Atchafalaya Swamp

Monday, January 7, 2008

Arok of Java: A Mat Salo Book Review

Arok of Java: A Book Review

Ananta Pramoedya Toer (Translated by Max Lane)

ISBN: 978-981-05-8045-2

I ADMIT OF MY IGNORANCE. Before coming to Indonesia I had only barely heard of Ananta Pramoedya Toer. He has since left us but his legacy lives on in his many books.

It was not only my loss but hundreds of millions Indonesians too since his works were banned during Suharto’s era, thus consigning his works to obscurity. Ananta had apparently written many more but most of his material were reportedly confiscated and burned.

His famed Buru Tetralogy (This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass –all available in Penguin Books) and Arok of Java (originally titled Arok and Dedes) was “written” during his incarceration on Buru Island between 1965 and 1980. Suharto had stationeries banned for his special prisoner and Ananta was forced to “write” the book in his head, telling and refining the story to fellow inmates. It was only after his release that he was finally able to pen his voluminous tome. His masterpieces impressed the Nobel committee enough to consider him a nominee.

To keep things in perspective, Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) was the first of Buru Tetralogy, and should be read first. Max Lane, the translator for the book was again responsible for Arok of Java, which was only recently completed and published for the first time.

Lane’s earlier translation of Bumi brought instant fame to Ananta. Lane was then a diplomat, an Australian attaché in Jakarta of the early Eighties. Due to the recognition of Ananta’s works, Lane had inadvertently invited the wrath of the Indonesian government. Lane was expelled from Indonesia becoming a persona non-grata right until Suharto's fall. Bumi was subsequently forced off the shelves, becoming one of the great tragedies of modern literature.

Set in the 13th century Arok of Java is a novel of “early Indonesia” where Hindu Gods and Goddesses reigned. This was before Islam descended on the archipelago and told of our hero Arok of the Sudra caste, who through scholarship became a Ksatria and finally a Brahmin. Many have likened Arok to Robin Hood but it is only a superficial connection. In that era, descendants of great King Erlangga sat in Kediri and the outlying areas were controlled by appointed ‘Governors’ who had to pay tribute to the King.

The Governor of Tumapel, a vile villainous character was installed and brought back slavery that was earlier abolished by Erlangga. The Governor was of the Sudra caste who worshipped Lord Vishnu. The Brahmins, who are worshippers of Lord Siva, had lost all their influence and were confined to their temples. The subtext was the past two centuries, the Brahmins had become outcasts and no longer relevant. The precocious Arok who mastered Sanskrit at an early age grew to become a warrior; a scholar-bandit and rebel –his destiny to bring the Brahmins back to glory.

Arok had then started a campaign of resistance. He robbed the tribute coaches en route to Kediri amassing the wealth to free the peoples of slavery and suppression. The Governor was perplexed as to the hit and run losses; bringing displeasure to the King. The King was angry at the formers inability to bring order; especially when the Kingdom’s treasury was compromised.

The final straw was when the Governor, a lowly-Sudra himself who by chicanery and deceit became all-powerful, kidnapped the beautiful Dedes, a Brahmani, to make her his consort. His obsession with Dedes was his final undoing and provided the stage for Arok’s entrance.

A blurb from the book’s jacket reads: “As the rebellion spreads, it is Arok himself whom the rulers employ to suppress it . . . Thus emerges one of the epic political conspiracies of Javanese history.”

Arok is an epic saga much in the great traditions of Ramayana and Mahabharata. My only problem was in the book’s editing. There were some errors in spelling that distracted the reader. By contrast, The Buru Tetralogy, published by Penguin, was exquisitely edited. This is but a minor speck in this vast canvas of Anata’s beautiful narration.

A must read; but only after your appetite had been appropriately whetted by the brilliant This Earth of Mankind.

384 pages, excluding Introductions, Acknowledgments and Glossaries.

First published in 2007.

Edited by: Tan Chee Leng

Illustrations by: Mohamad Yusof

Horizon Books
. www.horizonbooks.com.sg


elviza said...


I heard about this author from my late father. Never had the chance to get my hands on his books (head is down in shame),

Bro, do you have the ISBN No for the book? ISBN is like the birth certificate of the book - major bookstores will be able to locate it for us.

Good job!

Mat Salo said...

Already done, Sis --thanks!

Err.. can I employ you as my editor? See? I learn something new all the time! :)

Zabs said...

Salam MS,
Terima kasih kerana memperkenalkan buku itu. Pernah mendengar nama beliau lama dahulu, tetapi tidak ada kesempatan membaca buku2nya. Tetapi saperti saranan anda akan mencari dan membaca buku This earth of Mankind dahulu. TQ.

elviza said...

Aikkksss I thought u were supposed to one? :-)

cakapaje said...

