The idea for a published “national library” is nothing new. Perhaps the most famous in English, The Library of America (LOA), was founded in 1979 to provide easily accessible classics of the American literary pantheon. A sort of literary museum, such projects participate in something that college lit majors call “canon building”, but might be more closely related to the “hall of fame” phenomenon. Once a writer is added to the list, his star in the national literary firmament is fixed, his relevance forever assured.
Despite the good intentions, there’s a something here about preaching to the choir, a tautological exercise in reinforcing determined greatness. Writers need to be great to be included in the LOA and they are great because they are included in the LOA.
Happily, however, this tautological nature is altered when the books in question are offered in translation; when, that is, the purpose of the project is to present the stuff of one culture to another. Such is the situation with the Modern Library of Indonesia series, published since 2010 by the Jakarta-based Lontar Foundation. With an avowed purpose of both preserving nearly-forgotten classics of Indonesian literature and to present translations, often the first in English, to an international audience, the Modern Library of Indonesia exists for the best of reasons that such projects come into being: as a custodian of a unique culture amidst the crass commercial ephemera of global blockbuster media.
Some of the books in the library are considered classics, such as Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya, a novel from 1922, which is the Indonesian analogue to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Abdoel Moeis’s 1928 novel, Never the Twain, in which the bitter choice for colonial subjects between being Eastern or Western is brought into stark relief. Other books are so recent as to maintain high profiles for their celebrity authors. The 2001 novel Supernova, the first of a six-part series by singer and writer Dewi “Dee” Lestari, was made into a feature film last year.
Each volume in the library provides a scholarly introduction, including cultural context of the narrative, the publication history of the work, and information about the author’s life. The cover of each volume showcases a work of art by Indonesian artists that echoes the themes of the book.
International recognition is slowly coming to Lontar’s translations. Recently, Balinese author Putu Oka Sukanta’s collection of stories Lies, Loss, and Longing and Afrizal Malna’s book, Anxiety Myths, made World Literature Today’s list of 75 Notable Translations of 2014. For the most part, the Modern Library of Indonesia remains largely unknown beyond Southeast Asia. However, international support can crop up in strange ways.
As a non-profit project, the Modern Library series is largely dependent on sponsors to survive. One of the main sponsors is the Djarum Foundation, associated with the company that manufactures kretek cigarettes. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I was in high school in California 20-odd years ago, we called these cigarettes “cloves”, and they were favored by the type of kids nowadays labeled “emo”. American emo kids, if you’re still smoking cloves, take pride in your contribution to the Modern Library of Indonesia!
An American Translator in Jakarta
The Lontar Foundation was started in 1987 by an American named John McGlynn, along with Indonesian writers Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam, and Subagio Sastrowardoyo. Lontar claims to be the only organization in the world whose primary focus is the promotion of Indonesia through literary translations. The name “Lontar” refers to the palm leaves that in ancient Indonesia were used as writing material as reflected in the logo of the foundation, the pointed shapes resembling fountain pen nibs fanned out like a Traveller’s Palm tree.
In addition to the Lontar imprint, which publishes the Modern Library series, the Foundation publishes books in local languages under the Amanah imprint, while their Godown imprint offers books written in English or other foreign languages about Indonesia. Coming in 2015 will be BTW Books, or “By the Way”, which will offer short chapbook translations of emerging and young Indonesian writers.
I caught up with McGlynn at the Lontar Foundation to talk about the Modern Library series. Sixty-two years old, he’s been in Indonesia for nearly 40 years. With short cropped steel-grey hair and piercing dark blue eyes, a smoker’s raspy laugh and tea-stained teeth offset by the bright colors of a batik print shirt, McGlynn resembles an American type that is going extinct: the Peace Corps beatnik who found his place in a far-flung corner of the world and never left.
Actually, he first arrived as a puppeteer interested in wayang kulit shadow puppet plays. He returned to the United States to pursue a Masters degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but was dismayed by the lack of Indonesian literature in translation and the negative image of the country in the Western press.
