young medical doctor, Bhisma, who was detained there. After the political prisoners are released, he decides to stay. He is so dedicated to his fellow prisoners and to the indigenous population of the island that the Buru people describe him as ‘a kind of Jesus’; ‘the saviour of Unit XVI’; and ‘a holy man’. But then, in one of his (fictive) letters to Amba, his beloved in Jakarta, he writes, ‘In the end, you are right: our life has been written in the sky. And we are not able to resist it’. Having been optimistic all his life, in the end, after having watched the deadly fighting between Muslims and Christians near his house in December 1999, he seems to turn into a pessimist:

‘Once I was of the opinion that one has to sacrifice oneself in order that hate does not prevail. However, even in the hearts of brave warriors, such as I met during my detention, hate is not leaving, not even among ‘comrades’. Hate has become the force to endure life. After I witnessed enmity and killings in Kediri [where he was a doctor in October 1965], I hoped for some time that there would be stronger and more useful values to endure life. But during these days I feel something has disappeared from my inner self.’

The names of Amba and Bhisma are taken from a scene in the Mahabharata epic about two lovers who, in the end, are unable to join their lives. That reference, again, points to the fact that our lives are dependent on fate.

Very few people actually read books in Indonesia. But those who do have an influence on public opinion out of proportion to their number. These six novels have made quite an impression on that small reading public. To me, that indicates that compassionate views about the tragedy of 1965 are more widespread than we would suppose if we took government inaction and The Act of Killing as our only guides. Theirs is probably a resigned compassion, rather than an activist one demanding justice. But that too is a basis for a more humane confrontation with history than the neglect that has been mainstream till now.

Alle G. Hoekema ( is retired as associate professor of theology at the Free University, Amsterdam. This is extracted from a longer piece presented at the conference ‘Costly tolerance’, held at IAIN Sunan Kalijaga in Yogyakarta in February 2015.