Leila S. Chudori - Going back and forth between Jakarta and Paris in 1965 and 1998, Home is about the lives of Indonesians in exile, their families and their friends, including those left behind in Indonesia. It is not only a story of love, lust and betrayal, but also of laughter, adventure and food


Leila S. Chudori, Home, Trans. by John H. McGlynn, Deep Vellum, 2015. // The Lontar Foundation, 2015.
See an excerpt from the English translation


An epic saga of “families and friends entangled in the cruel snare of history” (Time Magazine), Home combines political repression and exile with a spicy mixture of love, family, and food, alternating between Paris and Jakarta in the time between Suharto’s 1965 rise to power and downfall in 1998, further illuminating Indonesia’s tragic twentieth-century history popularized by the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing.


Home is a remarkable fictional account of the September 30th Movement’s impact on people’s lives. This “movement” led to the murder of a million or more presumed “Communists” and the imprisonment of another tens of thousands of people. At the time, thousands of Indonesians who were abroad had their passports revoked and were exiled. History was manipulated by the Suharto government to cast a favorable light on their involvement in this tragedy. A whole generation of Indonesians were raised in a world of forced silence, where facts were suppressed and left unspoken. Although the tumultuous events of 1965 envelop Home’s background, this is not a novel about ideology. Going back and forth between Jakarta and Paris in 1965 and 1998, Home is about the lives of Indonesians in exile, their families and their friends, including those left behind in Indonesia. It is not only a story of love, lust and betrayal, but also of laughter, adventure and food.


In a recent Tempo article, Goenawan Mohamad described 1965 as ‘a kind of code … for a catastrophic occurrence – and because of this, always simplified.’ He went on to observe that 2012 seemed to be a year of remembering, or imagining, 1965.
One of the most significant manifestations of that remembering was the special September 2012 edition of Tempo that featured interviews with people who had taken part in murdering communists or suspected communists in 1965-1966. In response to this and to the government-appointed Human Rights Commission report on the conduct of the killings, young people in particular have expressed their shock at discovering an aspect of Indonesia’s past of which they had no previous knowledge.
A similar broadening of the discourse on 1965 can be seen in works of fiction reimagining the events of 1965–1966. Such fiction was formerly the domain of authors who had personally lived through the events, such as Umar Kayam and Ahmad Tohari. Now, however, stories on this theme are fictional recollections of an imagined past.
The phenomenon of imagining 1965, alluded to by Goenawan Mohamad, has resulted in a flurry of creative output – fiction, theatre, film – over the last 18 months. Examples include the novels Cerita Cinta Enrico by Ayu Utami (2012), Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak (2012), Candik Ala 1965 by Tinuk Yampolsky (2011) and Ayu Manda by I Made Darmawan (2010).