“I had come to believe that the only way to truly learn about another culture is through its literature,” he told me. “After more than a decade of speaking Indonesian and having become fairly adept at translating, I came up with the idea of starting an organization devoted to the introduction of Indonesia through literary translations.”
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Photo of John McGlynn by William Gibson
Why did you decide to launch the Modern Library series?
“When I started the Foundation, I hadn’t thought of doing a specific series, but after time, so many of our books were out of print, and I thought, how can I repackage them? So I looked at what we had and thought, oh, these should be put together as a series.”
How many books do you envision in the series?
“I set an initial goal of 50 books, and I think we will achieve that… I had hoped to achieve that for the Frankfort Book Fair in October this year, and I think we’ll get 40 or 45 done before then. But it really is an open-ended project.
In addition, we’re also bringing out the Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Short Stories and the Lontar Anthology of Indonesian Poetry. We already published several years ago an anthology of Indonesian drama, so by having these books plus the Modern Library, we will pretty much have covered most of 20th century Indonesian literature in English translation.”
What criteria do you use in choosing titles for the library series?
“I try to make sure that my selection of authors and subjects covers a wide range from across the country. We’re not choosing commercial titles. It’s not that we don’t want to make a profit, but the kind of books that we’re doing, for example historical works that lay the foundation for teaching Indonesian literature, are simply not going to sell many copies.
Not only are we trying to bring these works to an international audience, but to make Indonesians proud of their literature, as well. Since the New Order government [of Suharto], literature has not been taught in schools, which is just a crying shame. With digital technology things are changing, but most Indonesian books that were published more than teb years ago are out of print.”
The cover art is an important element in the production. Where do you source most of the artwork?
“Most of the covers are from the collection of Dr. Oei Hong Djien, the largest private collector in Indonesia. Part of an old trading family, he’s turned one of their disused warehouses in the city of Magelang in Central Java into a modern art museum. It’s a great resource, but his strength is contemporary art, and so when we’re looking for historical paintings to illustrate books from the ‘20s or ‘30s, it’s much more difficult.”
Do sales of the books cover production costs?
“Book sales cover about a third of the cost, individual contributions about a third, and another third from corporate sponsors like the Djarum Foundation, who only support the Modern Library series, and only partially. They’ve given three grants so far to partially cover publication costs.”
As a non-profit, you’re dependent on fund-raising.
“Yes, and as far as fund raising, I’ve probably raised 95 percent of it. I was lucky to have two very good executive directors but, generally speaking, I’m the one who writes the funding proposals. While skilled in their own right, they served as the face of Lontar. You know, donors look askance at giving money to an old white man, even if it is for a good cause. But a beautiful Indonesian woman, that’s another story.”
Can you tell me something about the production costs?
“The Foundation has seven full-time staff. The average cost of a book is anywhere between $10 and $20,000US. That’s low by international standards, and we haven’t been able to pay translators what they deserve… including myself! We do an initial print run of a few hundred copies for local bookstores, but we are completely dependent on the good graces of friends… particularly idealistic ones who share our goal and are not doing the work for money.”
How do you source the translators?
“I started translating in 1979, and over the years I’ve gotten to know pretty much everyone in the field. Now people come to me. Most of our translators are Indonesian literary scholars, yet in the West, translations rarely count toward tenure. You have to write a scholarly introduction to the book. But a translation, which you might spend a year of your life working on, usually doesn’t count.”
Is that the average time for producing a quality translation?
“A 200-page novel takes about a year, if you’re working fast. You can’t translate everything at one time. You have to do a draft then forget it; you can’t just start immediately to work on the second draft. I usually do a pretty quick first draft, and then let it sit for two or three months, before going back to it. I need that time to produce a good translation. For poetry, the time is even longer.”
How can readers outside of Indonesia buy your books?
“All these works are accessible through Amazon. I’m the first to criticize its monopoly, but at the same time, it has offered niche publishers like us a way to get our books out. Under the traditional publishing model, it just wouldn’t be feasible. With print-on-demand and ebook, we can make our books available internationally.
In addition, Ohio University Press might be bringing out some of our books, and the University of Hawaii Press is bringing out the poetry, drama, and short story anthologies, hopefully this year.”
