IN THE JOURNAL | BOOK REVIEWS
The victims speak
October-December 2013

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.  

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