Like the country itself with its 17,000 islands, the great diversity of peoples, languages and religions in the Indonesian archipelago has also left its mark on Indonesia’s literature. This means there is not just a single literature, but a dozen different writing traditions, including Malay (Indonesian), Balinese, Sundanese and Javanese. Poetry has always played a significant role in the cultures of Indonesia and the country is distinguished by a very long oral tradition. Poems, fairy tales and sagas have been passed down by word of mouth, since time immemorial – often accompanied by music and performed in groups.
The roots of Indonesia’s written traditions stretch back 2,000 years – further back in time than most Western literatures. Some of the earliest known examples are the stone inscriptions of Kutai, in western Kalimantan (Borneo), dating from around 400 AD, and the Talang Tuwo stone, dating from 648, which was found in Palembang (South Sumatra), the 7th century capital city of the old kingdom of Srivijaya. Already at that time, the site was an important centre for the study of Buddhism with an extensive library and more than 1,000 scholars from near and far.
Hindu-Javanese literature began to develop from the 10th century, as Hindu-influenced states emerged on what is today Indonesian soil. To begin with, verse adaptations of Indian classics and mythology were mainly produced in Kawi, a linguistic mix of Javanese and Sanskrit. Mpu Sindok (928–950) became famous for his creative interpretations of Indian epics (e.g. the Mahabharata and the Ramayana). New Javanese literature began with the Nagarakretagama by Rakawi Prapañca, which is a song of praise to King Hayam Wuruk (1350–89) of Majapahit. This also marked the emergence of a new literary form, the Kidung, which dealt predominantly with Javanese material, recounting both history and sagas in free verse.
La Galigo, an ancient epic in the old Bugis language of Sulawesi, evolved between the 13th and 15th centuries. It has been passed down to us in numerous manuscripts, and has now been listed by UNESCO in its Memory of the World Register. With around 300,000 stanzas stretching across 6,000 pages, La Galigo is one of the longest literary works ever produced – some 20 times longer than Homer’s Odyssey.
As more and more Muslim traders visited Indonesia from the 13th century onward and Islam started spreading there more widely, the next chapter in this history began: Islamic-Malay literature. By now, Malay had established itself as the lingua franca across south-eastern Asia, being the primary language of trade on the seas and in the markets of the multi-ethnic archipelago. A form of Malay literature now began to develop which would familiarise the region with the fairytales, sagas and mythology of the Arabian and Persian cultures. Numerous Koranic stories and tales of the prophet were also published, alongside an extensive body of Islamic theological literature. In Malay poetry, the pantun emerged, a verse form which later became popular among poets in France, England and Germany in the 19th century.
History and historical novels were particularly significant for prose writing in Malay. For instance, important 15th century texts, such as the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Chronicle), provide us with extensive insights into the life of the Sultan’s court. While Malay increasingly became the language of Muslims, Javanese saw the development of a more mystical kind of literature; with its multifariously illustrated manuscripts, it was indeed a significant art form. By the end of the 19th century, more and more writers of all ethnicities were consciously choosing to write in Malay, so they could share their ideas with the world.
In 1928 nationalist leaders declared Malay to be the official language of the nascent nation and its name was changed to Indonesian, thereby laying an important foundation for the country’s independence almost two decades later. At around the same time, modern Indonesian literature began to emerge. European literary forms, such as the novel and the sonnet, were introduced. The author now entered the spotlight as a critical voice and self-aware individual, while literature increasingly became a weapon in the fight against injustice and suppression. In the 1920s, writers like Mas Marco Kartodiromo (1890–1932) and Soemantri (1899–1971) described their visions of a nation freed of colonialism while later, in the 1930s, others, such as Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (1908–1994), stated the case for Western values, including the rights of women. The era of cultural criticism began with the publication of the literary-cultural magazine Pujangga Baru (New Poet), in 1933. At that time, cultural critics were divided into two camps: the first consisted of those who called for the unquestioning assimilation of Western ideologies and the rejection of antiquated customs (Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana), while the second defended the traditional values of Indonesian culture (Armijn Pané, 1908–1970).
Alongside the fight for national independence, the need to overcome social problems also came to the fore. The literary group Angkatan 45 (Generation of 1945) focused on topics like universality and humanity, while orienting themselves on the works of the poet Chairil Anwar (1922–1949). They were followed by Angkatan 66 (Generation of 1966), whose members protested against the Sukarno regime and composed combative poems about truth, justice and freedom (Taufiq Ismail, *1937).
This politically and socially aware literature was superseded by a literary current that preferred experimental forms of poetry. The most important exponent of this was Rendra (1935–2009), one of the best-known Indonesian authors of the 20th century. Rendra, whose influences included Brecht, Shakespeare and Beckett, also used his theatre work to provide a new setting for older forms of music and language. A selection of his poems was published in Germantranslation under the title “Weltliche Gesänge und Pamphlete” (Horlemann, 1991; Secular Songs and Pamphlets). Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925–2006) was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times was – and still is – perhaps the most famous Indonesian writer internationally. He wrote about 40 works, which have been translated into around 40 different languages. Toer spent many years in prison for his political views, where he continued to write surreptitiously, producing his most famous work, the four novels of his Buru Quartet (consisting of “This Earth of Mankind”, “Child of All Nations”, “House of Glass” and “Footsteps”). In this row of important authors Mochtar Lubis (1922–2004) has to be mentioned, too.
Among Indonesia’s older contemporary authors are Toeti Heraty (*1933), Sapardi Joko Damono (*1940), Goenawan Mohamad (*1941), Damanto (*1942) and Putu Wijaya (*1944). Besides criticism of social and political shortcomings and attempts to address the problems of existence, these writers’ themes include the search for God, the conflict between tradition and modernity, and the place of the individual in the inhuman world of the megacity.
During the change in transition from an authoritarian to a democratic state, starting in 1998 with the resignation of Indonesia’s strongman-leader, Soeharto, a whole new generation of Indonesian writers have appeared – many of them women: Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari, Leila S. Chudori, and Laksmi Pamuntjak to name just four. Indonesia’s younger writers are much more confrontational in their approach to writing and not averse to airing their views on subjects such as homosexuality, abortion, religious tolerance, and women’s rights, subjects that in previous years had rarely been spoken about publicly. Recent novels by Ayu Utami, Leila Chudori, and Laksmi Pamuntjak are scheduled for rerelease in German this year.
(Source: German Book Office, New Delhi. Indonesia is the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt Book Fair 2015)