The Literary Movement: A Mirror of Social Development



THE language of Indonesian literature today is modernized Malay, but in form and approach our writers owe much to Western influence. Therefore it is appropriate to call Abdullah bin Abdulkadir Munsji the “father" of modern Indonesian literature because it was he who, early in the nineteenth century, put new life into the moribund Malay language and was also the first in our part of the world to study and recognize the values in Western culture as such. Our people had had three centuries of contact with the West in battle and trade and through missionaries, but it was Abdullah, as much as anyone, who started the process of acculturation at the intellectual level.

Abdullah, an employee of the British in Singapore, wrote his books with a critical eye and an open mind, and they constitute a significant moment in the spiritual and social development of the Malay and his linguistic brother, the Indonesian. For that moment marked the first step in an evolution which was to cross boundaries and unveil things which had been concealed, which was to shatter the concept of East-West as a pair in conflict and which finally, in the position of the youngest generation of Indonesian writers today, was to be formulated in the sentence: “We are the joint heirs of world culture. . .

Abdullah had no immediate followers; he developed no school. He w as a pioneer ahead of his time; his contemporaries were not ready to absorb the values from Western culture which Abdullah revealed to them. Many wars would still have to be fought. National heroes like Tengku Imam Bondjol and Diponegoro would have to face the Dutch troops. People were still writing in the old, florid, and archaic style, and whatever literature emerged w as so traditional as to be anonymous and unsigned.

But in our own century Abdullah’s work has borne fruit, though in another form and with a different potential. For the Malay language was taken up by those who were active in the struggle for Indonesian independence. Journalism came to the fore, with attention centered on social and political problems. It was as journalists that many of our best writers gained their education and experience, and thence came the first Indonesian novels and short stories. Later our poets were to lead in developing the language — making “Indonesian ” out of Malay, as it were — but interest in social conditions has been unquestionably the most common theme of our modern literature.

One outstanding product of this journalistic school was Merari Siregar’s novel The Miseries of a Young Girl, published in 1920 by Balai Pustaka (House of Books), a government institution created to provide inexpensive reading material for the people. The book had small literary value — it was written in a very sentimental style — but is of interest as a social document. Merari Siregar took freedom in marriage for his main theme and revealed the tragedy which can arise from a custom which represses the individual. Siregar wanted to abolish the past; he hoped to loosen the shackles of the traditional way of life. How far the authors challenge really went is difficult to determine because in those days it was the practice of the Balai Pustaka editors to alter manuscripts at will. Whoever may be responsible, I here is about The Miseries of a Young Girl a certain failure to face reality; the book concludes lamely by extolling all those who were victimized in one way or another. And this conclusion — the voice of protest — was 1o remain typical in Indonesian literature up to the Pudjangga Baru (New Writers) period, beginning in 1033.

Another book which had virtually the same style and theme was Siti Nurbaja by Marah Rusli, which appeared in 1922. Yet in this novel an interesting new development was already apparent: the question of educational background as a factor in character was added to the basic social protest and was probed at length. Too much, in fact; Marah Rusli frequently interrupted his narrative to insert advice to the reader; he let his characters make speeches to the point that parts of the book were hardly believable. This didactic tendency, which has been a common feature in our modern writing, actually has its roots in old Malay literature. Indeed, even now one cannot say that Indonesian literature has freed itself entirely from its ancestral prototypes.

The principal character in the novel Wrong Upbringing of Abdul Muis (written in 1928) revealed the results of the growing contact and conflict between Western culture and our own. The formal education which Indonesians were now getting in school brought far-reaching consequences and many kinds of friction. Hanafi, the hero of Abdul Muis’ book, is a young man with a Western education. He is married to a European but the marriage runs aground and Hanafi returns to his mother’s home to marry a girl from among his own kind. Later he commits suicide because he feels that he has become a foreigner in his own land. In Wrong Upbringing the author portrayed the dangers in the meeting of East and West, analyzing a problem for which there could be no immediate solution.


