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Indonesia as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015: An interview with Agus R. Sarjono

Exotic and poetic, traditional and modern: Indonesia is Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015. We spoke to the writer Agus R. Sarjono about what makes Indonesian literature special, why it remains so little known in Germany and the rest of Europe, and what the Frankfurt Book Fair has to offer the Indonesian literary world.

The Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 will take place from 14 to 18 October. Under the slogan ‘17,000 Islands of Imagination’ Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, will provide wide-ranging insights into its rich literary and cultural scene, for the first time in the German speaking countries.

Please tell us a little bit about the literature of Indonesia. What is special about it? How does it differ from European literature?

Agus R. Sarjono: The history of Indonesian literature stretches quite a long way back. You’ll find it includes traditional stories such as Arjuna Wiwaha, as well as long epic poems like Ila Galigo. Later, during the period of the Islamic sultans, many different poems and fairy tales were written. One writer from that time, who stands out from the rest and who wrote in the Indonesian Malay language, was Hamzah Fansuri. His verses show him dealing in a personal way with questions of God and other religious themes. After him came Ronggowarsito (Javan), Raja Ali Haji (Malay) and Haji Hasan Mustapa (Sundanese). Mustapa’s poetry still counts today as contemporary verse.

Modern Indonesian literature emerged during the Dutch colonial period, when Indonesian intellectuals came into contact with western literature. With respect to poetry, Amir Hamzah was the last Malay poet whose work united Malay and Western traditions. Chairil Anwar, on the other hand, is seen in Indonesia as the first modern poet. Other major Indonesian poets – to name just a few – include WS Rendra, the great master of his art, who was repeatedly attacked and arrested during the period of the New Order, and Sutardji Calzoum Bahcri, who has been dubbed the ‘President of Indonesian Poets’. Members of the younger generation of writers have carved out different paths for themselves. I could mention several famous names here, such as Afrizal Malna, Acep Zamzam Noor, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, Jamal D. Rahman, Djoko Pinurbo and Nenden Lilis Aisyah.

About Agus R. Sarjono

Agus R. Sarjono is one of Indonesia’s most important poets. Besides verse, he writes short stories, essays, criticism and plays. His works have mainly appeared in publications in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, but also in magazines in Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA.

Agus R. Sarjono at the Frankfurter Book Fair

A conversation between Indonesian author Agus R. Sarjono and freelance writer Ulla Lenze from Berlin, on the theme of ‘Literature Perspectives Exchange: Indonesia – Germany’

The situation with prose literature is no less interesting. Mochtar Lubis’ novels and short stories are famous; everyone, whether from Jakarta or the deepest jungles of Sumatra, finds them fascinating. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is very widely known, of course. It was he who depicted the birth of our nation in such detail in his masterful tetralogy, the Buru Quartet. Both Mochtar Lubis and Pramoedya Ananta Toer were attacked by two regimes – that of the earlier Nasakom system, as well as the New Order.

Umar Kayam also counts as one of the more brilliant writers. At the height of the anti-Communist regime, he gave shelter to victims within the ‘30 September Movement’ who were suspected of being left-wing. That event was dealt with courageously by Ahmad Tohari in his famous trilogy, The Dancer of Dukuh Paruk. Danarto, on the other hand, writes extremely interesting short stories in a conventionally realist style, while Nh. Dini achieved success with readers of Indonesian literature, with her novel Pada sebuah kapal (‘On a Boat’), in which she talks very openly about sexuality and womanhood. Ayu Utami takes a similar path in her novel Saman.

The most important themes of Indonesian literature, especially in prose, seem to be the confrontation and the dialogue between the cultures of West and East. Achdiat Karta Miharja’s 1949 novel Atheis, for instance, addresses a topic very similar to that of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. However, the motif of identity and the schism between East and West since the 1970s has now lost its relevance and is no longer addressed by authors such as Putu Wijaya, Budi Darma, Danarto and representatives of today’s generation.

