Idus’ Surabaya and ‘tremblingness’ in the Indonesian Revolution

by indonotes

One issue covered in my previous review of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire was the psychological impact of the Japanese occupation in Asia. Following on from this theme I have been reading Surabaya, the classic Indonesian short story by Idrus.

Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia’s first Prime Minister, used the word kegelisahan (tremblingness, restlessness) to describe revolutionary Indonesia. Part of the context was the profound dislocation as a result of Japanese occupation, recalling ‘As I look back on the Japanese period, it is clear to what extent everything in the Indonesian community, spiritually as well as materially, was shaken loose from its own moorings’.

To me Surabaya captures that sense of ‘tremblingness’, a society coming loose from its moorings, better than any other piece of literature. Set loosely around the events of Surabaya in late 1945 it begins with the Japanese capitulation

People were drunk with victory. Everything had exceeded their dreams and expectations. All of a sudden their valor emerged like a snake out of a thicket. All their self-confidence and patriotism bubbled over like the foam on a beer. Rational thinking declined, people acted like beasts, and the results were eminently satisfactory. People no longer had much faith in God. A new God had arrived, and he was known under various names: bomb, machine-gun, mortar.

Throughout the story there is a profound sense of the world turned upside down, with Indonesian ‘cowboys’ and Allied ‘bandits’ roaming the scene and refugees flooding from the city, Characters are wracked by madness or sexual disorder. Patriotism and courage jostle with paranoia, brutality and hypocrisy.

People were brave enough in the face of enemy cannons—but how terrified they were of enemy spies! This terrible specter howled like a hurricane over the cities and inside the hearts of men, leveling everything in its path—courage and rationality alike. Everyone suspected everyone else, and to free themselves from the torment of this specter they killed one another.

It is a supremely evocative, historically important and in some ways profoundly disturbing work. Thanks to the Indonesia Journal, it is available in English translation to download for free from their archive.