Last month, at the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I had the great privilege of meeting one of the giants of modern Indonesian literature, Ahmad Tohari. His triolgy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, was for years censored by its Indonesian publishers Gramedia: they removed a large chunk of writing about the killings of suspected Communist sympathisers by government troups in the mid-1960s. It was only after the book was translated in full as The Dancer by the fabulous Lontar Foundation that Gramedia dared to restore the gory details of the original. Tohari said he was especially pleased that a film based on the book, Sang Penari, included scenes of the killings. But such films are few and far between.
Though the theme of the writers’ festival was “Visiting the Memories”, it is remarkable how few Indonesian writers, film-makers, artists have dedicated themselves to trying to excavate, explore or explain the cataclysm of violence that exploded across Sumatra, Java and Bali (and spattered other islands, too) in the mid-1960s. Half a million mothers and sons, fathers, schoolteachers, best friends, lovers slaughtered in just a few months, and all in my own lifetime. Yet no-one in Indonesia talks about it, and most people outside Indonesia don’t even know about it.
I had cause to think about this again yesterday, as I watch the mesmerising film “Nostalgia for the Light”, by Chilean director Patricio Guzman. The philosophical-poem-in-a-film is a meditation on that country’s own amnesia about the even more recent killings of the Pinochet era. In the vast, empty Atacama desert, however, there are still women scratching around for the remains of people they loved and lost to the political madness. And people like Guzman still question the forgetting. I don’t see that quest in Indonesia. Is it because pragmatic Indonesians feel there is no quarter in scratching at old wounds until they seep and get infected? Is it because Indonesia’s impossible fecundity covers over remains and memories so quickly, recycling them into the growth of a new society in a way that Chile’s barren dryness doesn’t? Or is it because more ordinary Indonesians were involved in the slaughter, which is said often to have boiled down to a settling of scores between stroppy neighbours or jealous lovers? We’ll never know, but I’m surprised that more people aren’t asking the question.