Sunday, January 22, 2017

Indonesia: The Rainbow Troops, by Andrea Hirata

This book was apparently a runaway best-seller in Indonesia, selling five million copies (and fifteen million more pirated copies). It was also turned into a movie which became the highest ever grossing film in Indonesia. It is easy to see why, as many people would find the story inspirational.

The book was written as a tribute to an inspirational teacher - two teachers, in fact. Although described as a novel, the two teachers named in the dedication are the same names as the two teachers in the book. It appears that the book is quite closely based on the author's own story. It follows a group of ten children from their first day at school on the island of Belitong. Paradoxically, although it is Indonesia's richest island in terms of natural resources, the local people are very poor, the riches from the tin mined there being appropriated by a state owned company for the benefit of a few. These poverty stricken families could not access the company run school, and the nearest state school was too far away, so the school which is central to the story is a Muhammadiyah or religious school, run by teachers almost as poverty stricken as the pupils. There is no jihad taught here - the ethics class impressed on the children standards of behaviour which would be exemplary in any setting (although, as mischievous boys, they do not always live up to the standards taught).

And yet among the students is a young maths genius, and other students with extraordinary talents in different areas. I discovered a review which likened the story to "Slum Dog Millionaire" - but no one wins a million, and for some of the students, one wonders if they ended up any better off for their education. The author however, did manage to obtain a scholarship to attend university overseas, not as a writer but as an economist, and eventually wrote the book and went on to study at the University of Iowa's prestigious Creative Writing Institute.

As his first book, this is a fairly straight forward account, more populist than literary. I did feel that in some of the descriptive passages, the metaphors used felt a bit strained, as if the author was trying too hard to come up with an unusual description.

I mentioned in another post, that the Guatemalan author Rigoberta Menchu had attracted controversy by possibly inventing some of the details in her memoirs. One might think turning one's story into a novel would avoid this criticism. But in the end, either approach leaves me with the same problem - that of wondering just how much of the story is true. (And in a western society, a thinly disguised novelisation might well attract lawsuits if readily identified characters feel they have been libelled).

Nevertheless, despite these problems, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read, if a little saddening regarding the fate of some of the author's classmates.

The Rainbow Troops (Laskar Pelangi)was translated from Indonesian by Angie Kilbane and published by Vintage Books Australia in 2013. (There may be other editions elsewhere).

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