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Books I’ve read (about Indonesia)

30 July 2011

When I went to live in Malaysia in 2004, just about everything I knew came from Lonely Planet. I rapidly became very curious about the history of the country and scoured the bookstores for anything (in English) that would help me.

Now preparing to live in Indonesia for 10 months, I wanted to read up before leaving. Here are three books that I found very, very helpful — and four novels that I will discuss a little later.

A History of Modern Indonesia (2005), by Adrian Vickers, is a very readable history that takes care to examine the groundwork laid in the Dutch colonial era for the modern Indonesian state. I’m not a big reader of history, so the fact that I happily read this cover to cover shows that it is well written and quite interesting. The focus on the seeds of nationalism before and during the Japanese occupation really helped me understand how this diverse nation invented itself, and the sections about Sukarno and later Suharto (Soeharto) enabled me finally to construct a sort of roadmap in my mind of the path Indonesia has followed from its independence to the present day.

In the Time of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos (2005), by Richard Lloyd Parry: I was riveted by this account of several distinct periods of violent upheaval in Indonesia’s recent past (since the mid-1990s). The journalistic tone suits my tastes as a reader, and the first-person perspective made me feel the danger and fascination in equal measure. I wouldn’t recommend this as someone’s first book about Indonesia, but if you’re able to situate these periods of political violence in the context of Indonesia’s history under Suharto, it will clarify how the unthinkable flares up and spreads when the institutions of law and order are corrupt.

Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity (2010), by Robert Pringle, was the book I chose after I decided I needed to know more about Indonesia’s unique blend of Islamic and other traditions. Having lived in Malaysia, I’m familiar with the basic practices and beliefs of Islam; moreover, the role played by Islam in the politics of Malaysia is huge, so it’s impossible to discuss the political future of that country without also discussing religion. Everything I had read made me think that the relationship of Islam to the political life of Indonesia is a very different story. That appears to be so. This book surprised me with its storylike quality — reading it was like listening to a knowledgeable friend explain all the interesting little interconnections among the fascinating twists and turns of the plot. At the end, I realized that the one thing I can be sure of about Islam in Indonesia is that one can’t take anything for granted.

There are three other histories I think are worthy of note for a generalist like me:

  • Southeast Asia: Past and Present, 6th edition, edited by D. R. SarDesai. This covers all the ASEAN nations, and I found it most useful for the integrated histories of pre-colonial times.
  • A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200, 4th edition, by M.C. Ricklefs. This seems to be the primary general history of Indonesia that all others refer to. I haven’t read it because I feel quite satisfied with those I have already read.
  • Indonesia: Peoples and Histories, by Jean Gelman Taylor. This includes a lot of little articles about specific aspects of Indonesian culture, some of which are interesting. I started reading at the beginning, and by about page 80 or so, I grew tired of it. The writing seemed too catalog-like. This might be a good book for people who like to skip around and not read straight through.

Four Great Novels of Indonesia

The four novels in the “Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer were recommended to me about three years ago on Shelfari (which used to be a much better book lovers’ community than it is now). I was reading a lot of fiction from and about Southeast Asia then, so I bought the first book, This Earth of Mankind — and tore through it at top speed. It was exciting, strange, compelling — the story of Minke, a Javanese youth attending an elite Dutch high school in Surabaya at the very end of the 1800s. The story opened my eyes to all kinds of weird colonial stuff (for example, “Natives” vs. “Indos” in a perpetual game of racial one-upmanship) and was my first indication that things were very different in the colonial Indies than they were in nearby Malaya at the same time.

I immediately bought the second novel, Child of All Nations, and eagerly followed Minke in the next stage of his young life. Now he begins to have political consciousness, questioning the power structure of the world in which he has grown up (including control of the land and resources), and trying to find his own place in the world. He writes articles about his views that are published in local newspapers. This was also a fast-moving story for me, and so I was eager to start the third book in the quartet as soon as I had finished.

However, I soon found the third book, Footsteps, to be slow going. At first it was exciting — young Minke arrives in Batavia (now Jakarta) to attend the medical school for Natives. To graduate from that school and become a “Native doctor” was the highest intellectual post open to the people classed by the Dutch as “Natives,” and being a very bright and well educated young man, Minke sees this as the logical next step for him. However, he cannot ignore the politics of the time and the injustice all around him. Moreover, revolutionary events in China are raising consciousness all over Asia, and the modern world — motorcars, trains, printing presses — is inspiring people in the Indies to discover nationalism.

I abandoned Footsteps halfway through and thought I might never finish it. As the story became more focused on the birth of nationalism in the Indies, it lost its hold on me. However, after I had finished reading Adrian Vickers’s A History of Modern Indonesia (see above), I thought I might give Footsteps another try. That turned out to be a great move — with Vickers’s history lesson fresh in my mind, Minke’s activities as a newspaper editor and thought leader in Footsteps brought the era to life for me!

I’ve just begun reading the final book, House of Glass. It starts in 1912, and I can’t say exactly what’s going on because it would spoil the ending of Footsteps for a new reader. However, I was reminded when I read the translator’s note and introduction that these four novels were long banned in Indonesia under Suharto, and people were imprisoned for trying to distribute them. The translator himself, an Australian diplomat, was recalled by his own government (presumably because of the subversive act of translating the books into English).

See also: Minke: ‘Everything is political …’ (about House of Glass)

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