THE activity of writers such as Siregar, Rusli, and Muis was only a preface to the full flowering of our modern literary movement, which may perhaps be dated from the founding in 1933 of the literary periodical Pudjangga Baru in Jakarta. This magazine was pioneered by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, Armijn Pane, Sanusi Pane, and Amir Hamzah, all of whom are still flourishing. This group was later given the name “the Generation of ‘33.” In the pages of Pudjangga Baru Armijn Pané and Alisjahbana discussed old Malay poetry which, they said flatly, had no character whatsoever. Alisjahbana, with his Western tendencies (he had studied in Germany), believed that our people, if they hoped to progress, would have to face towards the West and follow its example. As a matter of fact, the influence on Indonesian writers of such figures as T. S. Eliot, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Gide, Sartre, St. Exupery, and Rilke has indeed been considerable. By and large, Indonesian writers have felt most attached to English literature, followed by French and Russian, a good deal of which appeared in translation both before and after the Second World War.

In the Pudjangga Baru group two main currents were clear: Alisjahbana and Armijn Pané, who were Westernized, and Sanusi Pané and Amir Hamzah, who, though not rejecting the West, still clearly directed their attention to the East. Sanusi Pane adapted many old Indonesian legends, while Amir Hamzah produced an anthology of translations of Eastern poetry ranging from Indian classics and Li Po to Omar Khayyam. An undercurrent of nationalistic feeling united t he two factions. In the early numbers of Pudjangga Baru Armijn Pané answered attacks which hinted that the review was born of the Dutch-sponsored Balai Pustaka, a nest of imperialism. Although these writers were greatly influenced by the Dutch and their literary movement known as the “Generation of 1880,”there was little basic similarity between them. For instance, one seeks in vain for any signs of the “art for art’s sake” tone which was strong in the Dutch writers. In his novel With Sails Unfurled, published in 1936, Alisjahbana revealed his ideals, which were those commonly held by men of his background at that 1 ime. It is clear t hat he worshiped anyone with a higher education and in his stories he bestowed fitting attributes upon any character who had one.

Sanusi Pqne left an excellent position, financially speaking, to join the independence movement. A poet, who had traveled in India and studied at Tagore’s Santiniketan University, Pane stopped dealing rather nostalgically with the past and wrote a play called The New Man (1940). Its scene was India — chosen no doubt to confuse the Dutch Political Intelligence Service — and it portrayed the type of “new man” then appearing in Indian society as that country moved toward freedom. In his introduction, Pane pointed out that what was happening in India could also happen in other places.

Amir Hamzah, considered by many the most important poet of the Pudjangga Baru group, was completely dedicated to his country. He expressed this devotion in his work in Utopian phrases: he loved the shores on which he walked, the seas at which he gazed in open-eyed adorat ion, and he wept for his mother whom he had left behind in his village. In the hands of Amir Hamzah the Malay language attained a. new perfection; he was able to revive some of its old beauties, charging the old with fresh sentiment and emotion. Many of his themes were drawn from our ancient Malay literature. Although a child of a society which caused him many personal difficulties, he used words not like the point of a sword but as an enticing song.

Among the novelists of the Pudjangga Baru group, Armijn Pane was outstanding. His Shackled appeared in 1940 and was, in its outlook, far ahead of ot her contemporary efforts. Armijn Pane turned his back on the conventional attitudes of his day. In much of our modern fiction the principal character has been a Western-educated person and, commensurate with his level of education, he possessed a certain status. In one novel he was a teacher, in another a clerk, and in both Rush’s Siti Nurbaja and Alisjahbana’s With Sails Unfurled he was a medical student. Armijn Pané also created the character of an educated doctor, but, for the first time, he separated higher education from superior, idealized character. Pané strove for realism, Ilis doctor preferred krontjong (our native jazz) to highbrow music and was allowed to become involved with a prostitute. This was something beyond the pale for the public at that time and caused a scandal. Ha Ini Pustaka refused to publish the book and when Pustaka Rakjat, Alisjahbana’s publishing firm, accepted it, several women’s organizations sent in their protest. Armijn Pané’s attempt in Shackled to make his characters real people, instead of stereotypes, began a trend which has continued steadily in our literature to this day.

In the meanwhile, there arose a group of Islamic intellectuals centered in Medan, Sumatra. Their interests combined social development and progress in the nationalist movement with a strong religious revival. This Islamic group was oriented towards Arabic literature and knew Western literature only t hrough Arabic translat ions of French books. Hence its background differed greatly from that of the Jakarta writers who were grounded in various of the European languages.

These writers in Sumatra were not members of the governing class or even of the middle classes, but of a poorer group which was only able to send its children to Indonesian schools where tuition was low. Thus they had almost no connection with the world of officialdom in their way of thinking. This was clearly reflected in the characters they created in their novels, figures who resented existing social conditions and sided strongly with the nationalist cause. There was often a conflict between a father who was a government official and his son who was unwilling to follow in his footsteps. The polemics in which the characters engaged largely concerned the Muslim view of life, which was always hotly defended.

