Like many other countries in South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia’s modern history is one marked by colonization and the harms of imperialism. While some of the most frequently read books on Indonesia focus on the colonial period or postcolonialism in the country, we think it is important to make sure that you don’t think the region’s history begins with its colonization by the Dutch. Indonesia has a widely diverse cultural, social, and religious makeup, with parts of the country still governed by pre-colonial monarchy and others the democratic state. It is often described as one of the most heavily populated Muslim countries in the world, yet many religions beyond Islam are practiced, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Given’s the region’s diversity, there are many exciting books on Indonesia to discover. Below we have just a few of our picks for the best books on Indonesia.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind (1980)
Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s This Earth of Mankind (1980) is the first of four novels that makes up the author’s “Buru Quartet.” The novel follows its first-person Javanese narrator, Minke, in nineteenth-century Indonesia toward the end of Dutch colonial rule. It is at once a love story while also a narrative about the violence and injuries of colonization. Minke exposes the stark prejudices that existed in Indonesia under Dutch colonization, and the banning of the novel upon its publication in 1980 underscores the lingering harms of imperialism in the country. The novel actually refers, in many ways, to the broad experiences of its writer, who was imprisoned by the Dutch government in the 1940s and later by the Suharto regime for his acts of resistance.
The novel begins with a brief, one-page chapter that introduces Minke:
“People called me Minke.
My own name . . . for the time being I need not tell it. Not because I’m crazy for mystery. I’ve thought about it quite a lot: I don’t yet really need to reveal who I am before the eyes of others.
In the beginning I wrote these short notes during a period of mourning: She had left me, who could tell if only for awhile or forever? (At the time I didn’t know how things would turn out.) That eternally harassing, tantalizing future. Mystery! We will all eventually arrive there—willing or unwilling, with all our sour and body. And too often it proves to be a great despot. And so, in the end, I arrived too. Whether the future is a kind of a cruel god is, of course, its own affair: Humanity too often claps with just one hand.”
Andrea Hirata’s The Rainbow Troops (2005)
Andrea Hirata’s The Rainbow Troops (2005), which one reviewer described as a “modern-day fairy tale,” is a largely autobiographical narrative. It is among the first bestsellers to emerge from Indonesia in the twenty-first century, and as such, we couldn’t make a list of the best books on the country without including it. It appeared in English translation four years after its initial publication and, like Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel, brings its readers into the text through first-person narration. The narrator, Ikal, is a student on the island of Belitung, where the schools are under threat of closure. The desire to obtain an education leads Ikal and other students who make up the “Rainbow Troops” to persevere despite seemingly constant setbacks.
The novel also introduces readers to the sociocultural practices of the island, where Sunni Islam is the majority religion.
Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger: A Novel (2015)
The most recent book to make our list, Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger: A Novel (2015) was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The novel moves away from the socialist realism of Pramoedya and brings readers into a Javanese social and political landscape inflected with elements of the uncanny and, some might say, a magical realism impulse. It is, in some ways, a crime novel in which the events surrounding a murder are committed. Yet at the same time, it is a fantastical text in which the protagonist, Margio, “conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger.” Are you sufficiently intrigued?
Whether you decide to pick up a copy of one of the books we’ve mentioned here, or to venture further into Indonesia’s literary past, we highly recommend expanding the geographic bounds of your literary knowledge to include works both from and about this diverse country in Southeast Asia.