Salam bro,

This really look like a good book! But off course, any Javanese worth his salt would say that - alamak, pecah tembelang!

But thanks bro, will be on lookout for it...whenever I brave myself into one of those crowded malls lah! :(

Kerp (Ph.D) said...

if only i'm an avid reader, i'd listen to you guys and get all the books reviewed. the last one i read was, guess what bro? yes, the Slow Man.

*only a few days ago i hopped in here without any updates and suddenly, boom! 3 posts in as many days.

deepest condolence to your rig-mate's family. Al-Fatihah.

Zawi said...

When I was young I read his 'Tenggelamnya Kapal Van Der Vijk'. It was such a long time ago that I cant even recall the story line. Being so young I couldn't understand much of the Indonesian lingo due to lack of exposure.
But the book did left an impression on me such that the book cover and author lived so vividly in my memory.
The folly of the dictator Suharto for condemning such a great literary figure who could have contributed so much to the literary world.

Mat Salo said...

Pak Zabs,

Saya rasa buku Pak Ananta ni gampang di cari Pak. Coba Bhg Literature di Koni atau Borders. Pasti ada Pak. Bumi Manusia will shed some light on who we are and how we got here.

Shah of Talkonly,

Bro'I guarantee it, this book will enrich you. You can loan mine. So you'd better book first --if not antri nya panjang Pak!

Bro' Kerpie,

Itu pasai some say writers, especially wannabee ones, are manic-depressives. A bit gila. So I'm in my manic phase, doing all this stupid blogging shit while covered in grime and amidst 100 dB noise levels emanating from the rotating machinery. Ha-ha, baru giler.

Eh bro', what you think of Slow Man. Any reality ke to your own personal experiences?

Pak Zawi,

Yes bang, such is the folly of Suharto. Luckily some of his works had gotten thru'. But just read Max's translation. I got some Indo literature fans here who read Bumi in the original also pening. Because it had both 'high' and 'low' javanese languages. Baca omputih aja lah. But I'm sure at least some of the color and subtleties is lost. But better than nothing.

Hmmm... I wonder if I can find 'Kapal Van Der Vijk' in English...

cakapaje said...

OK bro, done! Gua nak pinjam - 1st in line! Thanks :)

elviza said...


Tenggelamnya Kapal Van Der Vijk (betul ke eja nih?) must be read in bahasa lah weh...

How do you translate such a beautiful piece in English. They dont produced the book anymore. Sad isnt it?


Mat Salo,

woww...i know pramoedya and his works. Bapak has his books and I do believe Bapak knew him personally.
I think in those days, they must have shared similar beliefs...

bapak was named the ramon magsaysay recipient for journalism and literature and creative communication arts in 1994 and pramoedya was recipient in 1995.

i think his writing is very potent, very powerful and very poignant.

thank you for sharing, MS!

Mat Salo said...

Elviza: I think it's time we brush up our 'low' and 'high' javanese, can read the original, lagi syiok. Can take lesson from your Bibik maa..

Talkonly-butsometimesgotaction: Bro' it's on. Sebab you book dulu. Everybody else stand in line. Eh.. ada line ke?

Kak Ena,

I know. I was hoping to hear from you. Imagine your Bapak and the late Tongkat Warrant dapat 'ngopi 'ngopi dengan literary genius nih. Sooo jealous! When I read Bumi Manusia I was totally engrossed at the rich trapestry of Life in the land of our ancestors. But his true genius lie in the story's metaphor, the ultimate satire. No wonder Suharto did him in. Terasa kot?

tokasid said...

Salam Pak MS:

Pak Pramoedya was indeed a genius.
The hard life and political climates during those days brought out talents and fighters to the fore.Prameodya ,Hamka and M.Nasir are among them in Indonesia. There are many more like achmad Lubis.

I have never read Pramoedya, but friends who studied in Jakarta in the 70's had their hats off to Pramoedya,literally and politically.

Bapak used to buy lots of Indonesian books in the 50-70's and we still have these books in Taiping.

Under pressure, talents are unearthed, and Indonesia is still producing thousands of talents every year esp in music.

Pi Bani said...

Ahh, Pramoedya Ananta Toer... familiar name indeed. We had to read his book, Keluarga Gerilya, for our Sastera form 6. Otherwise mungkin I pun tak kenal nama dia.

Mat Salo said...

Dok TA...

My suggestion is better hunt those books down. Yang sedih-nya, although the ban has been listed post-2000, you can hardly find his books here. Perhaps easier to find in Malaysia.

Better start Pak, before this I never knew what I missed. The stories are SO powerful Pak and you can find parallels and metaphors everywhere without him being overt about it. Start with the English version (unless your 'high' and 'low' Javanese is godd, ha-ha) of Bumi Manusia and start to be in awe of this literary genius!

