By Duncan Graham
Poets dwell in sacred space/Go slash the jungles, pierce the gloom/Java’s mysteries touch the sky/Sealing secrets like the tomb.
Are Indonesians bibliophobic — and if so, why?
“Yes. Indonesians are not great book lovers,” said Berthold Damshäuser, who teaches Indonesian language and literature at the University of Bonn, providing an answer to the question.
He said he believes the prime reason is that the nation’s cultural traditions are oral.
However, a new chapter may be opening. Optimists say pages are turning and cite a bookmark: Indonesia’s success as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015 and a further appearance this year.
Damshäuser is also a prominent translator and with a group of others compiled 33 Tokoh Sastra Indonesia yang paling Berpengaruh (Thirty-three most influential figures in Indonesian literature).
That sounds scholarly, reasonable and civilized, but budding penmen and women: Beware! The world of belles-lettres is not beautiful; it’s more like nature — red in tooth and claw.
The academic was attacked on Facebook where critics angry about inclusions and omissions claimed the book should be burned and the author sent to Auschwitz, demonstrating a history fail as the notorious concentration camp was closed in 1945.
Damshäuser used the anecdote at Malang State University’s Café Pustaka Discussion Group to show young authors edging into the arts that literary criticism and ranking writers is not a passion-free pastime — particularly for outsiders.
That’s technically his status — but professionally and spiritually he’s almost a bumiputera (native) with four decades of archipelagic experience to reinforce the claim.
Jokingly known in Indonesia as Pak Trum for reasons that would take several stanzas to explain, Damshäuser is chief editor of Orientierungen, a journal on Asian cultures and editor of Indonesian poetry magazine Jurnal Sajak.
He translates Indonesian poetry into German and vice versa, often working with Bandung poet and author Agus R. Sarjono, a former guest writer at the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation’s retreat in Langenbroich. Together they’ve put works by 19th century poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and others into the hands of Indonesians.
Despite efforts to boost interest in Europe, Indonesian studies and the language are wilting there as elsewhere, including in the nation’s southern neighbor, Australia. Damshäuser has only 60 undergraduates and five Master’s students.
“Pragmatically students are thinking that all the important texts are in English so that’s the language they have to master or get their friends to translate,” he said.
“I know it’s claimed that basic Indonesian is easy because of a lack of tenses and genders, but it’s full of ambiguities. It’s a very difficult language if you want to understand it properly.
“Take for example the term Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan . Is it Indonesia or the party that’s democratic? Where do I attach the adjective? And who’s struggling? I’ve also had problems getting the meaning right with clauses in Pancasila .”
Now 59, Pak Trum first learned about the mysterious East Indies as a teen laboring on the docks during university breaks. Also on the wharves were friendly Indonesians who invited him to visit.
He did. “I thought it a kind of paradise.” He fell in love not just with the country but also with Jakartan Dian Apsari. They married and settled in Bonn where Pak Trum consolidated his reputation as a fluent Indonesian speaker and expert on its literature.
Although his skills were as a translator, he was chosen to interpret for the late president Soeharto during his two visits to Germany and for former chancellor Helmut Kohl during his two visits to Indonesia.
These experiences garnered Damshäuser a wealth of anecdotes and friendships, with him being invited to the homes of Soeharto and former vice president BJ Habibie, who had been educated in Germany.
“Soeharto was always soft and polite toward me and his staff,” he said. “I didn’t see him as a monster. He felt that what he was doing as president was right. He was not a strict Muslim, but an abangan and he was proud of that.”
Damshäuser is a regular visitor to Indonesia, sometimes backed by the Goethe Institut, the German cultural organisation and language school with branches in Jakarta and Bandung.
Moving from a culture of discipline, planning and punctuality to the laid-back Indonesia hasn’t been an easy journey. When he started, he asked: “How can I deal with this country?” The loving and hating lasted quite a long time, he said, but it’s no longer polarising.
“In Germany we celebrate the individual and the rights of minorities,” he said. “I now see my culture differently and know that along the way we’ve lost a kind of equilibrium that’s still present in Java.”
His experiences have been published this year as a collection of essays: Ini dan itu Indonesia — pandangan seorang Jerman (This and that in Indonesia — a German’s views).
He said that during the Frankfurt Book Fair the media called Indonesia “the country without readers”. Wikipedia lists a total of 29 Indonesian poets past and present. Germany (population 80 million, one-third of Indonesia’s) has 50 alone whose surnames start with A or B.
Despite comments about the paucity of bibliophiles, there seems to be no shortage of poets in Malang. After his speech, Damshäuser was busy handling questions about topics, styles and getting into print.
“I’ve already been given four or five published anthologies,” he said. “Among them are some very talented young writers often using pantun, the traditional Malay oral expression.”
Pantun is a four-line verse consisting of alternating and roughly rhyming lines, each of eight to 12 syllables.
“People want to hear the words. The poets write for their works to be performed and getting books printed here is far cheaper than in Europe. It seems to me that there have never been so many books and so few readers.”