JOURNAL | BOOK REVIEWS
The Years of the Voiceless
Reviewed by Keith Loveard
The Soeharto era represents a rich storehouse for works of both fiction and nonfiction. At the same time, so few works of fiction written in the Indonesian language have been translated into English that any entrant to the market should be warmly applauded. When such a work of fiction takes on the legacy of Soeharto seen from the eyes of the people he ruled, it is essential that it provide not only appeal for the reader but also a degree of historical accuracy.
History, it is said, is written by the victors. But when history is not about the results of great battles, but of the slow but steady domination of a nation by an increasingly powerful autocrat, the viewpoint of the “little people” cannot hope to account for every aspect of realities of the past, however.
Okky Madasari’s novel “Entrok,” translated into English by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed as “The Years of the Voiceless,” takes a particularly jaundiced view of the rule of Soeharto and his cronies.
There are two narrators: Sumarni, a girl who grows into puberty in a village near the East Java city of Madiun in the early period of Indonesian independence, and her daughter Rahayu. Sumarni’s greatest wish is to own a bra — entrok in colloquial Javanese — and her discovery of a way to get one and much more, only to become a victim in the end of modern competition, forms one major plank of the story. Instead of just cleaning cassava roots in return for food, as her mother has done to survive for many years, she becomes a market porter, then a trader and finally a money lender. She amasses enough wealth to build a sturdy house, own a car and a couple of hectares of sugar cane fields, and send Rahayu to school and university.
Material success does not automatically translate into happiness, however. With success come those who demand a share of the spoils. “Powerful people with their uniforms and their boots. People who were strong because of their guns. People who were always right because they worked for the state.” The Soeharto era has arrived.
Sumarni’s life is fatally marred by her daughter’s refusal to accept her own animist ways, praying to the gods of the soil for success every evening. Immersed in the formal education system, Rahayu is convinced by her teachers that her mother’s faith in the old beliefs of Java is heresy.
The story of Rahayu is the second major plank in the work. Seduced by orthodox Islam, Rahayu achieves her mother’s dream of entering a state university in Yogyakarta, but after two years of study she spends more time with a Koran study group than in class. Coming face to face with the arbitrary power of people with boots and guns, Rahayu and other members of her group attempt to expose this abuse of power. For their trouble they are thrown out of the university and take refuge within a religious community. After becoming the second wife of an Islamic teacher, she appears to have forgotten her parents.
There is enough material here for any number of novels. Madasari jumps from 1950 to 1999 in a little more than 250 pages. The novel ends with Sumarni discovering that Rahayu is in jail in Semarang, Central Java, for opposing the state at Kedung Ombo, the major dam development that was a subject of controversy from 1985 until 1991. One group of residents refused to move, prompting Soeharto to brand them mbalelo — renegades. In the end, those who opposed the will of the state were declared nonpersons and their identity cards stamped “Eks Tapol” — the mark of former members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). In the novel, Rahayu shares this fate.
Kyai Hasbi, the religious leader who helps the villagers fight the dam, is modeled on KH Hammam Ja’far, the head of a pesantren in Magelang, Central Java, who worked with the Catholic priest Romo Mangunwijaya to set up a school for the Kedung Ombo children. The author idealizes the villagers: “The people had found the answers to all of nature’s riddles. Now they had suddenly become strangers in their own world.” In fact, while they were attached to their land in a mystical way, their main complaint was that the money they needed to buy land elsewhere had been stolen.
Madasari mentions only in passing that life changed for people such as Sumarni and her daughter with the arrival of electricity in their village. She ignores the reality that the Kedung Ombo dam was an important development project that irrigated thousands of hectares of land, enabling people downstream to live far better lives.
The dilemma of development is that inevitably some sacrifices must be made for the benefit of the many. The theft of compensation for the villagers of Kedung Ombo was real but nevertheless they had to move. Add in the sub-theme of the laziness and infidelity of men to this complex set of issues and it is hard not to conclude that Madasari has bitten off far too much more than she can chew compared to her first novel, a book based on the stories told by her grandmother.
Rather than being a history written by the victors, the book instead recounts the story of a few of the losers. It sides with the victims and condemns the officials and lowranking military officers and police who abused their power to strip cash and land from powerless people.
Sumarni, the novel makes clear, was convinced that the only way to work within such a system was to cooperate with it, to share the wealth she amassed. That she became a victim of the wider impact of Soeharto’s development drive is perhaps incidental. No one was innocent of collusion, except perhaps the villagers of Kedung Ombo, who in the novel as much in life are betrayed by everyone.
The late playwright and poet WS Rendra liked to remark that there was “no certainty of life” during the Soeharto era. This book makes it clear that anyone could become a victim and that, to some degree, almost everyone without a link to power was indeed one.
Fiction does not necessarily require the objectivity that ideally should form the basis of any history. This novel reworks history to suit its own purposes and chooses to ignore the positive side of Soeharto’s rule, in which he came to be known as “the father of development.” Clearly, many more such stories wait to be told.