Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2018

Shackles, by Armijn Pane, translated by John H. McGlynn

This book is a bit of a treasure, lent to me by an Indonesian friend, and probably not easy to source from bricks-and-mortar bookshops.  Published in the hardback first edition, it was (after a book of poetry) the second title produced by the Lontar Foundation, set up in 1987 with these aims, as expressed on the Title page:

Yayasan Lontar, the Lontar Foundation, is a non profit organisation whose aims are fostering a greater appreciation of Indonesian literature and culture, supporting the work of authors and translators of Indonesian literature, and improving the quality of publication and distribution of Indonesian literary works and translations.

Lontar was founded by the American John McGlynn, along with four Indonesian writers, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam, and Subagio Sastrowardoyo, and it is safe to say that since those early days McGlynn has been a major contributor to Indonesian works available in translation.

Shackles is ostensibly a rather melodramatic love triangle.  This is the blurb from the Lontar website:

Shackles is the story of a love triangle. Dr Sukartono and his independent-minded wife, Tini, are facing marital problems when the singer Rohayah enters into the mix. Unlike Tini, Rohayah is ready to provide Sukartono with the devotion he lacks at home. This story illustrates the confusion experienced by many Indonesians of the pre-independence generation as they struggled to overcome problems stemming from their tradition-bound society.

However, (unless you are keen on melodramatic romance) to make satisfying reading out of Shackles, it is essential to contextualise the story.  Firstly, it is set in the 1930s (when middle-class educated Indonesians had telephones and cars) but Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, Jakarta was still called Batavia, and the Independence Movement was still being firmly repressed.  (Sukarno, who became President of independent Indonesia in 1949 i.e. a decade after this book was written, gets arrested and imprisoned twice during the story).   But as you might know from a reading of This Earth of Mankind (The Buru Quartet #1), by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (translated by Max Lane) activists in the independence movement were frustrated by the ineffectual urban Indonesian elites, and all three of the characters in the love triangle can be seen to be more obsessed with their personal relationships than with casting off the colonial yoke.

Feminists will probably bristle at Dr Tono’s assessment of his wife Tini’s discontent, but read it instead as an allegory of how a Dutch colonist might be puzzled by demands for independence when, from his PoV, there is nothing to complain about because subservience is the natural way of things, just as male dominance is:

What was it she had said before?  What was it?  Yes, that women today are asking for equal rights with men.  But what is it they want to be equal? It is a woman’s right to care for her husband’s children and the house in which they live.  Today, however, it seems that the only thing a woman is good for is making demands.  Maybe she will meet her husband at the door when he comes from work, but does she ask him to sit down?  Does she take off his shoes for him?  Women of today don’t seem to know that to kneel before one’s husband, to take his shoes off for him, is a woman’s way of showing her devotion and loyalty.  But what do women do now?  And what is a woman’s right, if not taking care of the man she loves? (p.2)

But this and other passages dismissive of women are also intended to show the characters’ difficulty in adapting to inevitable change.  Dr Tono wants to pick and choose which elements of adat (customs and tradition) to retain as the country transitions into modernity.  He wants the respect and status of an educated, middle-class Indonesian, but he doesn’t recognise that his wife Tini is a dynamic and entrepreneurial woman with an amazing capacity for organising major events.  She, attracted by the freedoms of emancipation but not recognising its incompatibility with either the society she lives in or the respectability she thinks she deserves, doesn’t see why she should wait on him.  Yet at the same time, she resents the demands of his work and the emptiness of their marriage.  They both still want to be loved, but they want respect and status as individuals as well, in a society where status is rigidly codified and based on community—not individualism.

Into this fraught relationship comes an old school friend of Dr Tono’s: the predictably beautiful, enigmatic and irresistible Yah, happy to serve Dr Tono’s needs but not respectable enough for divorce and remarriage to be an option.  While Tini represents the slavish adoption of Western mores about emancipation, Yah represents the emancipation that’s needed.  She was forced into an arranged marriage and having fled it, finds herself unable to support herself in a respectable way.  She has to hide from Dr Tono that she is a singer of kroncong – defined in the glossary at the back of the book as popular Indonesian music, distinctive for its blend of Western orchestration and indigenous rhythms once considered lewd and ‘low class’. 