Chudori's Pulang

A very important contribution to this literary phenomenon was the publication in December 2012 of Leila Chudori's novel Pulang (Going Home). Greeted with much acclaim by literary critics in Indonesia, this is Chudori's antidote to the 'official history of 1965', which was her diet as a school student growing up under the Suharto regime.
Like many Indonesians too young to remember the events of 1965, but kept in the dark about them, Chudori sought answers about what she calls the 'black hole' of Indonesian history. Because history books did not provide the answers, and because her parents' generation would not speak of the events, she sought to explore and imagine the answers through creative writing – in her case, a novel drawing on years of meticulous research based on real-life characters.
As Chuori describes in her article here, her first encounter with the 'black hole' was her discovery of Restaurant Indonesia in Paris. Founded as a cooperative in 1982, it has always been more than just a restaurant. Its original purpose was to provide employment for Indonesian political refugees, including Umar Said and Sobron Aidit, who were unable to return to Indonesia after the 1965 attempted coup. .
As well as promoting Indonesian culture through exhibitions, dance and performances, it has provided a forum for intense political and philosophical discussions. The key protagonists of Pulang – Dimas Suryo, Nugroho Dewantoro, Tjai Sin Soe and Ristjaf – are loosely based on those unlikely restaurateurs.
While the tumultuous events of 1965 are the backdrop of the story, this is not a novel about ideology or political power. It is about the impact of 1965 and its aftermath on the daily lives of the exiles, their families and friends, including those left behind in Indonesia. Inevitably this includes stories of love, lust and betrayal. It describes the constant low-level intimidation faced by the restaurant owners, regarded by the Indonesian authorities as dangerous on account of their political persuasions. It includes Dimas not being present when his mother dies in Indonesia.
But it also includes laughter, adventure and food – especially food. The completely inexperienced restaurateurs devise mouth-watering menus and prove adept at producing Indonesian dishes guaranteed to win the hearts of the diaspora in Paris and educate the French about Indonesian cuisine.
Notwithstanding several flashbacks to the 1950s, the action of Pulang begins in 1965 and ends in 1998: sandwiched between two cataclysmic events of modern Indonesian history. Dimas Suryo and his colleagues are attending a conference of journalists in Santiago, Chile, at the time of the attempted coup. As suspected communist sympathisers, their passports are revoked and they cannot return home. Moving from Chile to Cuba to China over the ensuing years, they eventually end up in Paris where they open their restaurant. Despite that enforced distance from their homeland, their yearning for and connection with Indonesia is the key thread of the novel.
Despite having a girlfriend back in Indonesia, Dimas marries a French girl during the 1968 revolution in Paris. They give their daughter an Indonesian name – Lintang Utara – that reflects the father's longing to go home. It is not until much later, as a young undergraduate student, that Lintang finally has the opportunity to visit the country of her father's birth, only to arrive in Jakarta on the eve of the chaotic 1998 demonstrations that eventually lead to the downfall of President Suharto.
As she has done in her other writing (see for example the stories in The Longest Kiss, her recently published translated short story anthology), Chudori manages to make Indonesia a constant presence on the pages of this novel without having to make repeated reference to it. It is, of course, an imagined Indonesia for the protagonists - a country symbolised for Dimas by the big glass jars of cloves and saffron in his kitchen. (Chudori has spoken of President Abdurrahman's visit to Paris when he asked what could be done for the exiles. Their poignant response: all they wanted was their green Indonesian passports.) For the next generation, Lintang Utara, Indonesia is 'a blood relationship that I do not know.'
In Chudori's own words, she wanted to explore in this novel the mindsets of Dimas and his colleagues who, although they had lived in Paris for most of their adult lives, 'still felt they were a part of Indonesia, no matter what kind of passports they were issued, and no matter how their government treated them.' Equally, she is exploring the worldview and sentiments of that younger generation of Indonesians who seek a definition of what she terms I-N-D-O-N-E-S-I-A (a deliberately disjointed visual representation of the word, indicating its unfinished status).  - Pam Allen


