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Leila S Chudori: Pulang (Home)

Most Westerners know little about Indonesian history and politics. If they know anything about the 1965 coup and the ousting of Sukarno, it is probably from Christopher Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously and, in particular, the film of the book, starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. This novel is primarily set from the year of the coup to the fall of Suharto in 1998.

The story is told from the perspective of Dimas Suryo, his wife (later ex-wife), his daughter and his friends and associates. Dimas had come to know Hananto while studying and had followed him into the news agency where Hananto worked. While Hananto was a communist or, at least, very sympathetic to them, Dimas was not, though he certainly was left-wing and critical of the government (Both Mas Hananto and Mas Nugroho strongly believed in the virtues of socialism, but I saw numerous weak points in their theories and, even in the face of Mas Hananto’s derision, I continued to stand by my view that while there are some things that the government should ultimately be responsible for — public health and services, to name two, there are other things that are far better left entrusted to the private sector.) Dimas had met and fallen in love with Surti. However, they had had a row and before long, Surti was married to Hananto. They had three children but Hananto was not faithful. Ironically, it was this that saved Dimas’ life. It was planned that Hananto would go to a conference in Santiago (followed by conferences in Havana and Peking). However, his marriage was at risk because of his infidelity and he decided to stay at home to try and repair it. Dimas was sent instead. While he was away, the 1965 coup took place. Dimas’ brother warned him to stay away, as most of the people at the news agency had either been arrested or, in some cases (including Hananto) had managed to flee. As we learn at the very beginning, Hananto is captured by the army after a while.

Dimas and his friends eventually get to China but are not happy living in the Cultural Revolution and, eventually, they manage to make their way to Paris. Initially, it is hard. They get some assistance from the French government but are eager to work but have little knowledge of French. They manage to get various odd jobs. Though one of them, Nugroho, is an acupuncturist and works at that. Soon after they arrive, it is 1968 and they watch the May uprisings with interest. Observing them one day, Dimas meets a young French woman, Vivienne. They become friendly and, eventually, marry, having a daughter, Lintang Utara (meaning North Star). Meanwhile, the men decide they have had enough of odd jobs and decide to open an Indonesian restaurant, not least because Dimas is a first-class cook. (The restaurant is based on an actual restaurant.) To their surprise, the restaurant becomes a great success. More importantly, it helped them find a purpose and, almost, a home in France.

Things do not go well with Dimas and Vivienne. Though he loves Vivienne, his heart is still in Indonesia. He misses the country terribly but cannot return. He remains very much in touch with Surti, particularly after Hananto is shot by the Indonesian government. and this eventually leads to a rift between the couple and they divorce. Dimas has been continuing the struggle, writing a newsletter and articles critical of the Suharto administration, so much so that the restaurant is banned to Indonesian officials in Paris. However, Lintang Utara, while speaking fluent indonesian and very much aware of the situation in the country and her father’s views, is not committed to the cause. Indeed, while making a documentary film for her film studies course at university, she proposes making one on Algeria. It is her professor who persuades her that she should make one on Indonesia, not least because hundreds of French students have done one on Algeria. She not only studies the country but realises that she must visit it. Inevitably she visits it at the time when there is considerable turmoil. The second part of the book is about her discovery of the home country she has never visited, its politics and its culture and what her role is and should be.

The book is, of course, a story of a people whose lives have been completely disrupted because of political problems but it is also about identity and the search for that identity. For Dimas and his friends, their identity, despite the restaurant and their romantic relationships, is bound up with Indonesia, a country they cannot visit. We were in the midst of a search for our identity, shapeless souls searching for a body to inhabit, Dimas says, and later says to his daughter I want to go home, Lintang. To a place that understands my odor, my physique, and my soul. I want to go home. Lintang has another problem. My roots were in a foreign land. I was born in France, a country with a beautiful body and fragrant scent. But, according to my father, my blood came from another country, one far distant from the European land mass, a place that gave the world the scent of cloves and wasted sadness; a land of fecundity, rich with plants of myriad colours, shapes, and faiths, yet one that could crush its own citizens merely because of a difference in opinion. How could she identify with that? The answer, she says was that Coursing through my veins was a kind of blood I did not know, but which was called Indonesia, and which melded with the other kind of blood in me called France.The flow of that foreign blood inside me always seemed to quicken and make my heart beat faster. Lintang does go to Indonesia and does, in her way, find her Indonesian connection. For Dimas it is not so easy.

This is an excellent novel. Writing a book with several different, albeit related, points of views, has its own problems but Chudori pulls it off, not least because her main characters all have that key ingredient in common, namely Indonesia and their vision of what Indonesia should be. But she also tells a first-class story and, even if Indonesia is remote and unknown to us, we find ourselves sharing its troubles and very much taking the sides that Chudori wants us to take. This is her first novel and it is to be hoped that she writes more.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia
First English publication by Deep Vellum in 2015
Translated by John H McGlynn