Classic Literature Reading Lists

May 5th, 2008, in History, Opinion, by

Spew says Indonesians are being denied much of the country’s greatest literature, for political reasons.

Don’t Read ‘Em! They Are Bad!

On Indonesia Matters the subject of Pramoedya Ananta Toer has come up repeatedly. Sadly, his works were not the topic of discussion usually but rather his political views and much worse than this, his affiliation with the Communist Party in the past, which was a target of censure.

The Indonesian Red

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I was confused that little rants on communism always came up every time the Indonesian Red is mentioned. In the case of Pramoedya, discussion was not about his literary works but it consisted of moral judgements of communism. What mattered most was whether communism is bad or good and there was the suggestion that you do not need to worry too much about any works made by left-leaning writers or artists. As long as they have hammer and sickle on their bodies, they are not worth commenting on. This ad hominem attack is sadly similar to the left propaganda against capitalists:

You are a capitalist pig!

Particularly striking is when the massacres of alleged communists and its supporters took place, it was perceived as something they deserved.


This makes me think that ideology has been a big problem for Indonesians since the beginning of the New Order. The collapse of Sukarno meant the end of ideology. Sukarno amalgamated ideas (nationalist socialist and communist) and Nasakom waned following his downfall. In the next decades, communism and socialism were included in the list of cardinal sins under the New Order. Only those who use Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism for scientific research were permitted.

Franz Magnis Suseno

Yet, this was not always the case. Some people might have remembered when an activist was arrested in Jogja, Central Java after the police found a reading course about Marxism written by a Jesuit priest Franz Magnis Suseno. In fact, the reading was prepared as teaching material. It was strange to know why this young fellow was arrested on the ground of possessing Magnis Suseno’s writing, which was very critical against Marxism. Strange logic can no longer sound strange when there is a huge power involved to make irrationality as uncontested truth, however.

New Order Leftovers

For more than thirty years Indonesians have been fed with anti-communist propaganda by the New Order. Now the New Order has gone, or at least, there have been some changes within the regime. And many stories of survivors have unfolded and they have deconstructed the New Order version on history. But Indonesians still have to deal with the enduring legacy of the New Order, particularly its construction of history, which was successful in instilling a tremendous fear of the Red.

Utuy Tatang Sontani and Agam Wispi

Only little do Indonesians know how many artists and writers from the left. Pram’s books were widely republished not long after the downfall of Suharto. Besides Pram, only a few writers have had their works republished in Indonesia such as Utuy Tatang Sontani and Agam Wispi. Most writers fled the country when the political turbulence took place in 1965. Some of them decided to stay abroad once they learned that their return to Indonesia might risk their lives.

Maxim Gorky

Ironically, people in Indonesia can find “The Mother” by Maxim Gorky but not Indonesian left-leaning writers’ works.

Further, one blogger wrote his experience of looking at a collection of a local library in Jogja, only to find two books of Pramoedya but eleven books of Gorky. Oh well, they might have thought that the local left is more dangerous than the imported one! If the underlying motive of banning works of leftists means to save Indonesia from communism, Maxim Gorky then should be banned as well. The government also needs to withdraw any book of Gunter Grass as he was once a member of the Waffen-SS.

Chairil Anwar, Amir Hamzah, Sutan Takdir Alisyahbana

At school, Pram and other leftist writers and artists’ works are not listed in the national curriculum. Indonesian writers such as Chairil Anwar, Amir Hamzah, and Sutan Takdir Alisyahbana are not unfamiliar amongst students. But when Utuy Tatang Sontani, Sobron Aidit, Agam Whispi are asked to them, it is likely we would see the kids shaking their heads in response to the questions. It is very sad if they can remember Indonesian writers and their works from the 1930s but do not know any writers who produced their works three decades later.

Art on its Merits

What saddens me more is when people start to look for what have they missed out on, by reading Pramoedya and other leftist writers, then suspicion over the rise of communism emerges. Not only do the Indonesian authorities have the suspicion, other writers and even outsiders who may know little of Indonesian history will share anti-communist feeling with the Indonesian government. Isn’t it better to give them the chance to judge whether Sudjojono’s paintings or Pram’s works are good or bad? Will it be better if they ask a question on what have these works contributed to the Indonesian arts and culture?

14 Comments on “Classic Literature Reading Lists”

  1. tomaculum says:

    in case of Pramoedya, the readers outside Indonesia are already influenced of his past as a victim of the Suharto regime.
    Every discussion I followed was about the story in his books which they interpret as a critic against these regime and Minke as a hero left his own class to fight against injustice and repression. Thereby they ignore assiduously his (Minke’s) personal motives.
    Other interpretations about the story(-ies) will be ignored, not to mention about the quality.
    Short: Pramoedy is for them a hero to be idolized.
    It is good if someone, like you, calls for a discussion about the quality of his works independent (as much as possible) of his Buru past.
    For me there are many more better and much better Indonesian literateurs like ST Alisyahbana, Hamzah, Chairil etc or Putu Wijaya.

  2. PrimaryDrive says:

    The biggest problem in educating Indonesians in literature is not so much that some literatures are forbiden; it is that we simply do not educate our kids and the young people to read! Mostly this is a cultural thing. Most parents do not read books, so they have little appreciation to literature. So, they dont bother to stimulate their kids to read books.

    So, kids don’t read work of Chairil Anwar, Amir Hamzah, and Sutan Takdir Alisyahbana, let alone all those other writers you mentioned. We were just told summaries about them at school, and that’s it.

  3. David says:

    Hi Tomaculum, actually this was written by “Guest Writer” – Spew (it all).

