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Workers & Warriors

Treachery and trickery is part of the world of Wayang, too. Like Hardo, Karna is betrayed by his father-in-law. But in Pramoedya’s story it is not a mere dramatic device. Treachery in Indonesia in 1945 was everywhere, but at the same time it was a very slippery concept. In Dutch eyes every Indonesian who assisted the Japanese was a traitor. But a traitor to whom? The Dutch empire? To the Indonesians the choice of loyalties was often a matter of survival and many felt they owed the Dutch very little. But then survival could easily slip into opportunism: even as the poor were sent off to be worked to death as Japanese slaves, men like Hardo’s father-in-law made money off bribes and black marketeering. Many Indonesian nationalists—Sukarno, for example—thought that the cause of national independence was best served by helping the Japanese. Sukarno was in many ways a Karna-like (or Karmin-like) figure, even though he liked to see himself depicted as Ardjuna or Bima; the good man in the wrong camp. He even helped the Japanese make propaganda for their slave-labor program. So he was unquestionably a collaborator. But was he a traitor? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is a fact that without the Japanese invasion, the Dutch empire would have lasted longer.

If any writer is in a position to appreciate the ironies and ambiguities of history (and these do manage to shine through the creaky translation), it is Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He was jailed by the Dutch, and after they had left, he was jailed again by his own countrymen, from 1965 to 1979. In the early 1960s, however, Pramoedya, as editor of a pro-government publication, castigated writers who diverged from the extreme leftist party line. He argued that those “infectious” elements had to be “cut down and wiped out.” So his suffering under Suharto, which continues to this day—he is still confined to Jakarta—does not elicit universal sympathy among his fellow writers. Nonetheless, Pramoedya, whatever his merits as writer, should be read as an important witness to a world where moral and political choices can be matters of life and death.

It is a world that seems a very long way from Australia, even though Jakarta is one of the nearest foreign cities to Sydney. Certainly David Malouf’s characters would have found little in common with Hardo, Dipo, and Karmin. And yet they were all affected by the same historical events that shook the great world. Malouf’s story describes how the war threw the small worlds of his characters out of kilter, how they tried to make sense of their lives, which so often seemed senseless. They too lived through a time of chaos and they also had to restore the cosmological balance. But Malouf’s way of telling the story is not stylized or theatrical, but psychological: the difference, perhaps, between East and West, though one way is not necessarily superior to the other, nor are they mutually exclusive. At any rate, Malouf’s perceptions are deep and his use of language, that marvelously rich Australian language, quite wonderful.

By the time the war turns the world upside down we already know a lot about Digger and Vic. If becoming a drifter is a kind of rite of passage in a young man’s life, this is a universal phenomenon. Digger had embarked on that journey before the war. He grew up in a small village as the only son of an overbearing mother and a weak father, whose self-esteem could only be propped up by his memories of camaraderie in the Great War—his only taste of the great world. Digger decides to leave home and joins a carnival troupe of freaks and fat ladies and strongmen: “It was the chance it offered (he touched on this very lightly, hardly confessing it even to himself) of stepping aside from what fate, or his mother, who claimed to be its agent, had set up for him. Of getting away.”

Later on in the story, Digger’s slow-witted sister, Jenny, watches him and Vic sit and talk in the car: “There was a mystery about cars—they were men’s business, cars—that she had never fathomed. It had to do with going places.”

Getting away was also the story of Vic’s life. As a child he lived in utter degradation with his father, who was a pathetic drunk, violent in private and abject in public. After his father’s death (in a pub brawl), Vic was adopted by a well-to-do family in Sydney called the Warrenders. Fate had offered him a second chance. His idea of going places was to get rich and repay his new family for rescuing him from the squalid world of his early childhood (and to make sure he would never return to such circumstances again). But this raised moral doubts that, cast in a different idiom and a different form, would not look out of place in a Javanese puppet play:

Business will do fine for me. I’m not so particular.”

He had thought at first that he ought to be; that his readiness to muck in and dirty his hands with money-making was an indication that even his finest instincts might be coarse. But when he got to see things more clearly he began to ask himself what the value was of so much fineness if all it did was spoil you for action—and it was in action that he meant to prove himself.