Indonesia: Island of Imagination

Why are so few people in Germany or other European countries familiar with Indonesian literature?

Agus R. Sarjono: The literature of Indonesia isn’t very well known in Germany or the rest of Europe because there has never been a serious attempt to make it known. Nobody has ever made a systematic, sustained effort to translate or explain the riches of Indonesian literature; not the classical works, and certainly not the modern. The reason for this might lie in the fact that Indonesia’s ruling elites were never the keenest of readers, and were even less the type of people to value and spend time with literature.

Secondly, for a long time literature was thought of as just a means of protesting against the government. For this reason, the introduction of German and European readers to Indonesian literature was only sporadic and limited, and it was solely thanks to the activities of the writers themselves and to the attention they gained among their friends and intellectuals in Germany and Europe. As a rule, very few translations were produced and the standard of these was often poor, leaving readers in Germany and Europe disappointed.

As an example, Pramoedya’s novels were initially translated into English of not very good quality. As a result, his name became increasingly well know due to his political fate, but his works failed to achieve the same level of significance. Just think what would have happened if Gabriel García Márquez’ had not had such an excellent translator as Gregory Rabassa for his masterpiece Cien años de soledad (‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’): it’s inconceivable that English-speaking readers would have been as enthusiastic, and Márquez certainly wouldn’t have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which, naturally, he fully deserved to win.

Another reason – and an internal problem for Indonesian literature – is that there are many Indonesian works, both prose and poetry, which are little more than poor copies or weak echoes of the Western literary tradition. You just can’t expect Germans (or other foreigners) to find that kind of thing interesting – or to read works that are mere copies of traditions in  Western literature that have already become antiquated in the West. Just as the German public wouldn’t be interested in fake Adidas shoes, but would prefer authentic shoes manufactured in Indonesia.

Frankfurt Book Fair 2015: Guest of Honour 2015 Indonesia

This year, Indonesia is the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. How will this fact influence Indonesian literature, and is it generally seen with optimism?

Agus R. Sarjono: To be Guest of Honour at the biggest book fair in the world is a very significant thing. It’s something you only experience once in a lifetime. Sadly, not everyone – not even all the ethnic groups – have been able to take advantage of the opportunity the Frankfurt Book Fair gives them. I sincerely hope that Indonesia makes the very best of this unique opportunity.

The influence of the Frankfurt Book Fair on Indonesia’s publishing and literary world could be very big, provided that Indonesia, as Guest of Honour, manages to present itself as a land with a writing tradition, one with its own literary and intellectual stamp, and with a multiplicity of cultures. Indonesia must take this chance to identify some particularly good translators and to present some unusual and outstanding works of its literature – irrespective whether the authors are deceased or still alive.

Among the writers whose works should be presented, without fail, are Sutardji Calzoum Bachri, Danarto, Putu Wijaya, Budi Darma and Dorothea Rosa Herliany, as well as Ayu Utami, Afrizal Malna, Seno Gumira Adjidarma and Acep Zamzam Noor. Besides the authors, there are also important supporters of literature, such as Rida K. Liamsi, Bre Redana, Jamal D. Rahman and Putu Fajar Arcana. It’s also important not to concentrate just on authors from Jakarta or Java, but to introduce writers from other parts of Indonesia too.

However, if this important event, being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, should be dominated by poor stereotypes of exotic Indonesia, such as music, dance and cuisine, then it would be an opportunity missed. Indonesians would be thought of as a people without a worthy writing culture. And something else that could happen is if the authors appearing at the Frankfurt Book Fair were just mediocre, their influence would be counterproductive.

What can Indonesia do to ensure the world learns more about its literature?

Agus R. Sarjono: Indonesia must continue to promote its best literary works abroad, through the efforts of good translators. And it should send good writers overseas to let them write there, and to discuss and read their works.

Interview: Novel Meilanie

You can also read the Alumni portrait of Agus R. Sarjono

October 2015

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