  4. dewaratugedeanom says:

    What is it that makes Indonesians so afraid of communism, even to the fact that the mere uttering of the word already provokes antagonism, and given that the overwhelming majority doesn’t know anything about the economic doctrine and its implications?

    Although communism has been proven to be a failed societal model, IMO the fear of Indonesians stems more from the angst of losing their paradigms and being confronted with the unknown and unfamiliar, angst which is fueled by the innumerable figures of religious authority whose power is vested in the ignorance and docility of the masses.

    In the eyes of wong cilik and even on higher levels communism is synonym with godlessness, which in turn becomes assimilated with wickedness and moral decay.

  5. PrimaryDrive says:


    What is it that makes Indonesians so afraid of communism…

    Because we have been taught so. This is probably reflects Soeharto oppinion on communism; he then implemented it, or approved the implementation of, as a full scale indoctrination of the people. Seoharto himself was not an intellectual, so he had an excuse for being so naive in his oppinion. Sadly, the rest of Indonesia was stuck with him being the big boss man.

  6. spew-it-all says:

    So, kids don’t read work of Chairil Anwar, Amir Hamzah, and Sutan Takdir Alisyahbana, let alone all those other writers you mentioned. We were just told summaries about them at school, and that’s it.

    I doubt this PrimaryDrive. The poem ‘Aku’ or ‘Karawang-Bekasi’ are sort of material that are used for teaching at school. Layar Terkembang of STA (Sutan Takdir Alisyahbana) is also included, albeit it is only an extract. Layar Terkembang was once made into a movie. Although it has different form, surely it is more than summary.

  7. Marisa says:

    In my opinion, today’s Indonesians are far more likely to react negatively towards the idea of terrorism and/or capitalism, rather than communism. Commies, are like, ancient history. Those who still react negatively towards communism might be from the older generation, for the reason that they’ve been through Soekarno’s era. Ask them now and they’d still say Soeharto’s era is way better than Soekarno’s.

    1950-60ies arts and literature concept in Indonesia isn’t a byproduct of communism; it isn’t purely founded on Marxism-Leninism. Thing is, the communist party (PKI) is some sort of the patron of various folklore art and literature organizations, such as LEKRA, and both sides share the same members. While the generals are playing imported vinyl records, they’re sticking with the genjer genjer. PKI did try to politicize the LEKRA body, but failed. Perhaps that’s why 1950ies artists and writers were strongly associated with communism.

    Sobron Aidit is worth remembering, though he hadn’t been as famous as the other names mentioned above. Prior to his death last year in Paris (if I’m not mistaken), he was still found active in private Indonesian literature communities on the Internet, using a pseudonym, sending poetries and sonnets to be read by fellow Indonesians until his final day.

    If these works haven’t contributed an ideology to the modern mass, it’s because it isn’t the sole mission–arts are not politics. However, they’ve contributed history, a remembrance of a nation’s evolution, and hopefully, neo-Pramoedyas from the younger generation.

    I could be wrong though, but that’s what I’ve learned so far.

  8. I don’t think it’s something to do with Pram & communism or any ideology. I don’t know what happens now, but I remember that my literature teacher knew basically nothing, had no passion and interest to Indonesian literature world, let alone thought about influencing his students. I was lucky that my mum took (English) literature subject and my house was full of classic books, and she hung out with Indonesian and local poets and writers. I went to see Rendra read his poems and danced “ada tokek, ada tokek”, and a local poet performed a reading with sword and blood in junior high school while my friends were gossiping about Catatan Si Boy. We had lunch discussions with NH Dini and Ehma Ainun Nadjib (remember he wrote few books before he reinvented himself to be a celebrity and married a celebrity). I idolized Sutarji and Sapardi and could quote their poems. But I was an outcast. No one cared. Not my teacher, not a single schoolmate.

    In general Indonesians don’t have great deal of interest in literature. Let alone if the writer had been dubbed as “Indonesian Red”.

  9. spew-it-all says:

    The problem may have lied on how history is taught in Indonesia. When people learning history, literatures are rarely used as sources. Pram is this respect is a typical example. His writings are more than literary works. Rather, they reflect on how the society at that time grapling with the idea of nation. In other words, how indonesians were making their own history. As for Pram, we can also say that the narration of nation is constructed through literatures.

  10. Yeni says:

    I think the education system in indonesia does not have passion in literature.

  11. saut says:

    Hey, your list is weird!

    No mention of Rendra (early Rendra).
    No mention of Sitor Situmorang!!!

    And no mention of the younger generation either!

    What is a “Classic” anyway?!

  12. Tomaculum,

    Which “readers outside Indonesia” that you meant in the quote below?! Please elaborate!

    “in case of Pramoedya, the readers outside Indonesia are already influenced of his past as a victim of the Suharto regime.
    Every discussion I followed was about the story in his books which they interpret as a critic against these regime and Minke as a hero left his own class to fight against injustice and repression….”

    Please elaborate also your assersion that “there are many more better and much better Indonesian literateurs like ST Alisyahbana, Hamzah, Chairil etc or Putu Wijaya.”

    If you are unable to do it, please just shut up and stop commenting on Indonesian Literature!!! Show some respect, okay!

  13. Astrajingga says:

    There’s nothing good in Angkatan ’66 literature. Taufiq Ismail produce rubbish childhish poems.

  14. saut situmorang says:


    If you are really interested (“seriously interested” like it is implied in your comment, if I’m correct) in reading “Readings on Pram as Sastrawan Indonesia”, not as a Buru Island political prisoner, then do get hold of these academic periodicals: “Indonesia” (Cornell University) and “RIMA” (Australia). Lots of good materials on Pram’s literary works there.

    But only if you are really interested in reading “Readings on Pram as Sastrawan Indonesia”.

    Have a nice reading!

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