Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 2, 2019

The Atheist, by Achdiat K Mihardja, translated by R J Maguire

The Atheist is the February choice for our Indonesian bookgroup.  First published in 1949, this novel is recognised as a masterpiece of modern Indonesian literature and was included in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works before that translation project (1948-2005) was defunded by the UN.  Interesting too — considering its subject matter and the Indonesian hostility to atheism because of its association with Communism — is that the novel received an award from the Indonesian government in 1969*, not long after the Indonesian Communist Purge of 1965-66 with an estimated death toll of between 500,000 to one million deaths. Perhaps, given his membership of the Socialist Party of Indonesia, it was just as well that in 1961 Achdiat Mihardja took up work as a lecturer in Indonesian Language and Literature at the ANU, and Canberra remained his adopted home until his death in 2010, aged 99.

It’s interesting to me that this book remains in print and well-known, if the pages and pages of reviews at Goodreads are anything to go by. The significance of this book is that, in 1948-9, with the possibility of the creation of a new independent nation clearly in sight, an Indonesian intellectual was imagining what kind of society the Dutch East Indies might become if/when it became free of the colonial masters who had ruled it for centuries.  Indonesia had declared its independence in 1945 two days after the Japanese surrender, and it was fighting a bitter war with the Dutch who were determined to hang onto their colonial possession. Mihardja knew that independence was inevitable and he knew that decisions made about a constitution and government would be critical to its future.

So The Atheist explores the ethics and consequences of a capitalist or a socialist future; and through its main character ponders the possibility of an Islamic or a secular society.  By contrast, books exploring Australia’s possible post-colonial future, have lapsed into obscurity.  In 2018 I went to a Rare Books Week event here in Melbourne presented by scholar Zachary Kendall: it was called ’19th Century Visions of Australia’s Future’.  Zachary showcased a collection of books written here in Australia at the turn of the 19th century, and how in the leadup to Federation, in utopias and dystopias, writers were contemplating what kind of society we might have.  The themes that Zachary identified in his collection were Socialism, Federation and independence, Foreign invasion, Women’s rights, Secularism, Christianity, and Spiritualism.  Unsurprisingly, these themes are also present in The Atheist. 

This is the blurb from the back cover of The Atheist:

Using three narrative voices, the novel tells of the spiritual and intellectual crisis of Hasan, a young Muslim who is raised to be devout but comes to doubt his faith after becoming involved with a group of modern young people: Rusli, his Marxist-Leninist childhood friend; Anwar, an anarcho-nihilist artist; and Kartini, a beautiful young divorcée.

Upon publication, Atheis caused considerable discussion.  Religious thinkers, Marxist-Leninists, and anarchists decried the novel for not explaining their ideologies in more detail; but literary figures and many of the general public praised it.

The structure of the book is unusual.  Wikipedia is helpful here:

The plot of Atheis is non-linear. A. Teeuw, a Dutch scholar of Indonesian literature, models it as below, with A representing the time frame covered in Hasan’s manuscript (from his youth until splitting with Kartini), B representing the time frame in which the narrator meets with Hasan and receives his manuscript, and C representing the events around Hasan’s death.

[C {B (A) B} C]

A very brief Chapter 1 by an unnamed narrator [C] tells us that Hasan is dead, mourned by his friends Rusli and Kartini.  Hasan had been unable to withstand torture by the Kempetai, the Japanese military police, because his body is weakened by TB.  (The Atheist is full of symbolism: here Hasan’s TB and torture represents the physical and psychological weakness of a people who have been subjected to years of malnutrition and maltreatment under its Japanese occupiers who invaded in 1942.  Hasan’s death is both an observation and a warning.)  The surrender of Japan less than a week ago sets the date as August 1945, but the Japanese Occupation is still in force because the Allies bypassed Java and Sumatra when fighting their way north to Japan. The pompous, florid style of the narration suggests to me that this narrator is Anwar, the anarchist.

It is the second unnamed narrator {B} in Chapter 2, who tells us how the book should be read.  (I think he’s Rusli, the Marxist-Leninist).  He’s an unemployed black marketeer during the Occupation, and he is in possession of Hasan’s manuscript because Hasan was seeking some feedback about it.  This narrator explains that the story isn’t chronological and that names have been changed to protect identities.  He justifies this, as if he knows authorities may find this anonymity suspicious, by alluding to it as a Dichtung und Wahreit story […] where it is common practice to use pseudonyms. That is to say, Hasan’s narrative which forms the central section of the book is modelled on Goethe’s autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From my Life: Poetry and Truth; 1811–1833).  Wikipedia offers some relevant points about that too:

  • Goethe held that “the most important period of an individual is that of his development,” and
  • He wrote from the point of view of a scientist (observing the stages of development like a botanist); an historian (describing the conditions of the times); and an artist (not bound to facts, but selecting significant elements and forming them into a work of art).