What is the future of Lontar?
“My hope is to pivot from being a publisher to being a promotional institution. I would like Lontar to become the national translation center to underwrite the costs of translation by other publishers, set quality standards, etcetera. If the government could commit to a certain amount of money going into literary translation every year, that would be possible. This would give us even greater scope to promote Indonesian culture through the medium of literature.”
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Recommended Reading Whilst You Smoke—or Not
I confess to only having read a sample of the books currently available in the Modern Library series, although every one I read was outstanding. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, further brief descriptions can tell a little about what represents a “modern classic” of Indonesian literature.
Little is known about Haji Mukti, the author of the novel The Saga of Siti Mariah, first published in serial form between November 1910 and January 1912 in Sumatra. The novel details the crushing 19th century Dutch colonial system of “Forced Cultivation”, and the particular cruelty that pretty Javanese peasant women had to endure; they were little more than chattel, sometimes cherished, other times useful tools, to be passed from Dutch barons to Chinese middlemen to local elites. Written in Malay, Mukti’s book is one of the first novels written by an Indonesian in opposition to colonial authority. In 2013, the book’s translator, the late Catherine Manning Muir, received a “Best Translation Award” in Australia.
First published in 1927, Kwee Tek Hoay’s romantic ghost story The Rose of Cikembang, The Spirit Ripens in Tears, was made into one of Indonesia’s first “talkie” movies in the ‘30s. What makes it particularly notable, however, is that it was written in what was known as “low Malay”, an argot particular to the Peranakan community of Batavia, or Chinese who had, over centuries, immigrated and intermingled with the local population. In addition to Malay, the language is composed of bits and pieces of Hokkien (a Chinese dialect), Javanese, Balinese, Portuguese, and Dutch. The language was suppressed by both Dutch colonial administrators, so that despite the initial popularity, Kwee’s book was out of print and largely forgotten for decades before Lontar issued its translation.
Jazz, Perfume & the Incident, journalist Seno Gumira Ajidarma’s 1996 short novel, at first appears like an exercise in postmodern technique. The narrative veers from sharply written essays on American jazz musicians, to a first person male memoir about the loves of his life, to transcriptions of eyewitness accounts of a bloody massacre of unarmed citizens in East Timor in 1991.This last narrative facet turns the screw, so to speak, because these transcripts are real. While the author was under pressure not to write about the “incident” in news magazines, he could write about it under the cloak of fiction. The postmodern posturing is really a form of samizdat, a way for Seno to publish copies of the transcripts while evading censors. He knew that a book about jazz and poetic reminiscences would not be taken seriously by the authorities. His skill as a writer is found in the elegant way these disparate elements cohere in the voice of the narrator.
Two more books deserve special attention for their insightful perspectives of Indonesia. They are Twilight in Jakarta, by Mochtar Lubis, and The Dancer, a trilogy in one volume by Ahmad Tohari. First published in English in 1963, Twilight in Jakarta was written in the ‘50s while the author was under house arrest, and its publication followed a Cold War cloak-and-dagger trail that included a CIA-funded organization; it was not published in Indonesian until 1970.
The novel still offers a fresh perspective on life in the capital, which, while it has grown enormously in the past half-century, remains very much recognizable in this book. Lubis excels at depicting a varied cast of characters across economic backgrounds, from dirt-poor garbage collectors to bored housewives to hotheaded students to the political and media elites who preside over the sprawling metropolis. Often these people crash into each other quite literally: automobiles are a potent symbol of class division in the novel.
Lubis’s empathy for the urban poor is embodied in two of the characters, Saimun and Itam, rubbish collectors who live on a garbage dump. Then, as now, waste is collected by hand in Jakarta, by an underclass that is all but invisible as it moves daily through the streets. In Lubis’s novel, these characters are the only ones who seem to have their souls intact, and yet they are easily manipulated by the more powerful.
Lubis’s narrative maneuvers the reader through various factions that either strive to control or improve the “life of the people” of Indonesia, from organized religion to Communists to capitalists, but none of them comes out clean in the end. One after the next, their ideologies prove either to be false or falsely imposed, and only increase the suffering.
