Title: Laskar Pelangi
Author: Andrea Hirata
Publisher: PT Bentang Pustaka, Yogyakarta
2005, republished 2008,
Andrea Hirata's Laskar Pelangi seems to start slowly. Like other coming-of-age novels, the story maintains an intimate closeness to its childhood characters, who in this case are children from the impoverished neighborhoods of resource-rich Belitong or Belitung in southern Sumatra.
The novel, which has been republished for the 16th time since its 2005 launch, focuses on a class of 10 elementary school students with a rainbow-like variety of talents and defects, hopes and desires. Their individual struggles to soar eventually succumb to the realities in which they are rooted.
Apart from studying the world through the lens of the children's eyes, the novel also provides insight into the perspectives of the meagerly paid teachers who dedicate their lives to the happiness and growth of their students.
The novel chronicles the simple and hard lives of a nickel-rich town, which is socially usurped by an affluent and greedy mining company that divides the people.
Andrea's novel provides a rigorous and heartfelt examination of a crumbling education system, a never-ending class struggle and the poverty which these two social dynamics seem to perpetuate. By selecting a setting which is very close and personal, the author passionately weaves a witty, metaphor-rich story.
Andrea's portrayal of class struggle and deep-rooted poverty emulates the work of literary giant Mark Twain. Class struggle is seen as a reality to live with. Although there's nothing amusing about it, the narrative seem capable of unleashing a dimension of pathos capable of eliciting a smile or a giggle.
For Indonesian readers, Andrea has offered something more than Twain, particularly for readers familiar with an upbringing in a small town setting. The story seems to evoke a suitcase of memories and nostalgia. The childhood characters of the narrative become as close as the reader's own.
Throughout the story it's difficult to distinguish whether the book is a memoir of the writer's experience or a fictitious novel. The author was born and grew up in the same area as his debut novel. But whatever the truth is, whether it's fictitious or not, Andrea succeeds in enunciating his childhood reminiscence. A romantic recollection of impoverished lives in his hometown becomes a literary work that intrinsically carries with it the higher moral impetus which is social satire.
The novel begins with "Ikal" the first person protagonist, providing an account of his first day of school at Muhammadiyah elementary school in Belitong. The school, which is the oldest one in town, was established by moderate Muslim clerics. The particular day represents a critical moment for the school. A crucial decision must be taken if the number of enrolled students does not reach 10.
Andrea carefully builds the suspense with descriptive exposure of the facial expression of the school's caretaker K.A. Harfan Effendy Noor and teacher N.A. Muslimah Hafsari. Although central to the novel, the two people are not fictitious characters.
Andrea subtly manipulates and rides on the waiting moment -- as one by one would-be students show up -- to take on the vicious cycle of poverty and fairness of the education system.
"My father is nervous. I can understand it, it's not easy for him, a 47-year-old mining worker to send his son to a school. It's easier to give me up to a tauke or dried coconut kopra company for I can help to earn money for my family."
Other parents possess similar dilemmas, weighing the desire to advance their progeny while buckling under the strain of their poverty. Instead of taking it as a form of basic rights, education is simply seen as a conduit to attain better welfare. Uneducated, the small town folk generally assume seven- or eight-year-old children are ripe to earn real money for a living rather than attending classes to learn abstract concepts and knowledge that push them to an uncertain future.
"Parents are here (at the school on the first day of school) to avoid mockery from government officials if they are not sending their children to school."
The Muhammadiyah school where Ikal and his nine friends go is rundown. The patched building lacks decorations to embellish the crumbling walls and faded paint. The pious teachers' untiring spirits are the only light shining in the otherwise grim classrooms. Andrea's recollection of his classroom is best reflected in his description of the class wall.
"There are no pictures of the President and Vice President, nor is there a picture of that weird big bird (state symbol Garuda). To cover a crack on the wall, a poster has been placed. It's a picture of a thick-bearded man wearing Muslim garb. The man looks up to the sky and a lot of money rains down on his face from the sky. There is a sentence below which later I understand is the name of the man, Rhoma Irama...Hujan Duit (Rhoma Irama...rain of money)." Rhoma was a dangdut king who is also known for his staunch Islamic point of view.
Though taking Islamic education, Andrea doesn't present his main characters as religious students. Gullibly, they remain kids and better off that way for the children's innocence -- intentionally or not -- works well in this particular situation. For instance, upon hearing a story told by the school principal about Noah and his giant boat that gives salvation for those who believe and practice the belief, Ikal naively draws his first moral lesson: "If I'm not pious, I have to be a damned good swimmer, otherwise I'll drown."
Though predominantly inhabited by ethnic Malay residents who are staunch Muslim, the coastal town of Belitong is also home to ethnic Chinese. Unlike the common stereotype, Belitong Chinese are not all wealthy and happy.
Many make up the poorest part of the society. But Andrea humorously flips the misery: "...families of Chinese descent don't have to think about costly trips to their ancestors' land in Jinchanying to see the Great Wall because in Belitong they can see it, stretching for tens of kilometers, dividing Belitong."
The Great Wall he means is the one built by the mining company which divides the hustle and bustle of the mining industry and the rest of Belitong. Inside the wall, which he calls The Tower of Babel, the mining company quietly runs its own life: well maintained asphalt roads, Victorian-styled housing complexes, best schools for their children and public facilities to pamper the company's staff and their families.
It's a world apart, on the other side of the wall as Andrea describes it. The scenario is a textbook example of social stratification in the domain where the mining giants operate. The economic gap somehow seems common amid the rapid economic growth which both raises and excludes. Andrea's work somehow manages to provide readers with a sense of proportion. Through extensive use of paradoxes, Andrea allows his readers to draw their own conclusions.
Laskar Pelangi is not as light as it seems. The author is very resourceful in his use of metaphor. The witty story-telling shows a depth of understanding regarding the human struggle. The writer provides an appreciation for what it is to be alive and not only to blindly submit to one's fate.
Source: Jakarta Post