Chapter 3 launches into the main narrative (A), Hasan’s first person autobiography, which traces his childhood, his religious doubts, the breach with his devout parents and the break-up of his marriage due to jealousy.  Narrator {B} comes back in Chapter 13, explaining that in the wake of Hasan’s death, he has decided to finish the story, based on what he can find out about Hasan’s recent life, but he will write these final chapters in the third person.  Chapter 14 seems to be by the same narrator {B} recounting some scurrilous behaviour by Anwar the anarchist, but Chapter 15, three-and-a-half years later, has a different tone: there are scornful remarks about the behaviour of frightened people in an air-raid shelter and Hasan’s ‘return to God’ when he fears he’s going to die. Hasan’s rage when he finds out about his wife is recounted almost with glee.  I think this chapter is by Narrator [C] i.e. Anwar, but no doubt we will discuss this in the book group meeting!

The book raises many interesting issues.  Hasan has never doubted his religion, but in adulthood he moves to Bandung and by chance meets up with an old school friend called Rusli, who had had to skip the country for Singapore because of his activities with a Marxist-Leninist group.  Through Rusli, a critique of religion is mounted, and Hasan is initially shocked and decides to try to bring his friend back to religion.  But things are complicated by the presence of the beautiful Kartini, who resembles Hasan’s first love who he wasn’t allowed to marry because of class differences.  Kartini is Westernised.  She flashes a bit of flesh, smokes, and wants to go to the movies (which is forbidden in Hasan’s strict form of Islam).  For Hasan, even shaking her hand is forbidden, but his puritan beliefs take a back seat when she stumbles against him in the dark one night and he makes contact with more than her hand!

Whatever the reader concludes about the author’s position on religion, the book clearly critiques it, with arguments that are familiar.  Rusli points out that there is a multiplicity of religions and they can’t possibly all be right, and he says that despite religion’s longevity, there are still institutionalised class differences that perpetuate terrible poverty and hardship.  Fanaticism, he says, prevents people from working to improve injustice and inequality.  The triumph of science over religion is cast as man’s ingenuity bringing progress and benefits that supplant God’s creation. But the book also critiques strict religious practice, and Islam in particular.  Rusli asks why Christian countries are more progressive than Islamic ones, and he shows how Islamic piety impacts on the social fabric: Hasan won’t shake hands with a woman; he makes a scene when he thinks (wrongly) that he’s eaten forbidden foods; his parents isolated him from children who didn’t meet their pious standards, and they reject their own son when he challenges their faith.  Rusli, who is protecting Kartini from an unwanted suitor after her divorce, has to tell lies about her being his sister to prevent unjustified damage to her reputation.  Islam also causes discrimination because no Muslim will buy from a Chinese food stall or restaurant, and it’s also sometimes a trigger for violence, as when intolerant Muslims physically attack a speaker at a meeting because he takes a sip of drink and thus breaks the Ramadan fast.

The critique of capitalism includes the argument that it cements the feudal power structures along with a bourgeoisie while the underclass is trapped in poverty.  The economic system is not open to debate: Rusli has to flee to Singapore when he joins a political party.  (It’s interesting to see Singapore described as cosmopolitan and a refuge open to political debate!) Capitalism, Rusli says, also oppresses women because both of the women that Hasan loves had to marry according to their parents’ wishes to acquire more capital.  It’s also, he says, the cause of prostitution because women can’t earn an independent income any other way.  The differences in access to transport that Pramoedya Ananta Toer ascribed to racism and colonialism in This Earth of Mankind are attributed to the capitalist system in The Atheist, and Hasan’s narrative begins with a snapshot of a village economy:

On a mountain slope of the White Lake, amid the beautiful Priangan ranges, lies a village called Panyeredan.  Surrounded by green citrus trees, whose rapid growth stems from the fertile soil and the cool, pleasant climate, the village contains about two hundred houses, most of which are small and belong to impoverished farm labourers. The few large ones, built of stone, are owned by farmers considered wealthy (that is, they own about ten hectares of land) and who also work as middlemen in citrus fruit and other produce.  There are, too, a number of “half-stone” houses: the floors are tiles, and stone walls extend a quarter of the way up while the upper portions consist of the usual woven bamboo.  These houses, which are more numerous than the stone ones, are owned by people who possess one or two hectares of land.  (p.13)

Any Indonesian reading this in 1949, would be aware that under the Dutch Cultivation System 20% of village land had to be set aside for export crops.  And they were no better off under the Japanese: despite the fertile soil and the cool, pleasant climate about 2.4 million people died in Java from famine during 1944–45.

