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Achdiat Mihardja: Atheis (Atheis)

This is a novel that starts at the end. The narrator, who is currently working as a black marketeer, has learned of the death of Hasan, killed by the Japanese at the end of the war. Shortly before his death, Hasan had given the narrator a copy of a manuscript which was his autobiography. Most of the novel is this manuscript. Hasan, like his creator, was born into a devout Muslim family. When he is young, a relative, Hadji Dahlan, comes to the house in Bandung and persuades Hasan’s father to join the order of Kijai Mahmud. Hasan asks to join the order as well, when he is older. However, he contracts tuberculosis and is unable to go to university. He gets a job with the water board and it is there that he meets Rusli again. Rusli had been a schoolfriend of his. Rusli introduces Hasan to his sister, Kartini. It soon turns out that Kartini is not Rusli’s real sister but, rather, just a good friend. Hasan is soon attracted to Kartini. He learns that, when she was seventeen, she was forced by her mother to marry a rich old Arab. She was his fourth wife. Hasan had had a girlfriend, Rukmini and she, too, had been forced into marriage by her parents. Kartini reminds Hasan somewhat of Rukmini and he soon falls in love with her. He is initially jealous of Rusli but soon finds out that he is merely protecting Kartini who had left the Arab’s family when the old man died, as she is now being pursued by the old man’s nephew.

Hasan has remained very religious but Rusli takes him to political meetings where religion is condemned and where capitalism is also attacked. Hasan is initially shocked and wary of this new life style, particularly when he sees that Kartini might be responding to his interest. He is even more shocked when he meets Rusli’s opium-smoking friend, Anwar. Gradually – and Mihardja does this very well – Hasan’s views change and he becomes more sympathetic to Rusli and his views, and more critical of religion. When he decides to go and visit his parents in Bandung, Anwar asks to join him. Anwar proceeds to attack the authority there, criticise the local superstitions and even steals mandarins growing in the orchards. Hasan’s parents are shocked that he is losing his religion and say that they want him to marry Fatima, his first cousin who was brought up with him and whom he considers as a sister. However, on returning home, he marries Kartini.

His parents are horrified at the marriage and write to him, telling him that Kartini is depraved. Kartini sees the letter and the couple row and start to drift apart. We know what happens at the end. Has Hasan become an atheist? It is not entirely clear. Mihardja himself denied that he himself had done so. However, the title very much implies it. Whatever the case, Mihardja tells his story of a very devout man’s gradual drift away from religion, partially out of love, partially out of realisation that the world is not simple as it once seemed. It is easy to see both why it has become an Indonesian classic but also why it remains somewhat controversial.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Balai Pustaka
First published in English 1972 by University of Queensland Press
Translated by R J Maguire