Ubud encounters: Pamuntjak, Lewis live dangerously in novels on 1965 turmoil

The September 1965 upheaval in Jakarta depicted in The Year of Living Dangerously was only the beginning of the story. In the three years that followed, up to 3 million people were killed and thousands more imprisoned in a purge of alleged Communists as General Suharto consolidated his power and replaced President Sukarno.

Suharto’s New Order covered up the massacres. Even 15 years after reformasi rid the nation of Suharto and began the vast archipelago’s transformation into the world’s third largest democracy, it’s a period of which few in Indonesia dare speak.

At last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, authors Laksmi Pamuntjak and Richard E Lewis launched novels that dare to tell the long hidden tale from remarkably different perspectives.

Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red reinterprets the pan-Asian Mahabharata legend in the context of the 1965 purge and subsequent captivity in a purpose-built political prison on remote Buru Island. “I was part of the generation that was indoctrinated to believe a certain version of history, so I felt an obligation to more about it,” Pamuntjak, born in 1971, said

“I want The Question of Red not to find out who the masterminds [of the purges] were. All the novel can do is find new ways to tell the story. I was conscious of writing through the memory of others. I knew I could never reach the depth of feeling of the people who were there in Suharto’s prison. I felt inadequate.”

Readers seem to disagree: the Indonesian version of the novel, Amba, had four printings within four months of its release last year.

“The best I could do was to try to tell the stories of people whose stories were not told through history with a big H,” Pamuntjak, who first gained international recognition for her poetry and is an accomplished translator, said.

She recounted the difficulties of portraying the suffering of others. “Your totally take on the lives of your characters, and it saps your being,” Pamuntjak, Indonesia’s entrant in last year’s Poetry Parnassus staged in conjunction with the London Olympics, said. “Like love and [other] relationships in your life, it’s equal parts love and pain. But it’s totally worth it.”

Richard Lewis didn’t have to imagine the killings of 1965. “We looked into our own graves in the backyard,” Lewis, then nine years old, the son of American missionary parents in rural Bali, recalled. “Some guy had come to our house and said he wanted to work as our gardener, He dug a big hole in our garden that we thought was for trash. We were on the list for elimination. I don’t know why we were spared.”

While Bones of the Dark Moon is a novel, “This is not fiction,” Lewis declared of his depiction of the destruction he witnessed. “As a nine year old, you don’t have the ability to comprehend those events, but it was vivid.”

He recalled a story told by a commander of the army’s elite Red Beret unit. “The officer met a boy who said, ‘Sir, you’ve killed my parents, would you please kill me?’ ‘So I took out my gun and shot him,’ the officer said.” A journalist who had been to the shore where bodies were being dumped and told Lewis’ family about watching sharks feed on them. “Many of the boys I played with just vanished.”

Bones of the Dark Moon, Lewis’ fifth novel, is written in the present time, framed within the discovery of bones in excavations for a new villa, even though it depicts events nearly half a century ago. “I knew I would write it in the present because that time is still a stain on Bali. People who were alive still have vivid memories. Wounds still linger and fester about what happened.”

Lewis, who attended university in the US but still lives in Bali, believes the wounds remain fresh due to the absence of legitimate answers about what really happened in 1965, starting with the alleged failed Communist coup that provided the pretext for the Suharto’s takeover and unleashed the wave of killing. “Was there a coup? Was it the CIA? Was it Suharto, the master dalang,/i> [puppeteer]?”

Pamuntjak and Lewis’ books, both from Indonesian publishers, add impetus to the search for answers.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.