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'Arok of Java': A coup d'etat and a snotty heroine
Ati Nurbaiti, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Arok of Java: A Novel of Early Indonesia By Pramudya Ananta Toer 2007 translation by Max Lane Cover design and text layout: Clement Michael Publisher: Horizon Books, Singapore Pages: 387

Arrow-wielding monks and nuns. Women in the fighting ranks wearing only loincloths -- and a pregnant one, too.

A struggle for power highlighting the competition between those worshiping Syiwa, Wisnu and others, beyond simply followers of Hinduism and Buddhism, way before Christianity and Islam, and colonial rulers, entered Java.

These are scenes from the early years long before "Indonesia" existed, woven into the tale of legendary figures, when fierce battles were fought for what are now provinces and regencies in the Javanese heartland.

Non-Indonesian speakers can now enjoy Arok of Java, the latest translated work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature during his lifetime.

The original was published in 1999 under the title Arok Dedes: Ken Arok was a low-caste rebel who led a devious coup d'etat against a 13th-century ruler. He was probably the model many men here aspire to: Climb a formidable social ladder and take power and the ruler's beautiful wife in one go.

Pramoedya offers us his fictional version of this part of history: a very welcome one, for one would be hard-pressed anyway to find a "true" account of Indonesia's remote past, when each monarch commissioned a scholar to write a king-endorsed history.

The author died in April last year, but no one at the recent launch of the translated edition was grieving. Participants in the talk at the Periplus bookstore in Kemang, South Jakarta, were just engaged in the story, apart from Pramoedya's other works.

Translator Max Lane raised the alarming fact that literature is not part of the national curricula. How could anyone expect more Indonesians to be aware of Pramoedya's works -- most of which are still officially banned today, even though they can be bought easily -- or those of any major author?

"I'm surprised that writers and students are not angry, they should be marching on the streets to demand literature on the curricula," he said.

Many Indonesians don't even know what they're missing.

For instance, in Arok what is also captivating is the author's portrayal of the caste system and how its members described their own caste and that of others; and how such perceptions contributed to their sense of power and loss.

One is provoked into thinking of today's society, where we still have feudal attitudes though we boast we got rid of the caste system in most of the country.

Pramoedya makes us look hard at supposedly given social divisions, leaving hardly any "feel good" offers for readers. Take the beautiful heroine Dedes -- we decide half way through the story that she's not entitled to be the reader's good-against-evil hero; she's a snotty brahmin looking down on others.

Having reached power suddenly she feels most insecure and powerless the minute that Arok, originally of low caste, rises to replace the dead king -- worse, along with Arok's first wife also of the low sudra caste.

Lane points out the role of the common people such as the peasants in Pramoedya's stories -- "without them the story could not progress," he said.

The people are a core feature of Pramoedya's stories, he said, unlike the traditional wayang puppet shows which picture the rivalry of mostly the elite.

Arok and Dedes, the latter of whom was kidnapped and wed by the ruler, Tunggul Ametung, were the ancestors of future kings of the once famed kingdoms of Singasari and Majapahit.

Arok then prepares the reader for that endless epic involving Majapahit, Arus Balik, which is yet to be translated.

Tracing all this history and sharing it through fiction, Lane said, was Pramoedya's preoccupation particularly after the 1960s. The work involved digging deep under social history, to identify the forces that might explain the lagging "revolution" that first president Sukarno called for -- likely signs of remaining feudalism.

But take heart if you never can manage those novels spanning 900 years, losing your bookmark and losing trace of the characters and the plot in the process of reading and rereading them -- before giving up.

Pramoedya has many, lesser known and equally enjoyable works from which we gain insight into the country's more contemporary past.

His slimmer titles include the story of the hopes and experiences of a young man who wants to join the militia in the last years of struggle against colonial rule, Di Tepi Kali Bekasi (On the banks of the Bekasi river).

Another is about the despair and joys of a young woman, Midah, Si Manis Bergigi Emas (Midah, the sweet one with a golden tooth), who fled home to join a group of buskers after being scolded for enjoying keroncong songs, "the devil's music" her father barked -- just like the reactions in the 1980s to breakdance! Among those available in English is The Girl from the Coast (Gadis Pantai).

These are only a few examples of the wide range of humans, their joys and suffering, that Pramoedya shares with us.

The author himself didn't exactly bring joy to everyone. His contemporaries can not forget bitter encounters with him, citing his leading role in a communist-linked cultural movement to convert whoever he could among writers.

But readers look for any work promising an immensely good read -- and titles by Pramoedya are high on the list.

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