In March, 1940, a group of thirteen-year-old Javanese boys emerged from the playground of their school in Jogjakarta. They were rounded up by Japanese soldiers, sealed in a cargo train without anything to eat or drink, and taken to Batavia, where they were added to eight thousand other Indonesians. They were then put on two ships bound for Singapore. One was sunk by a torpedo, four thousand drowned. The rest got off in Sumatra, where they were put to work on a railway line. But first the Japanese guards gave them a little demonstration. Eight boys were ordered to lift up a track. When this proved impossible, the Japanese decreased their number, until there were only four. When they, too, failed to lift the track, they were lined up and beheaded. “This,” said the Japanese commander, “is what happens to lazy workers.”

It is but one story out of many, one story to illustrate the brutal statistics: more than 300,000 Indonesians were sent overseas to work for the Japanese as so-called romusha, or warrior-workers; barely 70,000 returned alive. Of the 120,000 on Sumatra, 23,000 survived, and of the 31,700 sent to British Borneo, 2,500 came back. Asian slaves were treated so badly, that even the Western POWs working on the Burma railroad, who were used to a thing or two, were horrified.

But it is, as Monsieur Le Pen might put it, a mere detail of the war, which has escaped the attention of most people in the West. The suffering of British, American, Dutch, and Australian prisoners is of course well known. Who can forget the sight of Alec Guinness stiffening his upper lip in the sun-baked punishment hut in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or the harrowing drawings of emaciated men in loincloths made by Australian and British artists in captivity. The suffering of Indonesians, Malayans, or Chinese, however, fails to strike quite the same chord in most European hearts. They are too far removed from our lives. And the idea of a Malay slave worker might appear to be less incongruous, and less degrading, than a full-blooded Brit or American reduced to that level. Indeed it might seem almost natural. After all, as they used to say at the planters’ club, these people are used to it. They don’t feel pain as we do. Life in the East is cheap. And so on.

There is a passage in David Malouf’s superb new novel that sums up what I mean. His two main characters, an Australian pair called Digger and Vic, are captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work on the death railroad in Thailand. Digger watches the Asian road gangs, and

He thought of the look on that fellow’s face who had told him once, “They wanna make coolies of us”: the savage indignation of it, at the violation of all that was natural in the world, their unquestionable superiority as white men; but there was also the age-old fear in it of falling back and becoming serfs again.

To be treated as a coolie! To be forced to bow to little Japs! It is from many accounts as if the social iniquity was worse than the physical suffering. It cut deeper, for an entire world order had been turned upside down. Old assumptions could never again be taken for granted. For this the Japanese deserved the severest punishment, and so, whereas hardly any war crimes committed against Indonesians were deemed to merit prosecution, a large number of Japanese were executed for what they did to Europeans.

This is reason enough for an Indonesian novel about the war to merit our attention. It bears witness to the suffering of people who have been largely ignored. Alas, the translation of Pramoedya’s novel is so stilted that it is difficult to tell whether he also merits the recommendation in the blurb as “one of the world’s most important writers.” On the strength of this book, I would doubt it, but it is possible that the original has qualities that have been lost in the English version. The following sentence is spoken by a treacherous old man to his daughter’s suitor: “Only God the Most Powerful knows how much I’d like to have you beneath our roof once more. Why does it seem that all the things you used to like you have no mind for anymore?” People don’t talk like this in English or I daresay in Javanese.

To a Western reader the book may seem a little flat, a little insubstantial even, but there might be more to it than is immediately apparent. To be sure, there is much talk and little action, apart from some high drama at the end. We are told in the translator’s note that the story follows the general outline of Wayang, the classical shadow-puppet theater. It is as much of a commonplace to compare Indonesian things to Wayang as it is to drag Kabuki into everything Japanese, but in this case there may be something to it (and it is true that Wayang still reflects the culture of Java in a way that few forms of traditional theater do elsewhere). Clifford Geertz, the scholar of Indonesian religions, quotes a Wayang storyteller/puppeteer, or dalang, as follows: “[He] said that in the wayang the same pattern recurs over and over. First the people face each other, then they talk, then they leave, then they talk again, and then they fight.”1 This is pretty much as I remember it. It goes on all night. It is also absolutely riveting. But it is a kind of storytelling that does not lend itself easily to the novel; the characters are too stylized to have much psychological depth. And the written story naturally lacks the other dimensions of the play: the music, the puppets, the dalang’s voice.


