Two writers from different worlds share common ground in producing works of literature with all the makings of great classics – Henri Fauconnier’s The Soul of Malaya and Mochtar Lubis’s Twilight in Djakarta – two groundbreaking works of remarkable invention.
The selections for this week’s newsletter fit comfortably within the category of ‘timeless classics’ – impressive works of contemporary literature that have withstood changes in tastes and are still very much relevant and influential. Published over a half century ago, neither title has ever been out of print for very long, and the copies featured here are the latest reincarnations.
Originally published in 1963, Mochtar Lubis’s Twilight in Djakartawas the first Indonesian novel to be translated into English. Written during a period of incarceration by Indonesian authorities, the novel is a vivid dissection of social and political life in Jakarta at the beginning of the 1960s. Weaved into the plot is a revelation of the dark currents of poverty, corruption and vice which course beneath the surface of Jakarta. Although set in Indonesia, the tale that unfolds has universal application as it describes the forces which determine the lives of rich and poor, politicians and criminals, intellectuals and simple rural immigrants alike, as they struggle for survival. Through the character of the central figure, Suryono, a young, Western-educated government official, the author depicts the complex web of threads which enmesh both individual and society in a newly developing nation, with compassion as well as insight. Twilight in Djakartawas translated by Claire Holt from the Indonesian original, Senja di Djakarta.
The second title is also a translated work, originally titled Malaisie and published in French in 1930. The novel draws on the personal experience of the French author, Henri Fauconnier, who lived in Malaya in the early part of the 20th century, during the era of colonialism and planters. In a nutshell, the premise of The Soul of Malaya (its English title) is a foreigner’s connection with the soul of his adopted country, and with the land and the locals. Like any good cavalcade into a romantic past, the story is headily evocative and a thinly disguised roman à clef revolving around the interaction of two Frenchmen with their loyal Malay servants. Along the way, the plot describes the outsiders’ interaction with the life and ways of the Malays, local customs, festivities and rituals, with some amourous interludes thrown in. The Soul of Malaya has been critically acclaimed as “a tale set in a pioneering and exciting time, which would eventually become the crucible for the Malaysian psyche as we know it now. Though obviously written from a Westerner’s point of view, the novel beautifully captures the gentleness, sensitivities, and mind-set of the Malays.”
About the authors
Mochtar Lubis (b. 1922) was a distinguished Indonesian Mandailing journalist and novelist who twice suffered long terms of imprisonment for his convictions. Lubis had a reputation for being outspoken about the need for freedom of the press in Indonesia and gained a reputation as an honest, no-nonsense reporter. In 1970, he founded and co-founded numerous magazines and foundations, including the Obor Indonesia Foundation. Lubis’s novel Harimau! Harimau! was named Best Book by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture, in 1975. Although he died in 2004, Lubis remains one of Indonesia’s most well-known writers.
Henri Fauconnier (b. 1879) was a French writer, known mainly for his novel, Malaisie, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1930. He was part of the Groupe de Barbezieux – a coterie of eight French writers, all childhood friends, from a town of the same name. For better or worse, Henri is credited with helping put Malaysia in the forefront of palm oil production when, in 1911, he sent a few bags of palm oil seeds from Sumatra to Malaya. Fauconnier died in Paris in 1973. He is buried in Barbezieux.