Their poor economic and social position united these Muslim authors with another, though nonMuslim, group which flourished at the same time. These were the pro-Marxists, represented by Banda Harahap (who is still writing, under the pseudonym of “Bandaharo”): Abdulkarim, who wrote The Outcast Guide, the story of a former Communist lighter who was exiled to Digul in New Guinea, and a book about the patriot Teuku Umar; and Saleh Umar, who published a collection of poems entitled New Indonesia. These pro-Marxist writers can be called self-educated, as distinguished from those who had obtained a conservative Western education, or the Muslim group. They have tried to write simply to reach the common people and their subject matter has, of course, featured the woes of the proletariat .


DURING the Japanese occupation — a time of trial and the prelude to future changes — Amal Hamzah, brother of the older poet, Amir Hamzah, revealed his feelings in his poem “Sine Nomine,” which goes in part:

. . . the typhoon rages wildly.
Flinging itself upon the boat.
All is shattered, crushed,
And I remain without a goal . . .

Perhaps he is speaking of spiritual difficulties, but he is also suggesting the failure of communication which discouraged the writers of that period. Social changes can often lead to semantic confusion. A language can fall behind the demands which are made on it. The significance of common phrases can alter. Education can change a people’s outlook in a few decades; or it can also lag behind in providing the means for necessary adjustments.

Before the arrival of the Japanese the school system, geared to the social pattern which the Dutch wished to preserve in Indonesia, was primarily designed to produce minor officials and craftsmen. The most important subject was mathematics. A pupil who was poor in mathematics was considered stupid, and transferred to another class where he would have little opportunity to continue his studies seriously. The humanities were subjects for impractical people, for the dreamer, and wholly unimportant. Language was considered nothing more than a tool for acquiring knowledge and had no importance as literature.

In our society in the twenties and thirties materialism had been dominant. The criteria of a successful marriage were the position of the young man and the dowry of the girl. Every intellectual experience was avoided, as were any thoughts outside the conventional or legal boundaries — partly because the consequence could be exile. It was dinned into a boy from earliest childhood that to obtain a good position in later life he would have to do well in school. A lad became a doctor, not because he was heeding a humanitarian call, but because the title of doctor meant social standing. Although there were some stirrings of dissent from the Pudjangga Baru circle — one writer used the term “intellectual nobility” as a substitute for nobility by birth—the feudal mentality which. from the beginning, had dominated Indonesian history was holding its ground. It merely moved over to a different sphere, thanks to the Western associations of the new leaders. The feudal families, proud of their descent and titles, gradually yielded status to academicians who replaced titles of nobility with academic ones. This group held the highest positions and were thus able to send their children to expensive schools. Some of the young Indonesian writers of today spring from such parentage. They were, on the basis of their educational background, destined to become government officials. They grew np accepting the dictum of their elders that the most important thing in life was social status.


THE Japanese occupation shifted the position of these fundamental values. The Japanese placed far less emphasis on officialdom and education and indicated much more interest in those public figures who had close ties with the people and were influential with them. Thus new types which before had never attracted much attention, began to have standing in the community. There was a rapid devaluation of those who had previously been held in high esteem because of their wealth or rank. Doubt assailed the old values on all sides.

In this spirit the poet Chairil Anwar wrote:

We are seeking to take not just ordinary snapshots but X-rays right into the white of the bones. We no longer permit ourselves to be merely musical instruments of life; rather, we are the performers of the songs of life, which will always require us to be direct and frank. The young poet must make an accurate investigation. He must be a perceptive critic, penetrating to the fundamentals. Everything reaches his hands and feels the probing of his flashing scalpel. Everything! Even the sacred banyan trees which so far have not been approached.

And in my own Motes on Pink Paper (1949) I wrote:

We must dare to view mankind without clothes, without pride, without pretense or anything which we fail to find essential in flesh and blood. Later, however, we must eliminate whatever cannot live in our own time. What we ourselves may lose is of no concern. We have been frank and we want frankness in return. The period of deception has now passed, and we do not wish to be deceived again.

These were the sentiments of a new generation of Indonesian writers who were to emerge during the revolution beginning in 1945.