Leila S. Chudori’s Home takes a look at the history of Indonesia between 1965 and 1998 through the eyes of a family caught up in the tumultuous events of the period.  Dimas Suryo is a journalist with slight leftist leanings, so it’s lucky that he is out of the country in 1965 when a Communist coup fails, thereby avoiding the inevitable and bloody backlash.  Safety comes with some serious strings attached, though – while he is free from the fear of arrest and torture, he can never go home.
Ending up in Paris, he gets married and eventually starts a restaurant, Tanah Air, with three of his fellow expats.  Moving forward, the story shifts focus onto Dimas’ daughter, Lintang Utara, a student of journalism at the Sorbonne.  Urged by her supervisor to examine her roots, she decides to make her final project a video on the victims of September 1965, a decision which leads her to visit Indonesia for the first time.  Little does she know that the time chosen for her visit, May 1998, will be every bit as historical (and dangerous) as the days when her father left…
Where Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound looked at some of the events mentioned above in a localised (and allegorical) way, Home provides the clueless foreigner with an explanation of what life in Indonesia at the time was really like.  The novel is bookended by two historical events: the first is Suharto’s use of a failed coup to annihilate his enemies, leading to a mass murder of genocidal proportions; the second is his eventual downfall three decades later.  In introducing a family caught up in these events, Chudori is able to introduce the reader (many of whom, even in Indonesia, have little idea of the ‘real’ version of events) to what actually happened.
In a nice parallel, we first meet Dimas in Paris in 1968.  It’s here he meets his future wife, Vivienne, and while he adores the headstrong Frenchwoman, he can’t help feeling that what she and her friends are protesting against hardly merits the effort:
“To myself, I thought that when it came to the state of a nation, she had no idea what ‘fucked up’ meant.”p.8 (Deep Vellum, 2015)
He knows (and Lintang will see thirty years later) that riots in a civilised country can’t be compared to what has gone on in Indonesia.  Gradually, through flashbacks and Lintang’s experiences, we learn of the chaos in Jakarta, and the bloody rivers full of bodies elsewhere in the country.
Despite the dangers Indonesia holds, and the attractions of the French capital, Dimas maintains his desire to return home.  Never having truly arrived in Paris, he dreams of one day going back, even if only to be buried in his mother country, and the turmeric and cloves in the jars he keeps, the restaurant, the kretek cigarettes he smokes (whose scent makes them his own personal Madeleines…) all serve to remind him that he’s a man in a foreign land.  Years later, when Lintang arrives in her father’s home country, she experiences the same feeling, a nostalgia for a place she’s never known, and begins to wonder just how Indonesian she actually is.
Luckily, on arriving in Jakarta, Lintang receives the support of her extended family, benefiting from the close-knit Indonesian family culture.  It’s this, perhaps, that Dimas misses most of all during his lengthy exile in France, unable to see his brother and the rest of his family.  However, this benefit can quickly turn to a drawback if your blood ties are not what the ruling regime would consider suitable.  Lintang is soon to discover that many people back in Jakarta are forced to conceal their identity lest their past come back to haunt their present life (and job prospects…).
These effects of communist activity are not restricted to the immediate family as even distant relatives can be affected by the taint:
“Every day, at least ten to fifteen people came to have passport-sized photographs taken to attach to government-issued letters of certification that they were not a communist, had never participated in any activity sponsored by the Indonesian Communist Party, and had not been involved in the so-called attempt to overthrow the Indonesian government now known as Gestapu, the September 30 Movement.” (Prologue, p.v)
This scene takes place a few years after the events of 1965, but we later see that it still holds true in the nineties,.  Many educated people are unable to get decent jobs because of links to those accused of being communists decades earlier.
As well as examining family ties, the writer addresses what she sees as a cover up of Indonesian history, with generations educated to believe the Communists (many of whom were brutally slaughtered after the failed coup of 1965) were somehow responsible for all the country’s failings.  The government has clear guidelines on how those who escaped are to be treated by loyal citizens abroad, leaving Lintang amazed by her treatment on a visit to the Paris embassy:
“Just imagine, Maman, for people like me who weren’t even born at the time of the September 30 movement and live far distant from Indonesia, they still require a prescription for what to think.” (p.219)
If this is true in Paris, it’s even more so back in Indonesia.  Through a white-washing of history, aided by stunning museums and compulsory school lessons, the regime attempts to make everyone believe its side of the story.  Slowly, though, the cracks appear, and history shows that when they do, things can change very quickly.
While Home contains some good writing, with lots of information to impart, it can get a little prosaic at times.  It’s never less than fascinating, though, an absorbing tale pulling the reader deeper into the world of Dimas, family and friends.  The novel is also well-structured, with the mix of styles and narrators (some first-person, others third-person) helping disguise the fact that it’s essentially a story of two parts.  The first half mainly takes place in Paris, setting us up for the trip to Jakarata; by the middle of the book, we believe (as Lintang does) that we’re ready to return to Jakarta.  The truth is that we’re not…
Home would be a wonderful introduction to Indonesian literature for readers with an interest in political, historical novels.  It is long, but it’s also very accessible, and the background information it contains on the political events which rocked Indonesia in the twentieth century provide valuable background information for better understanding other books (such as Beauty is a Wound) from the country.  Chudori’s work marks a fitting end to my Indonesian Literature Week, but that’s not the end of this story.  Having found (and received) a few more titles recently, I may well be tempted to revisit the country in the not-too-distant future – do join me then. - tonysreadinglist.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/home-by-leila-s-chudori-review/


Leila s. Chudori : Khatulistiwa Award winner’s commitment to the writing process

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