Defeat and Victory

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Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

IO – On the 24th of May 2018 one of Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s major works and arguably his best novel “Defeat and Victory” (original title “Kalah dan Menang”) was launched in Germany under the title “Verlieren und gewinnen”. The launch which was held in Berlin was opened by the new Indonesian ambassador to Germany, Arif Havas Oegroseno. The book also received a very positive review by Steffen Gnam in Germany’s leading newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Dr Heinrich Seemann who translated the Defeat and Victory into German was especially pleased with this, “It is our leading newspaper and not many books are reviewed there. It is a great honour. To my way of thinking it is on a par to receiving a knighthood in England – which Takdir and his work richly deserve.”

‘Kalah dan Menang’ (Defeat and Victory) book by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. (photo: IO/Prive. Doc)

Defeat and Victory which was originally written in Indonesian was published in 1978 on the fiftieth anniversary of the “Sumpah Pemuda” or the “Youth Pledge” of 1928. For Alisjahbana the Youth Pledge was a defining moment for Indonesia when youths from different islands met at a congress in Batavia and pledged that we are one people: the Indonesian people, one nation the Indonesian nation and that we choose Malay as our national language. It was this that led Alisjahbana to embark upon a modernization of the Malay language so that when in 1945 Sukarno and Hatta declared independence for Indonesia, a national language was already ready to be used to unite the nation and communicate the 20th century to Indonesians.

The book has also been translated into Japanese and English and received similar accolades upon each translation. In Japan Alisjahbana later received the Order of the Sacred Treasure from Emperor Hirohito, as well as the Japan Foundation Award. Several Japanese universities also held seminars about it. After the book came out in English it received a very sympathetic review in Time magazine by Simon Montlake who described it as a work of wartime compassion.

Mr Kojiro Shiojiri, a former Japanese ambassador to Indonesia who read the book while recovering from cancer before he came to Indonesia describes the book as a book about people and the light in people. He said that it is a book about being human. It is about good people as they try to survive very violent and difficult times. In it Alisjahbana describes a good Dutchman, a good Japanese and a good Indonesia in a time of danger, war and great changes.

The story which takes place just before the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands Indies centers around three main characters. The protagonist is a Japanese soldier named Okura who is stationed in Indonesia. The second is Elizabeth Hauser, a Swiss woman brought up in the ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in whose house Okura is billeted. Hidayat an Indonesian nationalist who looks at the War with the possibility of Indonesia independence is the writer’s alter ego.

It was Alisjahbana’s own experiences while imprisoned during the Japanese Occupation (and which are described here) that inspired him to write the book. Defeat and Victory provides a detailed description of Japanese culture and society during the Second World War. The reader emerges with a better understanding of what led this nation to be able to bring about the conquest and destruction of the Second World War in so much of Asia. It is also through his descriptions of Japanese society and culture and what happens to Japan and the rest of the world as a consequence that Alisjahbana explains to the reader why a modern state in the 21st century must be based on democracy. Seen through the eyes of a Japanese soldier who slowly changes his thinking, the book is a passionate defense of democracy and freedom of expression and thought. He shows why taking over modern science and technology is not enough. A society that does not grant its citizens the freedom to think and to express themselves is a society that has not yet evolved out of its own tribalism and is ultimately a danger to 21st century society which can no longer afford the luxury of war with the advent of nuclear weapons that have the power to destroy the world many times over.

Alisjahbana describes the Japanese culture of the Second World War as a culture that glorified death. In stark contrast to this, in Defeat and Victory Alisjahbana argues passionately for life and the sacredness of life. He expresses this most poignantly through one of his characters who tells the Japanese officer Okura, “Oh Tuan Okura, there is nothing more beautiful or wonderful than this life of ours! Death is the opposite of life and every glorification of death is a betrayal of the beauty and grandeur of life. Alisjahbana writes that even in interpreting death we must do so through life as when we look at a beautiful flower in all its glory yet whose petals will ultimately wilt and die only so its seeds may come forth to produce another bloom perhaps even more beautiful. This theme between choosing life over death is also the struggle between the Western humanistic traditions of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with Fascism which is here reflected in the form of the tribal like Samurai culture as well as the Fascism of Japan’s government during the Second World War. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Steffen Gnam writes almost lyrically of this part of the book, “If at times a little allegorical, nevertheless always cuttingly sharp, Alisjahbana unmasks… the shadow play of Fascism as a step back into the age of myths.”

In the book Alisjahbana also attempts to provide a snap shot of Indonesian society during the Second World War. In particular he tries to describe how Indonesians attempted to cope with the situation during the Japanese Occupation: some found comfort and stability in their old cultural traditions, clinging for example to Joyoboyo’s predictions that a small race would conquer and throw out the Dutch but only remain for as long as one corn harvest; then there were the rational Western educated linguists and scholars at the Language Office, the artists around Sukarno who were content to cooperate with the Japanese but also the fiercely independent figure of that enfant terrible Chairil Anwar who was totally opposed to cooperation with the Japanese; there were the Muslim groups and their position towards the Japanese, the youth groups who kidnapped Sukarno and Hatta forcing them to declare independence early and there were the people who had been trained by the Japanese to fight as PETA troops; there were also the Eurasians, the Dutch and of course the Japanese themselves. Simon Montlake in Time magazine observed, “Dearest to Alisjahbana’s heart of course is Indonesia’s independence declared in the language he codified. But his description of Okura – as a metaphor for Japan’s rebirth in a new humanist world – is evidence of a rare sensibility among Asian writers of the wartime generation.”