Changes in the form and use of the language in Indonesian literature did not, as a matter of fact, occur to any great extent during the period of Japanese occupation. To be sure, Chairil Anwar wrote some of his finest poems during this time but they had little circulation until the outbreak of the revolution. Then, rising to the crisis, Anwar matured into a poet who, at his best, can bear comparison with those of Europe. His rich imagination and powerful gift of phrase profoundly affected the development of Malay as a literary language; he helped to free it from the clutches of the grammarians. His untimely death at the age of twenty-seven in 1949 was a real blow to our culture.

Initially, the Japanese period saw a type of writing which continued many tendencies of the Pudjangga Baru movement; romantic and idealistic themes at first remained in vogue. But with the establishment of the Pusat Kebudajaan (Cultural Center) which the Japanese used as a propaganda tool alongside the official Propaganda Office, romantic poetry came under criticism. The Japanese wanted us to regard the Greater East Asia struggle as our own battle and to promote this idea they attempted to channel cultural activities. For them the only acceptable poetry was that which was enthusiastic, praising the soldier and the struggle, singing of hatred towards the enemy. The effort of the Japanese to use our creative writers for propaganda forced the Pudjangga Barn group to face reality. The Cultural Center sent writers to areas where cotton was being planted or where ships were being built to compose poems or stories on these themes.

For a while many people believed that the Japanese were sincere in their desire to liberate Indonesia. One book on Japanese foreign policy, written by an American, which might have warned us of Japan’s true intentions, lay on the shelves of the Museum Library, untouched by anyone, its pages uncut. Our only contact with the outside world was with Japan and its slogans. In this isolation our intellectuals formed their own circles and began to restudy our basic problems.

For the first time after so many decades the Indonesian had to assume responsibility. He had to do everything. If he were ill, he could no longer expect imported medicine but had to seek again the remedies used by his ancestors. lie was forced to change from a consumer to a manufacturer. Enterprises which had been unable to develop because of foreign control could now do so. The practical man, the manager, rose in importance, and the intellectuals had to give way to him. The intellectuals had to learn humility. They began to share the problems and difficulties of the masses. In their search for understanding, carried on in much agony of spirit, they finally arrived at a belief in themselves. It was as if something inside our writers had been broken, just as the old pattern of society had been broken. But in the end they found the way and their poems and stories began to voice aspirations which even the Japanese censorship could not totally stifle.

Several important literary figures developed during this transitional period. There was Usmar Ismail, who later published a collection of plays and poetry, and Rosihan Anwar, a poet and editor of one of our leading newspapers. Add to these the dramatist El Hakim (pseudonym of Dr. Abu Hanifah, now adviser to the Foreign Ministry), Amal JIamzah, and Anas Ma’ruf.

Later, during the revolution, a number of others came to prominence: Mochtar Lubis, a short story’ writer, journalist, and editor of one of Jakarta’s larger newspapers; Idrus and Pramoedya Ananta Toer who, in the opinion of many, are outstanding among the new fiction writers. In 1949, Achdiat K. Mihardja attracted considerable attention with his novel, The Atheist.

So many writers have appeared in the past decade that the period is loosely referred to as the “Generation of ‘45,” from the year when the final fight for Independence began. Surprisingly, perhaps, these newest writers have not interpreted the revolution as epic history filled with heroic deeds. They seem more interested in its effect on the individual. Thus Toer’s The Guerrilla Family (1950) is not a description of the courage of resistance fighters, but of the inner conflict which they experienced when it came time to take up arms. And the central figure in There is No Tomorrow (1948) by Mochtar Lubis fights not because he is brave and eager to become a hero, but for a reason far removed from heroism.

The recent output of novels has not been large. The fighting is over, but, socially, the revolution is still going on. There has not been time to digest so much confused experience. Then too, with other work necessary to earn a living, our writers have little leisure. This may explain why it is the short story which is really flourishing today. Stories can be written quickly, their pace is in tune with the rapidity of change around us, and they are easier to get. published than a novel. One significant new trend is a growing interest in the possibilities of poetic drama. Old Malay poetry was composed for recitation and is rich in symbolic content. From this tradition might well come an awakening in the drama.

To what extent will the next phase of our literature be international, influenced by the work of foreign writers? With English being ever more widely taught in our schools, and with so many of our young people studying in Western universities, it seems likely that English and American authors will be read increasingly in Indonesia, both in the original and in translations, with a corresponding increase in all forms of cultural exchange. It is our hope that some of our writers will have something worth hearing to say to the whole world as well as to us here at home.

Translated by John M. Echols