Cover of book: In Other Words

Goenawan Mohamad
In Other Words

For more than 40 years, Indonesians have enjoyed, and puzzled over, columns written by Goenawan Mohamad in the weekly magazine Tempo. The columns, usually no more than 800 words, are reflective sometimes to the point of dreaminess. They refer to scholars unknown to all but the most highly educated reader, to Greek legend, the Mahabharata, the Bible, the Koran, to travellers from Arabia, to French existentialists and semioticians, to an Iranian liberal Islamist. They often end not with a sharp deduction but with a rhetorical shrug.

The start can be a tantalising statement or question: “Indonesia began with a void. Indonesia began with the word ‘not’.” Sukarno and Hatta declared independence in the gap between Japan’s surrender and the arrival of Allied forces and return of the Dutch. Then the new nation was defined by what it was not: communist, or Islamic, a majority-rule democracy.

Goenawan turned 75 in July, thus his life has spanned the birth of Indonesia and how the void has been filled. This book lacks an adequate biographical introduction, but the selected hundred of Goenawan’s columns give intriguing glimpses.

His parents were “Digulists” − among the political prisoners the Dutch arrested after the 1926 uprising by the new Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and Sukarno’s formation of the Indonesian Nationalist Party in 1927, then sent to the furthest corner of the East Indies, a jungle settlement called Boven Digul in Papua. We are not told their politics, but they must have been moderate enough for their release in the 1930s.

Born in 1941, eight months before the Dutch surrendered the Indies, Goenawan’s earliest memory is the bomb shelter dug by his father. Their home was on the north coast of Java, where in past centuries European colonialists, Chinese traders and Islamic missionaries had pressed into self-focused Hindu kingdoms. When he was five, in 1946, Dutch soldiers took away his father and executed him.

Somehow, attending school in Pekalongan, listening to the ulama in the mosque and the Hindu epics in the wayang, the boy developed into a worldly intellectual, one trying then and now to fill that Indonesian void of positive identity. At university, he was a leader of the intellectual group that promoted the ideal of universal humanism in 1963 with a cultural manifesto challenging the revolutionary orthodoxy the PKI’s artistic wing, Lekra, was trying to enforce.

Had 1965 gone the other way, Goenawan thinks he would have been among those purged, and hence shows less sympathy for Lekra’s favourites who ended up on the receiving end. He blames the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, exiled to the harsh Buru Island prison camp, for helping create the fevered antagonism of the time with his violent language.

Both Western and communist powers were trying to pick local talent. When the Indonesian army did move against the PKI, Goenawan was away in Europe, immersed in the French and German scholarship so often reflected in his essays. On his return he edited the student newspaper Harian Kami, then in 1971 helped found Tempo.

Started on the Time model, Tempo quickly evolved into a uniquely agile journal, staying just inside the boundaries set by General Suharto’s New Order. Its writers flattered and cajoled Suharto’s circle of generals into revealing their thinking, wrote up their deals with crony businessmen, and matched Suharto’s Javanese cunning with even more of it.

Information department censors would have puzzled over Goenawan’s elliptical commentaries. Readers would have known that when he wrote about the 17th-century founder of the Mataram dynasty, Senopati, as “just a common man who was ambitious and lucky, a smooth adventurer who was able to defeat a bunch of opponents”, he was really talking about Suharto.

It was a style pitched for survival. But Tempo didn’t make it to the end of the New Order: Suharto’s technology minister B. J. Habibie had long been a subject for his heavily subsidised industrial adventures (Goenawan laid it on thick about his “genius”). In 1994, Tempo’s reportage of his purchase of the former East Germany’s naval fleet got it shut down.

Tempo returned in 2000, including an English edition, and is more fearless than ever. In 2012, an edition was entirely filled with an investigation of the mass executions of PKI supporters and suspects in 1965-66, including confessions by several perpetrators.

Goenawan is no longer editor, but his columns continue. Now the intellectual contest is not so much about communism, authoritarian rule or East v West as about religious intolerance. With his superb cultural range, Goenawan can prick the hypocrisy of one side (the Danish newspaper that insisted on printing a cartoon of Mohammed had withheld one of Jesus three years earlier, to avoid upsetting its readers) and the bigotry of the other, such as Indonesia’s self-proclaimed defenders of Islam.

A practising Muslim, Goenawan enjoys the work of atheists such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. “They use their analysis to attack all religions, without exception, at a time [when] faith [is] paraded with fear, and fear soon turns to hate,” he writes. “Who knows, it might be these atheists who make religious communities change tack and stop fighting one another?”

He rails against those who claim exclusive rights to God: “As though ‘Allah’ was not a name used by the Arabs in pre-Islamic times, by both the ignorant and the virtuous, by both the polytheists and Christians. As though ‘Allah’ is solely God-of-the-Muslims, ruling in a kingdom with its own specific customs. ‘Their god is different to our God,’ say the Christian fundamentalists who view the Islamic world suspiciously. As though the Christian God, the Jewish God, and a whole line-up of other gods, are in competition …”

The translator, Jennifer Lindsay, renders Goenawan’s subtle, reference-rich essays into fluid English, in which his breadth of influences and historical sources bring constant surprise and delight. Surely now it’s time for Goenawan’s no-holds-barred autobiography?  JF

NewSouth, 256pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2016 as "Goenawan Mohamad, In Other Words".

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Reviewer: JF

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