Many of the characters who appear in Defeat and Victory are based on real people, especially among the Indonesian and Dutch personalities. To a great extant the book is autobiographical. Hidayat is clearly Alisjahbana himself and nearly everything described about him actually happened. The story of the creation of an Indonesian language at the Language Office is told in Defeat and Victory. What is often not realized is that the Language Office was also the meeting place for many of the youths who were fighting for a free and independent Indonesia. Here we meet Chairil Anwar, the famous Indonesian war poet who will ever be remembered for his immortal lines, “And I want to live a thousand years more!” Mulyadi was most probably Subadio Sastrosatomo, who worked at the Language Office and was also a prominent member of the Partai Sosialis Indonesia. Alisjahbana himself was a member of the party and after independence became a PSI member of parliament. It would now be equivalent to the Labour Party or Social Democrats and was the party of the intelligentsia led by Sutan Sjahrir, a distant cousin of Alisjahbana. Meanwhile, Kartini was based on Alisjahbana’s second wife Soegiarti, while Elisabeth Hauser was based on his German wife, married after Soegiarti’s death.  Of the Dutch characters Dirk Schoonveld was based on the Dutch historian Van Leur whom Alisjahbana admired and Rob de Lang was the Eurasian jurist Han Resink who later sided with the Indonesians during the struggle for independence and helped build the Faculty of Law of the University of Indonesia. As in the book, Han Resink was an aide to the last Governor General of the Netherlands Indies, Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that it provides us with a glimpse of many institutions and buildings as they were in the past. A dramatic scene takes place in front of the Hotel des Indes the most famous hotel in Netherlands Indies and when the Japanese occupying forces hold their first public meeting with the Indonesian educated elite it is in the Kunstkring palais which is now a restaurant. Perhaps the most poignant scene is when Hidayat and Abdul Salam receive funds to buy books for the Langage Office and go to the second hand book sellers in Senen where there is a plethora of books for sale that the Dutch who were being interned had been forced to sell or that were plundered from libraries and private homes. Suddenly books were available that were rarely seen in bookshops before the War in English, Dutch, German and French on all subjects by great scholars for nearly nothing. For Hidayat it is a treasure trove and the closing sentence of chapter 6 leaves a memorable description: “At half past one they cycled back to the office followed by two becaks (trishaws), piled high with books.”

This image fits with a description of Alisjahbana by Werner Kraus, a German Indonesia scholar at the University of Passau who spoke about Alisjahbana and his work at the book launch, “Takdir Alisjahbana’s political vision was of a friendly and prosperous Indonesia grounded on a universal humanism. A modernization of Indonesia was to be advanced in place of questionable traditional values or as he put it backward traditions. And for him the way to achieve this was through education, education and still better education.”

Although Defeat and Victory has received praise and recognition abroad, the book has barely received any attention in Indonesia. In 2015 when Indonesia was guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair which is the largest book fair in the world it was rejected by Gunawan Mohamad, the Head of the Book Committee for inclusion amongst the books representing Indonesia. It was only through the timely intervention and insistence of Anies Baswedan who was then Minister of Education and Culture that the book was included (at the time preliminary copies of the German translation were submitted and it was last year that the book found a German publisher). Werner Kraus tries to explain the lack of recognition in Indonesia by quoting Alisjahbana himself in an interview with Richard Wright, “I am alone in my land.”

The translation of the book also received praise from several sources including the previous Indonesian ambassador to Germany, Fauzi Bowo (one of the few Indonesian ambassadors to Germany fluent in German) who commented that Dr Seemann provided an excellent good translation which was not always the case with some of the translations of Indonesian books for the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015.  Seemann who has served as German ambassador to first Japan and later Indonesia was in many ways very well equipped to translate the novel with his understanding of both Indonesian and Japanese history and culture. He is a scholar who has written about both countries with empathy and knowledge for each country ignited in him a deep interest and sympathy. Seemann’s translation also received praise from Dr Thoralf Hanstein of the Oriental Department of the Berlin State Library who wrote, “The book is certainly well worth reading, and for Indonesia specialists with an interest in history reading it is in fact, a must. The literary enjoyment of the book perhaps suffers a little at the beginning from an over flow of historical information and philosophical deliberations, but a reader with the patience to continue reading is rewarded by very rich material and inspired to really think and even find out more about what the author writes. The book provides both wisdom and insights but also at times surprises the reader with its practical reality as for example its prediction of the European Union. Its highly successful translation makes it now possible to read this important work of Indonesian literature in a very rich and enjoyable German.”  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Verlierern und Gewinnen is published by Mitteldeutsche Verlag. In Indonesia it is available in Indonesian and in English from PT Dian Rakyat.