Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2015

The Fall and the Heart, by S. Rukiah, translated John, H. McGlynn

9789798083778-cover.inddOh dear, I did want to like this book, but…

The Fall and the Heart was one of three books I bought for the Kindle, to strengthen my awareness of Indonesian fiction in preparation for talking with Lily Yulianti Farid at the Bendigo Writers Festival.  At Amazon, it comes with an enticing blurb:

A novel by S. Rukiah, The Fall and the Heart (Kedjatuhan dan Hati), published in 1950, is one of the strongest works written by women writers before the 1970s. The novel tells of a middle-class woman who lived during the 1965 revolution, her thoughts, emotions and interactions with family, lovers and social environment. S Rukiah is one of the few authors who wrote about the negative impact of the revolution on a personal relationship.

Interestingly, at the Lontar Foundation’s website, it says that Rukiah is one of the many Indonesian writers who have looked at the Indonesian revolution’s negative impacts on lives and relationships.  One of the few, or one of the many?  Which is it??

Anyway… Certainly this novel is one of the few books exploring this theme that’s available in English, so it would have been great if the book had been a compelling study of the emotional lives of young people caught up in the revolution, but, well, it’s not.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Susi and Luk are lovers, but she can’t reconcile his insistence on the importance of the revolution.  She thinks that their love should take precedence over the struggle for independence and she is actually pleased when the Dutch (temporarily) re-establish control.  It’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is partly because the character of Susi seems to have trouble empathizing with anybody…

The story begins with her angst over her parents’ marriage, which is apparently all her mother’s fault.  Her mother is shallow, grasping, materialistic and has no redeeming qualities at all. Her father, on the other hand, is gentle, sympathetic and patient.  Susi has two sisters, Lina and Dini, one of whom marries money to please her mother, and the other who becomes a career woman rather than submit to her mother’s domination.  Susi refuses to marry her mother’s choice of husband so she joins a revolutionary guerrilla war band – and that’s how she meets Luk.

Now, considering how quickly Susi gets sick of the blood and the warfare, you might think that there would be scenes of confrontation between the Dutch and the Indonesian freedom fighters, but no, all that happens off stage.  What we get instead is scenes of Luk lecturing Susi about making humanitarianism their ideological goal so that fascism, democracy, socialism and communism will no longer have meaning and will soon disappear.  She tries reading his tracts but is bored by talk of politics and just wants to talk of love.  But when he suggests they marry, she says they have to wait until her mother is dead because of her mother’s expectations.

‘You still believe in marriage, then’ I asked Luk, cutting off his frightening words.  ‘Marriage is society’s command, an honour bestowed and accepted by those who profess themselves to be civilised and moral.  You’ve never before had anything to do with the affectations or demands of society.  Marriage is a show for those who call themselves decent, for people who want to prove themselves more worthy than animals.  They stage a ceremony and hold a reception, the wedding bed is made and bedecked with flowers.  The bride and groom don priceless jewels and apparel.  But what happens to people who can’t afford such pomp, to two people in love who marry quietly without fuss or festivity?  ‘Ill-mannered,’ people say, ‘Immoral.  No respect for custom.’ Their value as human beings is judged in the same way one prices a side of beef.’

In the moonlight, Luk’s smile showed a trace of mockery.  ‘And which would you choose, Susi?’ he inquired.  ‘Or do you still consider yourself to be one of society’s most upright members?’ He continued to smile.  ‘When you marry will it be done on a grand scale so that you’ll be sufficiently honoured and considered a moral human being?  So that society will not be ashamed of you?’

‘I care nothing about all that for my own sake,’ I said, hurt by his comment.  ‘But don’t forget, I am not alone.  I have a mother and family who believe themselves to be moral, upright citizens.  I am still bound to my mother and the time is coming when I must return home to atone for my sins and broken promises, though I will be laughing silently when I bow down before them.’

Now maybe I’ve read too many stories of heroic women in the French Resistance and other movements against fascism and Nazism, but I found myself profoundly irritated by Susi’s adolescent attitudes and her critical, demanding nature.  No doubt there were young people who were attracted by the romance of the fight against the Dutch but then thought better of it, but this novella doesn’t IMO succeed in capturing the tumult of the soul.

As a museum piece, the book is courageous.  In conservative Indonesia in the 1950s, writing about a woman who has premarital sex and marries a man without telling him that she’s carrying another man’s child was provocative.  But as a window on the reality of the revolution it fails completely, and it’s not even very convincing in terms of its YA emotional agenda.  Nevertheless, Siti Rukiah went on to win a national literary prize for a collection of short stories in 1951, became a popular children’s author and also published anthologies of short stories with her husband.

Suharto, however, banned the works of Siti Rukiah (1927-1996) after the overthrow of Sukarno and the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) and she gave up writing altogether.  Perhaps that’s why this otherwise forgettable book deserves a place in Indonesia’s literary history: it is a rare piece of prose extant from this period that’s written by a woman.

The un-named reviewer at the Bali Advertiser liked it a little better than I did.

Author: S. Rukiah
Title: The Fall and the Heart (first published as Kedjatuhan dan Hati in 1950)
Publisher: BookCyclone, an imprint of Typhoon Media, from the print edition by the Lontar Foundation, 2011
ASIN: B005DFDZIG
Personal copy.


Responses

  1. I don’t believe I’ve read anything by an Indonesian author. Too bad it wasn’t up to your expectations. A very evocative cover.

    • I have another one by a contemporary author coming up, so hopefully that will be better:)


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