Pi.. Alamak, betul ke? Sastera Form 6 pakai buku dia. I tanya my fresh graduates training with me (UI, UGM, ITB) hanya sekor dua jer pernah baca buku dia. What a travesty! That's how effective Suharto was in obliterating Pak Toer from Indonesia's psyche!

Kata Tak Nak said...

How dare you do a book review without letting me know. To get back at you I did my own review of a brand new book. Go on over to my blog.

jaflam said...

It was a good start for 2008 ... book review of one the biggest names in Indonesia. Way to go my friend..... you will be highly philosophical before you know it.

I have not read his book but there was a long great article on him in NST sometimes back. There was a photo of him in the garden with beautiful three tired fountain..... guessed what, I installed the similar fountain at my house???

Akmal said...

Bro MS,
How are you? I didn't do my tag yet. Bummer!
Whoa, everyone is yalking about this book and the writer. Must be good, gotta go check it out in the library tomorrow.
Have a nice day.

Kerp (Ph.D) said...

Coetzee is simply an amazing author. and Slow Man was based on real accounts from a crippled ausralian's perspective. sadly all the privileges they get from their gomen can only be dreamt by most here. not that we want to be pampered by having a carer but some crippled finds it necessary. these bunch cant fend for themselves, but to engage a maid is simply costly. even the irish gomen provides such privileges. ok most probably all developed nation has it but never us.

Mat Salo said...

Chegu: Ha-ha, dah di respon kan dalam komentar blog Chegu..

Cap't Jafflam: Me going philosophical? Err, quite unlikely, Sir. But it's a nice thought. Thanks.

Whoa.. that I gotta see. The three-tiered fountain. Hmmm.. great minds think alike, Sir?

Akmal: Of course, put your studies, first. But I wished I was exposed to Ananta Toer's books a long time ago.. Better head to your library soon.

Kerpie-the-Quadie: Never say never, bro'. Who knows? The kind and caring government we next elect perhaps can be prihatin towards Quads... and life's other unfortunates. Eh, I mimpi ker!!!

galadriel said...

Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Read him in my teens in the form of Keluarga Gerilya. I was a science student so mana ada sastera kan? I borrowed the book from a form six chick.

Such kind of straight to the heart honesty...simply magical. Every word fraught with meaning, evocative of a nation's turbulence.

To have a writer of such magnitude from this region is something I really want to "tumpang bangga" as neighbours.

The only Malaysian author who touched me with similar tear-inducing narrative was Shahnon Ahmad with his Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan.

Sadly, I don't think those literary greats like Shahnon, Usman Awang and Samad Said have successors of their calibre today.

You know why? Because our education system does not encourage thinking, critical or otherwise.

Mat Salo, u didn't get me a birthday present. Hw about getting me this book? Heheh...had to push my luck

Anonymous said...

you mean lifted post-2000?
enuf of this heavy stuff, after this kalu nak buat review buat mag review - priyamain ok? and lepas bekabong nanti abg post n pix pulak...


Mat Salo said...

Sistah G: Did I miss it? Good Lawd! Happy Belated lah. Sure, sure - but sure you don't mind if it's all dog-eared coz' shah's already in line ? Err which reminds me also that I have long overdue books to Galadriel's Private Library ;)


I hope you are not the Menon I know who's originally from Kerala. Nothing to be ashamed of, even our former PM hailed from those parts.

Priyamain? ABG? What's this? Brother, I'm gonna lose all my female visitors. Then where would I be? Where I would I always be of course. OK let's see after the mourning period is over. Pix kenot arr, CCTV footage can. :)

Mior Azhar said...

I too had the previlige to read Keluarga Gerilya when I was in Form 6. I don't think the students are still using the book today. what a shame. I never studied sastera until then, but since it it was part of BM paper for Form Six, we were forced to read it. And even then I was greatly affected by the book. Of course most of us read it in one go. Manalah pulak buku tu sekarang nih. Must be somewhere at my mom's place back home.

And yes I think I've seen Pak Pramoedya's book somewhere in Kino recently. Jom cepat cari.

Mat Salo said...

Bro' Mior: At least you guys aren't as ignorant as me and the 100 million or so Indonesians. I never knew that HIS book was used as a textbook. Imagine, this was the time when he was jailed on for close to 15 years on Buru Island without a pen, pencil or paper and our Form 6 students in his neighboring country were busy poring over his texts. What an irony. Suharto probably didn't know or he would have lodged an official complaint with Mahathir, the then Education Minister.

But OUR educators back then I truly respect for recognizing Ananta's genius even when he was a reviled figure during Suharto's 35-year rule.

Baik cari balik bro'!

Daphne Ling said...

Hi Abang Mat,

Im back! Haha...Did'ja miss me? *Winks*

Hmmm...The cover of the book macam P. Ramlee punya era ler...I judge (initially) all books by their cover, unfortunately...I would never pick up a book like this, unless recommended beforehand...