The framing of the novel as the coming-of-age of Hasan was not only an engaging way of presenting these ideas to a wider readership, it was also a way of evading censorship (in much the same way that Yan Lianke is able to critique China in his novels without running foul of the authorities). The characterisation of Hasan as very impressionable works in the same way.  In Hasan’s indecisive reflections, he considers the arguments, rejects them, finds them appealing, and surrenders to them because of Kartini’s charms and the unavoidable influence of Westernisation.  At the same time, the author urges the reader to retain ideals even in the face of grave difficulty.  Through Hasan’s instinctive dislike of Anwar — his pompous speechmaking, insulting behaviours and lack of respect — Mihardja exposes the selfishness, amorality and hypocrisy of Anwar’s anarchism, making it clear that nihilism offers nothing for the future.

I am really looking forward to teasing out my ideas about this book with the book group!

The cover image is a detail from ‘Depth’ (2003) by Putu Sutawijaya.

*Wikipedia and the book cover blurb both mention this (unspecified) award in 1969, and a government Arts Award in 1971, but both Mihardja’s obituary in the (English language) Jakarta Post and the Editor’s afterword about the author mention an Indonesian national literary award in 1956.  Whether this is a different award or the same one with a possible mistranslation of the date, I don’t know.

Author: Achdiat K Mihardja (1911-2010)
Title: The Atheist (Atheis)
Translated by R J Maguire (First English translation 1972)
Edited by Diana Darling
Publisher: Modern Library of Indonesia Series, Lontar Foundation, 2015, 214 pages (first published 1949)
ISBN: 9786029144161
Source: Personal copy, purchased courtesy of Halina from my Indonesian bookgroup – thanks, Halina!




  1. Thank you for your perceptive and thorough review. Yes, for Pak Achdiat, the question of what sort of nation would be built once independence was achieved was as important as the struggle against the Dutch. In my book on the life of his daughter, Wenny Achdiat, I describe the furore that greeted Atheis: “The multiple voices in the novel – Muslim, Marxist, anarchist, merchant, civil servant – were matched by the many voices that debated it. Orthodox Muslims accused Achdiat of being an atheist because he allowed the Rusli character to present his views so forcefully. Communists attacked the book because they saw that it promoted religious values.” My information on Pak Achdiat’s awards is that he won the 1957 National Literature Prize for a short story collection, and the New Order government awarded him the country’s highest artistic award for his contribution to Indonesian literature. I haven’t been able to confirm the exact date, but it was either 1969 or 1971. In 1974, the New Order banned the film of Atheis, because a man persuasively advocating Marxism on the big screen was too much. However the ban was lifted after two days.


    • Hello Bryce, it’s great to hear from you and thank you for explaining about the awards.
      I think this is a superb book, and it deserves to be widely read in Australia – I was quite excited when I made the connection between the books published here pre Federation and The Atheist, the difference being that Indonesian Independence is so much more recent than Federation and so much more hard won.
      It must have taken enormous courage to write this book, and to publish it:)


  2. […] Promise’ comes to mind now because it covers similar territory to The Atheist by Achdiat Mihardja, which I read last month.  Both stories involve a fraught discussion about […]


  3. […] social impact of rigid adherence to religion is also the basis for The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja (transl. R.J. Maguire) but the context is Indonesia’s imminent […]


  4. […] An aspect of the artwork that strikes me, is how different it is to the paintings offered to tourists in Indonesia.  You don’t have to be in Bali for long, to realise that almost everything you see is a copy of the same artwork.  A visit to an ‘art studio’ is a frustrating experience because what you see is ‘artists’ churning out multiple copies.  It’s like watching children do colouring in, and there’s nothing creative about it. But the original paintings in this book derive from Indonesian myths and legends and expressions of contemporary ideas in the diverse ways that European art depicts religious stories, classical myths and contemporary life: the book showcases a variety of styles and techniques which make it worthwhile for the paintings alone.  For example, there’s a wonderful painting in a style somewhat reminiscent of Grace Cossington Smith‘s squarish daubs of paint in subdued colours from the yellow end of the spectrum: titled ‘The Treachery of a Daughter’, it’s by I.G.P.A. Mirah Rahmawati.  It depicts Calon Arang’s daughter seduced as part of the King’s strategy, unaware that her betrayal enables the theft of her mother’s book of magic, which gives the priest the power to kill her.  But the painting has a contemporary resonance too, representing an aspect of life in a country in transition from tradition to modernity.  The faces of the women also show with cruel clarity the way that young people wholly absorbed in their passion sometimes cast aside the love of their parents and reject their advice, something unthinkable in traditional society.  (A theme also explored in The Atheist by Achdiat K Mihardja, see my review). […]


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