Like Bima, the complete man of action among the Pandawas, Vic believes in the human capacity to control one’s destiny by sheer force of will. He is a survivor. But at a cost that a Javanese audience would find very familiar: he is tortured by the fact that personal survival can mean betrayal of others, that what one wants to do is not always compatible with what one ought to do. The real moment of truth arrives when he is in a Japanese labor camp in Thailand. He gets into a fight with a guard, and in the chaos that follows he allows an innocent man, the gentle bookish Mac, to be killed. He survives, but is racked with guilt:

He deliberately put out of his mind the Warrenders and his old life, feeling that in betraying himself he had betrayed them, too. It hurt him to look at what he had done through their eyes….

Guilt, betrayal, self-control, survival, these are themes that exercise Vic and Digger as much as they do Hardo and Karmin. A big difference lies in the circumstances. To the Indonesians, the arrival of the Japanese is very much part of their rite of passage. Their military training under the Japanese is a spiritual as well as a physical effort, and their ultimate rebellion is an act of choice. The Japanese fit into the grander scheme of things. Hardo’s war is not senseless. To Vic and Digger, however, it is utterly without meaning. Digger didn’t even wish to join the army at first. He does it in the end, not to serve a greater cause, but impulsively, “to get away.” The Japanese are not worthy opponents, like the Kurawas, but more like alien demons, faceless, hardly human.

To go to war only to be taken prisoner and turned into a coolie is the ultimate humiliation for Vic. Not only does it mean defeat, but it completely destroys his control over his own destiny. What follows is one of the most horrifying and vivid descriptions of the death railroad camps I have read. The rotting wounds, the maddening fevers, the casual sadism of the Japanese and Korean guards, the terror of cholera, of giving in to fate, of becoming what in Auschwitz camp jargon was called a Musulman, a doomed man already in the grip of death. Digger and Vic just manage to avoid this fate by hanging onto life by a thread; in Vic’s case quite literally:

In the end he had only one thing left: two and a half yards of white cotton thread tied in a loop. He had that in the left-hand pocket of his shorts, quite safe, and was keeping it, come what may…. He kept checking every five minutes or so to see that it was still there. He took precautions. If he lost it he would be done for.

Digger’s thread was his memory. He lived by words, by reading, over and over, a letter from a girl called Iris to her brother Mac, the friend who was killed instead of Vic. He knows the contents of the letters by heart, the descriptions of normal, everyday, banal Australian life. He knows them, but reads the letters nonetheless, for they are the most precious thing left. The letters and the lists he keeps in his head, of all the men in his regiment, dead and alive. As long as he can hang on to those words, his life will continue. Vic rather despises memories: “I know what real is. I’m not like Digger. I don’t need dreams.”

Both men survive the camps. Digger falls in love with the author of the letters (he had already fallen in love with her words) and reads all the books in her brother’s library. Vic has a much harder time adjusting to a world restored to normality. His world is still out of sync. He becomes a “ganger on the roads, spreading gravel in front of a steamroller, all day in the heat and reek of tar.” He chooses this life quite deliberately. “By living as he did now he made what had happened to him ‘up there’—the deprivations and shame he had suffered, the misuse he had been subject to—that much less of a violation. ‘You see, I might have chosen it anyway. Like I’m doing now.’ ”

Vic soon goes on, however, to achieve his old ambition, and becomes very rich, while Digger retreats into a quiet life revolving around his books, his love for Iris, his childhood home, and his memories. But there is one thing Vic cannot control and that is the moment of his death, which is sudden, senseless, and brutal. The story of Digger and Vic ends with two haunting images; of Digger still trying to make sense of the randomness of fate, by listing the names of his old regiment in his head, in alphabetical order, and of Vic trying but failing to pass a piece of thread through the eye of a needle. Vic and Digger, Hardo and Dipo, Ardjuna and Bima: introspection versus action. I suppose the moral of the story is that we must strike a balance of both. When the drifter has passed his rite of passage and becomes a man of refinement the Javanese say he has “wis Djawa,” or become Javanese. Australians might say he is a decent bloke. Their manners might differ, but the two are not really so far apart.


The Indonesian Way October 25, 1990

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