Wayang characters, represented by flat, leather puppets, are not without complexity, however. Unlike in, say, European medieval morality plays, the battle is not between absolute good and evil. The heroes are prey to the usual human passions, that is to say, most of them are both good and bad. Hatred and love, cruelty and kindness, sacrifice and betrayal, exist side by side, often with a very thin line in between. The “best” characters are those who are best able to exercise restraint, who can control their passions. The Javanese are less interested in good and evil than in refinement as opposed to coarseness. But in the great epics of Wayang, notably the Javanese version of the Mahabharata, there are coarse figures among the “heroes” (the Pandawas) and refined ones among the “villains” (the Kurawas). The Kurawas must be defeated, because their lust and greed upset the cosmic order, but they are nevertheless aristocrats, related to the Pandawas. And the coarsest figures of all, the three clowns, are also the most revered, as they are the most human.

The contest, then, is between man and his emotions, the conflict between what we want to do and what we feel we ought to do. It is a common theme in Asian drama. In Kabuki it is the choice between giri and ninjo, duty and compassion, which, in most cases, isn’t really a choice at all, for duty must prevail and when it does not, the hero has to die, usually by his own hand. The hero’s dilemma in Wayang as well as Kabuki is that action often is incompatible with compassion, or, conversely, that compassion drives him to take actions which he ought not. Hence the long scenes in both kinds of theater, where the characters do nothing but talk before, finally, restraint explodes into violence. Loyalty is perhaps the highest prized virtue, but personal loyalty can clash with official loyalty—the Japanese vassal who sacrifices his child to protect the offspring of his lord, or Karna, the most refined hero of the Kurawas, who remains loyal to his king, even though he realizes his opponents are more worthy of support. To heighten the drama the hero often has to hide his identity, pretending to be mad, or a ruffian, or anything else that goes against his true nature. It is, in fact, a world not so very far removed from that of the Elizabethans. It is certainly the world of Pramoedya’s novel.

His story takes place at the end of the war, a time of chaos. The heroes are young men cut off from their normal lives, drifting about in the guise of beggars, their whereabouts and identities known only to themselves. Their loyalties are to one another and their cause—to defeat the Japanese, whom they served to begin with, in the hope of gaining national independence—and not to their families or loved ones, whose world is no longer theirs. To be in touch with their families would not only spoil the purity of their brotherhood, but would be dangerous, for the Japanese military police, aided by Indonesian collaborators, are ever ready to pounce.

In one of his books on Indonesia, Benedict Anderson places such young drifters in a Javanese tradition of spiritual heroes, in search of utopia. In normal circumstances, this quest is an introspective one, a rite of passage toward a higher wisdom. But in times of crisis,

Utopia often assumed an external aspect in response to the social disintegration and natural catastrophes which were traditionally regarded as the visible signs of dynastic decline and danger in the cosmological order.2

The last year of the war was just such a time, the perfect setting for a modern shadow play, with the rapacious Japanese, whose warrior spirit was nonetheless widely admired, as the Kurawas, and the young heroes in beggarly disguise as the Pandawas. The main character, Hardo, bears some resemblance to Ardjuna, the elegant, introspective warrior-prince. His friend, Dipo, is like Bima, all action, will, ruthlessness. And the third young knight is Karmin, who used to belong to the brotherhood, but dropped out at the last minute, when the band tried to take up arms against the Japanese. He is a bit like Karna, the good man on the wrong side, for he remains loyal to his Japanese superiors until the end. His refusal to take part in the rebellion was the result of a personal sense of betrayal. His girlfriend had married someone else; he failed to control his private feelings.


The long set pieces, the “talk,” are between Hardo and his prospective father-in-law, who works for the Japanese; between Hardo and his father, cast adrift as a petty gambler; between Hardo and Dipo, who accuses Hardo of sentimentality; and between Karmin and Ningsih, Hardo’s fiancée. The strangest and most theatrical scene is the meeting of Hardo with his father, for Hardo does not reveal who he is, even when his father, a broken man, is desperate to hear from his son. But Hardo, like a true Javanese hero of the old school, manages to control himself. The theme running through all these dialogues is betrayal. The father-in-law betrays Hardo. Dipo wants Hardo to kill Karmin for his treachery. Karmin tries to make Ningsih understand his motives: “Maybe you can’t see that what some people call betrayal might not always be the case.” The violent climax occurs when the Japanese surrender. A Japanese officer goes berserk with his gun. Ningsih is killed and Karmin is almost murdered by Dipo and a howling lynch mob bent on revenge. “Kill me!” he shouts, “I am Platoon Commander Karmin. I am a traitor!” His death is prevented by Hardo, who stares the mob down.

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.

This Issue

July 19, 1990