There isn’t anything at Wikipedia about the association of kroncong with a disreputable status, excerpt to say that it was brought to Indonesia by Portuguese sailors in the 16th century and that it was enjoyed by lower-class citizens and gangs. You can hear a contemporary example of it here (female) and here (male), and a raunchier (by Indonesian standards) example here. When you listen to the elegance and complexity of the traditional gamelan you can see that the reaction to kroncong was not unlike the disapproval of jazz, pop or rock and roll by classical music lovers in the West.  (I used to play in a gamelan group: my instrument was one of the little ones at the front of the group in this video.  I had little notation cards hidden on the floor beside me… though I could play an entire Beethoven piano sonata off by heart, there was no way I could remember long pieces like these players do!)

The representation of the crass kroncong compared to the grace and beauty of the gamelan is another example of imported cultures displacing tradition, but there is also a scene where Tini plays a Beethoven sonata to an audience that would rather listen to the popular kroncong, emphasising that middle-class intellectuals were out of touch with ordinary people.

Shackles (Belenggu) is said (in the Introduction by William H Frederick and at Wikipedia) to be the first modern Indonesian psychological novel.  It is a departure from traditional themes, and focusses instead on the psychology of the conflict between the characters.  It wasn’t well-received at first because of its ‘immoral’ depiction of prostitution and adultery, and others disliked its fatalistic ending.  Readers today may find the internal musings and sometimes stilted dialogue tiresome and occasionally repetitive.  Nevertheless, it’s an important milestone in the development of the modern Indonesian novel.  Belenggu has been translated into multiple languages and in 1969 was awarded the inaugural Indonesian Literary Prize, along with Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya (1922), and Achdiat Karta Mihardja’s Atheis (Atheist) (1949) (both of which are scheduled for reading with my Indonesian bookgroup in 2019) and also Abdul Muis’s Salah Asuhan (Never the Twain) (1928), on my TBR.

Author: Armijn Pane
Title: Shackles (Belenggu)
Translated by John H. McGlynn
Publisher: Lontar Foundation, 1988, first published 1940
ISBN: 9798083106 (hbk)
Source: loan from a friend, thanks Lendriani!

Available from the Lontar website (pbk, ISBN 9789798083815) and from Amazon US (print or kindle), and Amazon Australia (kindle only)


  1. Sounds really interesting. Great review!


    • Thank you!
      (I’m on a bit of mission to read these early examples of Indonesian modern novels.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t intend reading this post, knowing nothing about Indonesian lit and only slightly more about its history – but your review intrigued me. Especially liked the revelation that you played gamelan! Impressive…


    • It’s very interesting, coming from a background of having studied the development of the English novel, to explore the novel’s development in a completely different context:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for this very informative review. I know nothing about Indonesia.

    PS: I find books with love triangles tiresome.


    • Oh me too. I’m not really keen on any kind of love stories, not unless they’re really about something else (as this one is).


  4. Thanks for this Lisa. Reading Indonesian literature is not high priority for me – despite loving This earth of mankind – so I’m happy to read it vicariously through you. I enjoyed this post for all the good background you provide.


    • I do that with some books too. Especially with NF books!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been ‘in’ Indonesia this week. A lot of Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived is set in 1930-40s Bali, and Roy – whose POV is of course Indian – implies parallels between the British colonisers in India and the Dutch in Indonesia. I grew up with so much white man’s burden in my reading that is valuable and necessary that I, belatedly, am getting the real story.


    • Absolutely. We probably had the same education with an uncritical history of the empire, and it takes a good book written from the PoV of the colonised to really dig out all the assumptions we grew up with.
      Having said that, as you will know from my review of Indonesia Etc, there is a widespread view (from both Indonesian academia and ordinary people) that the brief British administration of Indonesia was comparatively benign. Comparative, that is, to the Dutch and the Belgians. And the Brits, at least, didn’t fight wars of independence to retain their colonies like the Dutch and the French did.


      • I don’t disagree with ‘comparatively benign’ and yes, the Brits had stopped fighting by the C20th, but they did a fair bit in the C19th – massacres in Australia, the so-called ‘mutiny’ in India in 1857, the Boxer Rebellion in China 1899-1901, constant war in Afghanistan, the Boer War …


      • Ah, Lisa, they did in America, didn’t they – the American War of Independence.


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