By Jonathan Napack
For Indonesia, 1998 was a time of two revolutions, political and cultural. Suharto's downfall and the subsequent election of President Abdurrahman Wahid received worldwide attention, but no one outside noticed the appearance of "Saman," a novella by an unknown 27-year-old named Ayu Utami.
The book quickly became a phenomenon, reigniting the kind of public debate that had atrophied under Suharto's regime. It touched on virtually all of Indonesia's taboos: extra-marital sex, political repression, the relationship between Christians and Muslims, hatred of the Chinese.
"That book was like a whirlwind," says Philip Yampolsky of the Ford Foundation here. "No one had talked about politics like that before, or, for that matter, about sex like that before."
Two years later, Indonesians await the long-delayed second book, tentatively entitled "Laila Never Called in New York," which Ayu considers the completed version of "Saman." In the meantime she has become a quasi-celebrity, unusual in a country where writers live on the fringes.
"The audience for literature in Indonesia is so small, and easily challenged," says John McGlynn, editor in chief of Jakarta's Lontar Foundation. "Short stories have much more of a tradition than novels."
"Saman" shows signs of being a draft — scenes undeveloped, sketchy characters — but is still an impressive work, written in fresh, lively prose shifting among different times and locations. At its core is the story of the Catholic priest Wis and his transformation from political passivity to dissidence. Surrounding him are four women, originally his students — Yasmin, Laila, Shakuntala and Cok — whose voices, woven together in Faulknerian fashion, form the novel.
The book is set in the 1990s but its key events take place in the early '80s, when Indonesia's economic "miracle" demanded a brutal price for "development." Wis, who teaches at a Catholic school, takes the side of villagers dispossessed by the government. He organizes protests, escapes a crackdown and moves overseas, reborn as the activist Saman.
But "Saman" is less about politics than love and personal awakening, as if Costa-Gavras were directing "Magnolia." Wis's political awakening is paralleled by a sexual one, as he breaks his vows to have a passionate affair with Yasmin.
Part of what makes "Saman" so extraordinary is its undermining of expectations. Its sexuality is never the comfortable kind: While Laila has an adulterous affair, Yasmin's love for Wis culminates in explicitly erotic letters evoking Genesis and the Song of Songs. Its treatment of ethnicity and religion is subversive: Wis, the Catholic priest, is Javanese (most Javanese are Muslim) and works in Muslim South Sumatra rather than the Christian North; Muslim Laila's married lover is a Christian; anti-Chinese hostility — a meeting of rubber tappers ends in condemnation of "Chinese colonialism" — is balanced by sympathetic Chinese characters.
The clampdown scenes broke the silence of self-censorship. "You get a very vivid picture of what happened when the government started putting the screws on these small rural communities," Yampolsky says.
So did the graphic sex. "Don't underestimate how daring she was," Yampolsky adds. "There's a disconnect in this country between what's represented as the norm and how people actually behave."
Ayu has her own explanation. "I read Tintin when I was a kid," she says, laughing, in the café of the arts center Tuk, where she works, organizing film series, lectures and performances. "That was my original inspiration."
Ayu's beauty — her luminous eyes and sensuously noble features — have worked more against than for her, inspiring bizarre accusations that she not only had an affair with her mentor Goenewan Mohammed, but that Goenewan was the true author of "Saman."
This misogynist conspiracy theory used as "proof" the unlikelihood that a young woman, never before published, could create such a self-assured work, without answering why Goenewan, a famous editor and essayist, would give it away. And as Yampolsky puts it, "why would a Muslim, even an open-minded one, write a novel so saturated in Christianity?"
Ayu's Catholicism is central to her vision. "I grew up with the Bible," she says, "and if you read it carefully there are all these contradictions, just like real life. It was written over a long period of time by different authors, and that inspired me to think of a novel as polyphonic."
Ayu, 30, grew up in Bogor, near Jakarta, feeling isolated as a Javanese among West Java's Sundanese and as a Catholic — nearly all Sundanese and Javanese are Muslim. "I wrote my first novel in high school," she says. "About adventurous teenagers. Everyone rejected it." She started university but dropped out at age 20 to join the magazine Matra and start a career as a journalist.
In 1994, she and some colleagues founded the Association of Independent Journalists, an act of courage that cost her her job and landed others in jail. "It was a very special time in my life," she says. "Most of us were young and still idealistic. It gives you hope, when you see very different kinds of people come together because they believe in something."
The odd contradictions of Suharto's New Order lightened the gloominess a little. "Maybe your friends were in prison," she says. "But at least you could bribe your way in and throw a party in jail."
The work at Tuk and residencies in the Netherlands and Japan have kept her busy: "I'm not one of those disciplined people who can write a paragraph a day. I need to feel inspired." She says the new book expands the role of several previously minor characters, and in particular delves into the 1965 anti-Communist, anti-Chinese massacres in Bali.
"The culture here was stunted by an apathy created by self-censorship," McGlynn says. "When 'Saman' came out, it signified the end of that."
For her part, however, Ayu shows no sense of triumph. "We still haven't won," she says. "It's not politics now, it's the society. The intolerance."
Jonathan Napack is a journalist who travels frequently in Asia.