Exploring Indonesian History and Society through Novels: Reads by Indonesian Authors

By Shawn Wongosari*


Indonesia, a country known for its natural landscapes and diverse ethnic groups, is also home to a thriving literary scene. As Indonesia commemorates its 78th Independence Day on 17th August, it is timely to look at a small slice of the rich literary heritage of this vast archipelago, by exploring three classic novels that reflect the unyielding spirit of Indonesian history. Stories of resilience in facing challenges, such as the struggle for freedom during the colonial period, the fight for independence, and the contestation between communists and anti-communists, characterise this spirit. The stories highlighted in these novels mirror the postcolonial era that has shaped the nation today.

Bumi Manusia by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Published in August 1980, Bumi Manusia is the first instalment of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet. The novel takes place in Surabaya during the Dutch colonial era during the late 19th century. Here, the novel’s main protagonist, Minke, a young Javanese nobleman who attends a prestigious Dutch high school, falls in love with Annelies Mellema, the half-Javanese daughter of a prominent Dutchman. The novel explores the forbidden relationship between Minke and Annelies – a relationship that involves the crossing of social and racial boundaries, considered taboo in Dutch colonial society. This relationship symbolises Minke’s attempts to challenge social norms by seeking to break free from the constraints imposed on him as a pribumi (native Indonesian) under Dutch rule [1].

Bumi Manusia serves as a reflection on the injustices of colonial rule by highlighting the cruel and unfair treatment of the pribumi by the Dutch. Through Pramoedya’s weaving of history and storytelling, the novel encapsulates the early anticolonial consciousness of soon-to-be ‘Indonesian’ nationals through Minke’s struggles to achieve justice and equality for the pribumi.

The Buru Quartet in the ISEAS Library collection: in English (top row) and in Indonesian (bottom row).

The novel was written during Pramoedya’s time as a political prisoner on Buru island, where he was incarcerated by Suharto’s military regime for alleged involvement with the Indonesian Communist Party [2]. Following his release, Pramoedya smuggled the manuscript out of Pulau Buru and published it through Hasta Mitra, a publishing company set up by him and his friends, Hasjim Rachman and Joesoef Isak [3]. The New Order government subsequently banned Bumi Manusia, and the ban was only removed following Suharto’s fall from power in 1998.

All four volumes of the Buru Quartet are available at the ISEAS Library in the original Indonesian as well as in English, translated by ISEAS Visiting Senior Fellow Max Lane:

A shelf of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s works at the ISEAS Library.

Other major works by Pramoedya Ananta Toer available at the Library include:

Senja di Jakarta by Mochtar Lubis

Due to the author’s imprisonment by the Sukarno regime, Senja di Jakarta was completed in 1957 but first published in English in 1963 as Twilight in Djakarta [4]. Here, Mochtar Lubis weaves together multiple storylines of characters from different classes, religious backgrounds, and political orientations, reflecting the societal divisions in Jakarta in the 1950s. The novel explores the collisions and intersections between the different classes of its characters, representing the conflicts arising from the disparities and power dynamics among Jakarta’s diverse population.

The plot revolves around the consequences of a rivalry between members in a study club where young intellectuals debate about their country’s problems and their solutions: Marxism or Islam, East or West [5]. The competition between Akhmad, a communist, and Murhalim, who is Muslim and anti-communist, escalates. Their ideological rivalries further complicate Jakarta’s social landscape, forming a significant element of the novel that culminates in a tragic demonstration by manipulated becak drivers [6] which is heavily suggested to be orchestrated by communist infiltrators. The demonstration serves as a metaphor for the exploitation and manipulation of the working class, exposing the vulnerability of the masses and the devastating consequences of their manipulation by political elites. As the novel concludes, the characters’ lives are marred by the chaotic urban environment. At the end, the protagonist Saimun, a garbage collector and a symbol of the working class, who gets caught up in the tragedy, expresses a longing to return to the simplicity of village life to his girlfriend, Neneng, a prostitute.

Senja di Jakarta is a critique of the disparities, exploitation, and political manipulation prevalent in postcolonial Jakarta under President Sukarno. It explores the Indonesian nation’s early struggles during the liberal democracy period in the early 1950s, as reflected in Jakarta’s worsening social and political instability leading up to the ‘Guided Democracy’ period [7].

Senja di Jakarta (ISEAS call no: PL5089 L92S1) and its English translation Twilight in Jakarta (ISEAS call no: PL5089 L92) can be found at the languages and literature section of the ISEAS Library’s general collection. Other works by Mochtar Lubis that are available at the ISEAS Library include:

Some works by Mochtar Lubis at the ISEAS Library.

