Hitler in Jakarta

Ira Katznelson

  • Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia by Benedict Anderson
    305 pp, $44.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 8014 9758 2

May 20 is marked each year in Indonesia as the Day of National Awakening. It commemorates the founding in 1908 of Budi Utomo, a nationalist organisation created by Javanese in their late teens and early twenties at the Western-type medical school in Batavia, colonial capital of the Netherlands Indies. These founders were drawn from a tiny protoélite, numbering just over a thousand, who had been educated at Dutch-language primary schools. Budi Utomo’s leader, an East Javanese named Soetomo, soon became a significant nationalist intellectual. Late in life, he wrote Kenang-Kenangan (Memories), the first autobiography of its kind in Indonesia.

In ‘A Time of Darkness and a Time of Light’, one of eight essays collected in Language and Power, Benedict Anderson offers a beautifully crafted reading of this memoir. Kenang-Kenangan is quite different from autobiographies familiar in the West. Only a modest proportion of it is devoted to the protagonist; nor does the manuscript chronicle individual achievement from childhood onwards. Without linearity, it treats the author’s separation from, and reconnection with, ancestry. The autobiography describes no radical fissure between past and present. Instead, it constructs ‘a way of making connections in separation’ by forging a new kind of traditional identity, not Javanese but Indonesian.

Soetomo was challenged ‘to proceed into the colonial Western world without imitation; at a deeper level, how to imitate one’s forbears without imitating them, but not to abandon Javanese tradition when one no longer lived embedded in it’. This ‘foreshadows the nationalist solution – imitating one’s forefathers by not imitating them. Being a good Javanese by becoming a good Indonesian.’ In Anderson’s persuasive assessment, ‘Budi Utomo is fully recognisable in both Javanese and Indonesian tonalities. Situated across two languages, it looked both forward and back, signifying committed endeavour ... to live up to something long there in the memory and imagination.’ Soetomo’s text and the remarkable transitions that occurred in Indonesia during the century that spans his childhood and the present day provide Anderson with the opportunity to display a fresh and appealing approach to social studies. He holds in tension two modes of analysis usually practised by quite separate scholarly sub-communities: the macro-analysis of states and social structures and interpretative approaches drawn from literary studies. As in Imagined Communities, the study of nationalism for which he is best known, the essays in Language and Power reject a social science of separate spheres.

Disenchantment and marginality provide Anderson’s bittersweet themes: those of his subjects, and, implicitly, his own. He writes as more than one kind of outsider. Born in Kunming to an English mother and an Irish Sinologist father, and reared in China, England and the United States, he takes note of his own ‘estrangements – English accent in American schools, later American accent in Irish schools, Irishisms in English schools’. As a graduate student at Cornell University, sceptical of the modernisation pieties of American scholarship and public policy, he conducted fieldwork in President Sukarno’s Indonesia, embracing that country as ‘a loved one’. Then came the massacres of 1965, and, in 1972, expulsion by military authorities angered by the leaking of the ‘Cornell Paper’. This was a study, intended to have a limited and confidential circulation, that undercut the legitimacy of the regime by showing that members of the Armed Forces rather than Communists had been responsible for the coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Untung’s September 30th Movement. Anderson found himself without direct access to his field site and burdened with the emotional task of learning ‘how still to love a murderer’. His methodological adjustment was a turn to texts.

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