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Publication Date : 08-01-2013
An Indonesian author pays tribute to supporters of the communist party who were forced into exile and could not return home
“They’re dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid.” — “They Dance Alone”, Sting
There is a similarity between the grieving Chilean women described in the English musician’s protest song against the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the Indonesian political exiles blamed for the attempted coup in 1965.
The women in “They Dance Alone”, having lost their husbands and sons, are described as dancing the national dance of Chile alone with photographs of their vanished loved ones in their hands.
In Indonesia’s case, the “lonely dancers” are the purported supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), their friends and family members forced into exile following the abortive coup, in which the now-defunct party was held responsible as the mastermind.
After the assassination of six generals — and one young soldier, Capt. Pierre Tendean, who was wrongly identified as Gen. Abdul Haris Nasution — in the coup, thousands of supporters of the PKI were either slaughtered or imprisoned for years without charges under the leadership of Soeharto.
Others allegedly connected with those victims who, at the time, were travelling overseas for different reasons, could not return home, having their passports revoked by the government and had to live in exile.
The latest work of author and journalist Leila S. Chudori, "Pulang (Home)", is a tribute to them.
"Pulang" centres on the story of Dimas Suryo, an Indonesian journalist working for the fictional Nusantara news agency, who was banned from returning to his hometown following the aftermath of the Communist purge.
Before the incident took place, Dimas was attending an international conference for journalists in Santiago, Chile while his colleagues Nugroho, Risjaf and Tjai — a Chinese Indonesian — attended events in Havana, Cuba and Peking.
As their friends and family members are slaughtered or tortured for information in Indonesia, the four friends move to France to make a living, opening an Indonesian eatery called Restoran Tanah Air (based on the real Restoran Indonesia on Rue de Vaugirard, founded by the late writer Sobron Aidit, the younger brother of PKI leader DN Aidit).
After meeting Vivienne Deraux on the sidelines of the student movement in May 1968, Dimas, having received a letter telling him of the tragic death of his best friend at Nusantara starts opening up about his past to the beautiful Frenchwoman.
In the book, the story of Dimas parallels that of his daughter, Lintang Utara, the fruit of his marriage to Deraux, who returns to Indonesia in 1998 to make a documentary on the lives of the banished Indonesians as part of her final project as a student at Paris-Sorbonne University.
Despite the political situation that year — which saw the fall of the Soeharto’s New Order — through the eyes and lenses of Lintang, the readers find heartfelt testimony from those suffering expulsion from society.
In one scene, Surti Anandari, Hananto’s wife and the former lover of Dimas, shaken by days of grilling from officers demanding to know the whereabouts of her husband, testified about how she was forced to satisfy the sick, sexual fantasy of one of the interrogators, who uses the method to torture all the women he questions.
Home. They just want to go home.
Leila, who was born 50 years ago in Jakarta on December 12, mentioned that she was trying to finish Pulang in 2009 while promoting 9 dari Nadira (Stories of Nadira), her collection of short stories that was later developed into a novel centring on the family saga of a young female journalist.
She started writing the story of the exiles in 2006 but, as Leila put it herself in 2009, she could not guarantee when she would be able to finish the book. Most of the historical background from 1965 to 2003 — not just in Indonesia but also in France and other countries — would have to be scoured to make the work “as realistic as possible”.
Leila interviewed Sobron Aidit, who wrote Cerita dari Pengasingan (Story from Exile), his memoirs in exile in 1999, and died in 2007.
Leila also spoke with other political exiles such as the late Umar Said and Kusni Sulang, which prompted her to travel to France to see the surroundings of Restoran Indonesia and the Paris-Sorbonne, the alma mater of Lintang Utara.
Leila finally published Pulang in December 2012 with Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia (KPG), who previously published 9 dari Nadira and reissued her 1989 collection of short stories Malam Terakhir (Last Night) in 2009.
“These people, real people, that I met […] they just want to go home to their country. In reality, their road in life was more complicated and rougher than the scenes depicted in the novel,” Leila said.
Similar to her approach in 9 dari Nadira and a few of her stories in Malam Terakhir, Leila, a senior journalist in weekly magazine Tempo known for her blunt reviews of films and books, used references from celebrated authors such as James Joyce as well as stories from wayang to construct her drama in "Pulang".
Some of the scenes in the book also resemble real-life events, such as when Dimas Suryo collapses due to his deteriorating health, which was quite similar to the event where Sobron Aidit collapsed on the Metro subway in France in February 2007 before his death.
However, despite many of the references, Leila still pulls off a romantic story of family, friendships, betrayal and, of course, love.
The readers, whether they are aware of the political events surrounding the stories, can still relate to the characters in their loneliness and hopes while avoiding melodrama.
"Pulang" wraps up the accounts of the long-lost children of Indonesia. May their stories will never be forgotten.
Pulang by Leila S. Chudori; Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2012; 464 pages