Blog: Historicizing fiction, fictionalizing history

By Taufiq Hanafi

Sometimes fiction tells the truth and history perpetuates a fiction. This blog tells us about how history has been used to serve the creation of a national mythology, while fiction has allowed a space for more difficult histories to be worked out.

In the preface to the textbook Sejarah Nasional Indonesia (Indonesian National History, 1990), historian and former education minister Nugroho Notosusanto draws a comparison between the coming into being of Indonesian standardized history and the growth of a single majestic tree. He argues that it is deeply-rooted in the past and can gradually provide a shade of truth for the nation’s future.

His analogy, however, is knotty (pun intended). The notion that history is singular, which could imply that other versions of narratives must not chime in and disrupt the telling of the great national tale, is particularly knotty.

One good example would be Sang Mokteng Bubat, a historical novel believed to be factual by many Sundanese. It deals with this issue of singularity, mainly in the constantly avoided history of relations between Sunda and the Majapahit kingdom. It argues that Majapahit’s unification of Nusantara in the 14th century was basically the origin of colonial rule imposed by non-Europeans in the archipelago. But no matter how ‘historical’ Sang Mokteng Bubat may be, this tale is considered unacceptable, for it stands as a separate historical tree and disrupts the official cannon of history. Therefore, this tale is skipped over in official histories.

Similarly, the bleakest moment in Indonesian history is ignored and silenced. Almost all Indonesian written history skips over the mass killings of the communists and left-wing sympathizers after the aborted coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965.

Take the obligatory read for elementary students in the 1990s, Pendidikan Sejarah Perjuangan Bangsa (The History of the National Struggle). We Indonesians were so accustomed to this that we thought the historical events presented in the book were all objectively true. The book instructed students to show admiration for the Indonesian Army for their outstanding success in crushing the September movement of the PKI. It also wanted us to believe that the anti-communist purge was the right thing to do in order to support the national struggle for the just and prosperous society under Pancasila. Furthermore, it created a make-believe world in which Soeharto was a hero who had so much love and respect for his people and his country. As for the massacre, the book remained silent.

In fiction, however, the killings were made (more) clear. Ahmad Tohari in the Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (Dancer of Paruk Hamlet) trilogy narrates the mass killings in Central Java, and describes the close cooperation between the army and paramilitary groups. Mencoba Tidak Menyerah (Trying not to Surrender) by Yudhistira ANM Masardi vividly portrays the systematic massacre and politics of fear through the eyes of a small boy who is searching for his father after he was made to disappear due to his affiliation with the communists. Ashadi Siregar centers his novel, Jentera Lepas, on students who were massacred by the army after the aborted coup, while Umar Kayam in Bawuk questions how society has been dehumanized for not having the courage to address the issue.

Anna-Greta Nilsson Hoadley (2005) argues that literature can reveal the coercion and violence exercised by the state over its citizens that may be silenced in the nation’s written history. Therefore, there seems to be  more freedom in literature to speak about these topics that must not be spoken of; as if literature replaces the role of history. But that does not mean that I suggest that the official history, which is seen as central, objective and scientific, be sidelined. I only suggest that the peripheral, subjective and fictional be taken into account and analyzed. Fiction was practically the only access that most Indonesians living under the New Order regime had to an alternate view of history.

If writing history, as suggested by Nugroho Notosusanto, is similar to growing trees, let there be more trees. After all, Indonesian historical writings and fictional works were, or still are, in so many ways equally fictional.

(Taufiq Hanafi has been working as a teacher at the Faculty of Arts, Universitas Padjadjaran, Bandung, Indonesia, but is currently doing research at the KITLV, working on fiction as counter-history. This blog is a shortened version from an article in the Jakarta Post )

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