I am flying one-way to Bali tomorrow, and after some lazy beach bum days, I’m planning to explore the rest of Indonesia extensively. That means hiking up volcanoes, diving and visiting temples, but of course also reading some novels set and written in the island nation. Here’s the reading list I’ve compiled. Additions are welcome, so hit me up if you know an Indonesian must-read, or have suggestions on where to go and what to see!
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
“Communism was born from a beautiful dream, the likes of which there will never be again on the face of this earth: that there would no longer be lazy men who eat their fill while others work hard and starve.”
Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead.
Described in the New York Times as “an Indonesian Blend of History, Myth and Magic” and opening with the sentence “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years…”, how could I not be stoked to read this?
Oeroeg by Hella S. Haasse
“Ben ik voorgoed een vreemde in het land van mijn geboorte, op de grond vanwaar ik niet verplant wil zijn?”
This tale of the friendship between a Dutch and an Indonesian boy has gained the status of a classic in the Netherlands. Most Dutch people will be familiar with this classic, which is on most compulsory reading lists for literature classes. If my humble suggestion here evokes your nightmarish high school years, I’m sorry. But if you hated this book only because you HAD to read it, I suggest you to give it another chance. It’s a short, little gem full of beautiful language and rich details, a sensory reading experience evoking an Indonesia of the past.
This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
“Pity is the feeling of well-intentioned people who are unable to act.”
Minke is a young Javanese student of great intelligence and ambition. Living equally among the colonists and colonized of 19th-century Java, he battles against the confines of colonial strictures. It is his love for Annelies that enables him to find the strength to embrace his world. An Indonesian classic that should have been required reading in Dutch high schools along with Multatuli.
They Say I’m a Monkey by Djenar Maesa Ayu
This collection of short stories from a young Indonesian writer promises to show both the magic and reality of urban life in Jakarta. These are stories that will crawl out from the margins into the centre of your conscience.