Sounds good though, so I'll keep a lookout for it when I go a-browsing...=) Thanks!

Hantu Laut said...

Mat Salo,

I wonder where you purchase that book.Amazon.com has most of his books except 'Arok of Java'.Mak Lane has translated quite a number of his books.

I have read about him, but haven't read any of his books.He is a highly regarded writer in the West. That's why it is easier to find his books in the West than here in Malaysia.

He was a tapol during the reign of Suharto.He died in 1996.

BaitiBadarudin said...

certainly a writer with a cause; and to think his daughter forgave the new regime and approached pak hamka as wali when she wanted to get married (ot something to that extent, according to mazlan nordin

A Voice said...

Thanks for writing abt him. Heard of him from one TV station's interview of him years back.

What book shd I start to read with?

yapchongyee said...

Khairy Jamaluddin DO NOT BULLSHIT, here is a real case for you and if you are a real OXFORD UNIVERSITY GRADUATE then you will know that Judge Zainon binti Mohd. Ali needs to be prosecuted for committing criminal offences.

I refer readers to my post on this fellow Khairy Jamaluddin, son in law of the Prime Minister and play-boy with a fleet of very expensive cars, please go to http://yap.chongyee.blogspot.com.

Dear Khairy Jamaluddin is all hot air, lots of empty talk before election and nothing but promises after the election. He has been put into the deputy leadership of UMNO Youth. Where else can his father in law “fast track” him into the front ranks of UMNO and eventually to succeed Ahmad Bedawi as Prime Minister ? I have observed many times that Malaysia is an oligarchy in the IRON GRIP of UMNO elite. The promises he has made so far can only exist in his mind alone and in fact cannot be realized. They are mere empty promises and are not to be taken seriously.

Let me draw this Khairy Jamaluddin’s attention to the ongoing ROYAL COMMISSION INTO JUDICIAL CORRUPTION ! What is Khairy Jamaluddin going to do to ADDRESS JUDICIAL CORRUPTION ? This is what solid and down to earth ISSUES that need to be addressed; and has he said anything about it ? Let me cite my wife’s CASE : ORIGINATING PETITION No.: D2-26-41 of 2001 in the HIGH COURT IN KL was struck out by the PRESIDING JUDGE ZAINON BINTI MOHD. ALI, who is now promoted to the court of Appeal. It is hilariously funny that judge Zainon binti Mohd. Ali was so IGNORANT OF THE LAW THAT SHE AWARDED TO THE RESPONDENTS WONG KEM CHEN, STEPHEN LIM CHENG BAN AND KWONG SEA YOON 2 directly OPPOSING ORDERS (a) for security for costs, which my wife paid in the sum of RM.60,000; therefore by this payment by my wife there is nothing else to be done except to go to court; but instead judge Zainon binti Mohd. Ali went on to ILLEGALLY AWARD TO THE NAMED RESPONDENTS A SECOND AND OPPOSING ORDER TO STRIKE OUT PETITION.

The ignorance of this judge Zainon binti Mohd. Ali is so comically profound THAT ALL HER ACTIONS ON THE BENCH IN HER ADJUDICATION OF MY WIFE’S PETITION WERE CRIMINAL. She committed the following criminal OFFENCES :

(1) Aiding & Abetting respondents Wong Kem Chen, Stephen Lim and Kwong Sea Yoon TO COMMIT the criminal offences of PERJURY & FORGERY
(2) Acting jointly with above criminal respondents in A CONSPIRACY TO PERVERT THE COURSE OF JUSTICE
(3) Acting jointly in a conspiracy to obtain money under false pretences
(4) Acting jointly in a conspiracy to obstruct police investigating criminal offences
(5) Committed the criminal offences of Malfeasance.

I had written countless letters to the Malaysian A.-G, Chief Judge of High Court of Malaya, copies to President & Secretary of Malaysian Bar Council and to this day I have not received any response. Here is a Judge of the Highest Court of Malaysia who does not KNOW THAT SHE WAS IN FACT COMMITTING SEVERAL CRIMINAL OFFENCES WHILE PERFORMING HER JUDICIAL DUTIES. I have invited the Malaysian A,G, and all those mentioned above to come to Australia to obtain my EXTRADITION FOR SEDITION so why have they failed to clear the name of Judge Zainon binti Mohd. Ali ? Why bother for the Malaysian Government to spend several millions of Ringgit to hold a bullshit Royal commission when criminal behaviour of Judge Zainon Binti Mohd. Ali is all there to READY FOR PROSECUTION.

What is this fellow Khairy Jamaluddin going to do about a REAL CASE and not one that is hot air. I invite the Malaysian Government to come to Australia to get my EXTRADITION.

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