Cantik itu luka by Eka Kurniawan

In this novel, we go further back in time to the late colonial era. Its plot revolves around the life of Dewi Ayu in the fictional port city of Halimunda. Dewi Ayu, a half-Dutch woman whose grandparents were Dutch plantation owners, hails from a wealthy and privileged family. As World War II emerged, Dewi Ayu was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp alongside other members of the Dutch populace, and where she had to resort to prostitution to survive. Her irresistible charm leads every man she encounters to desire her companionship. This journey eventually leads to the birth of three extraordinarily beautiful daughters, whose marriages tie her family to some of Halimunda’s most influential figures: former revolutionary turned  gangster Maman Gendeng; regional military commander Shodancho; and charismatic Communist leader, Comrade Kliwon.

In a preternatural twist, 21 years after Dewi Ayu’s death, she rises from the grave and meets her fourth daughter, Beauty. Ironically, the novel depicts Beauty as a girl of unmatched ugliness. As the plot nears its end, Dewi Ayu’s daughters and grandchildren have been met by tragedy and disasters. She soon realises that the ghost of a long-dead fisherman has targeted her family as revenge for an injustice committed by her grandfather, the Dutch plantation owner.

Cantik itu Luka (ISEAS call no: PL5089 K96C1) is a story of survival, resilience, and the interplay between personal narratives and larger historical forces: the transition from Dutch rule to the Japanese Occupation to the independence of Indonesia, revolution, coup attempts and the overthrow of the nation’s first president, Sukarno, by its second, Suharto. As the novel progresses, it reveals the complex relationships between characters and how historical events shape their lives. Its English title, “Beauty is a Wound”, is inspired by the name of Dewi Ayu’s fourth daughter and reflects the paradoxical nature of beauty as both a source of attraction and vulnerability, echoing the characters’ experiences in the novel. Overall, Cantik itu Luka is a rich and ambitious work that blends historical fiction with Indonesian myth and folklore, offering a unique perspective on Indonesian history and society through the lives of its characters.

Other works by Eka Kurniawan available at the ISEAS Library include:


            Bumi Manusia, Senja di Jakarta, and Cantik itu Luka each encapsulate aspects of Indonesia’s history and societal evolution. These novels and their historical backdrops can serve as lenses that shed light on the struggles, aspirations, and complexities that have shaped Indonesia into the nation it is today. Through these literary works, one may gain a deeper appreciation for the nation’s journey, from the challenges of colonial rule to the vibrancy of post-independence life.

The above books and many more works of Indonesian literature are available at the ISEAS Library’s General Collection on Level 3, primarily in the call number range of PL5089. Drop by and pick up one (or more)!


[1] Some of the constraints include the prohibition of the pribumi from speaking Dutch, and the entry of spaces, such as clubs, being reserved for white Europeans. See Pramoedya Ananta Toer, “Translator’s Note,” in This Earth of Mankind, trans. Max Lane (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1990), 11.
[2] Chris GoGwilt and Pramoedya Ananta Toer. “The Voice of Pramoedya Ananta Toer: Passages, Interviews, and Reflections from ‘The Mute’s Soliloquy’ and Pramoedya’s North American Tour,” Cultural Critique, no. 55 (2003): 217.
[3] Joseph Hincks, “Google Doodle Honors Indonesian Writer and Patriot Pramoedya Ananta Toer,” TIME, February 5, 2017; Max Lane, “Hasta Mitra: The Exiled Challenge the New Indonesia,” in Indonesia out of Exile: How Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet Killed a Dictatorship, (Singapore: Penguin Books, 2022), 109.
[4] Nicholas Herriman, “Objects of Manipulation: The People and the Rural Village in Indonesia’s Culture Wars,” South East Asia Research 18, no. 3 (2010): 458; Muhammad Salim Balfas, “Modern Indonesian Literature in Brief,” in Handbuch der Orientalistik [Handbook of Orientalistics] Vol. 1, ed. L. F., Brakel, (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1976), 92.
[5] Nicholas Herriman, “Objects of Manipulation: The People and the Rural Village in Indonesia’s Culture Wars,” 459.
[6] A becak is a traditional cycle rickshaw commonly found in Indonesia. It typically consists of a three-wheeled frame with a seat at the front for passengers and a seat at the back for the driver to pedal the becak forward.
[7] Muhammad Salim Balfas, “Modern Indonesian Literature in Brief,” in Handbuch der Orientalistik [Handbook of Orientalistics] Vol. 1, ed. L. F., Brakel, (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1976), 92.

*Shawn Wongosari was an undergraduate intern at the ISEAS Library from May to August 2023.

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