This doesn’t mean that all his characters are dislikable. Often they seem like regular folks who have been caught up in the vortex of urban life; others are corrupt from the start, while still others give into temptations that they should know better to avoid. One character sleeps with his father’s young trophy wife; another helps to construct a corrupt political machine to enrich himself and his cronies. Interspersed in this narrative are sections called “City Beat” (Laporan Kota), tales of petty criminals as they struggle to survive with pistols and knives on the periphery of the legal system. Bleached of any noir romance, these are hard-boiled sections that mirror the crime reports on the back pages of the city newspapers.
One quibble with this excellent book is the very occasional anachronism that crops up in the translation. One that struck me in particular was when a character in the ‘50s uses the phrase “Islamic fundamentalists”, a construction that only came about in the late 20th century. The Indonesian phrase that Lubis wrote is “golongan Islam”, which literally translates to “Islamic groups”. While the word “fundamentalist” might update the book, it does, in a sense, mislead readers. While there were radical Islamic groups at the time, they looked very different from media savvy extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
If Twilight in Jakarta captures the urban soul of Indonesia, The Dancer captures the spirit of rural Java. First published in the ‘80s, Lontar’s is the first, and only, English translation. Set mostly in and around the fictitious Javanese village of Paruk during the tumultuous ‘60s. Everyone in the village is said to be the offspring of the founder, named Ki Secamenggala, a thief and murderer whose grave is treated as a holy shrine, and whose brigand spirit imbues the social mores of the villagers (shades here of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s 1959 novel Children of Gebewali).
Tohari’s novel is centered on the eponymous character, a ronggeng dancer named Srintil. As a ronggeng, Srintil is expected not only to be an amazing dancer of calung music, an erotic, hypnotic style which, to unaccustomed ears, sounds very similar to gamelan, but she is also expected to be the village whore. Her position is an honored one, and many of the women of the village and nearby town are proud when their husbands can afford to bed her. The social role of a ronggeng is the embodiment of a primitive type of femininity, raw and unadulterated in its sexuality. When the novel opens and she begins her destined career, Srintil is a mere eleven years old.
Tohari told the translator, René T.A. Lysloff, that he wanted to describe a community that was entirely without contemporary notions of sin and virtue. The descriptions in the novel are based on real, albeit old-fashioned, practices and Tohari vividly depicts the intersection of this prelapsarian world with the bulldozing sensibilities of modern society. The only mediating factor is Islam, which the other main character, Srintil’s childhood love-mate Rasus, comes to embrace. He survives, while Srintil is pulled apart.
The portrayal of the primitive extends to the setting, which Tohari describes in vivid prose that often resembles what has recently come to be called “environmental writing”, a style that combines intense observations of the ecological connections of plants and animals and people on a near-mystical level. In Tohari’s hands, such writing fuses the reader to a landscape that in its delicacy and rhythms, as well as its indifferent, often cruel beauty, matches the interior of the characters.
Everything happens by design, which allows Tohari not to be judgmental of either the rural culture or the modernity that encroaches. The story unfolds intricately if inexorably, much like the music to which Srintil dances.
Amidst the majesty, there are some problems, places where the machinery backstage creaks too loudly and spoils the illusion. For me, the most glaring was toward the end. Srintil believes that she has found an escape in the form of a mendacious civil servant. However, he betrays her and drives her to madness. The problem is that a key fact about this character is held back until the most dramatic moment, and since we already know a great deal of his back-story this denouement seems particularly forced and artificial.
I feel bad even making these quibbles. Both of these novels shine as stellar individual works of literature on their own while also offering readers’ unparalleled panoramas of the culture and landscape that forms modern Indonesia. The translations in the Modern Library of Indonesia provide an awesome resource to an international audience. Such a resource could perhaps only exist when a dedicated individual like John McGlynn operates a non-profit organization like the Lontar Foundation as a labor of love. Buying the books and reading them is one way to participate in that love while broadening your mind.