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Epic, compelling, important: 2012-published Home, by Indonesia’s Leila S. Chudori (Pulang in Indonesian) is a colourful and illuminating novel tracing the lives of Indonesian political exiles in Paris from 1968 onwards and, several decades on, their children both there and Jakarta during the upheavals and violence of 1998.

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Chudori, an editor at Indonesia’s renowned Tempo magazine, traces the tale of four friends working at a left-leaning news agency in 1965. This was the time of the September 30 Movement, which led to then-President Sukarno’s downfall, the installation of dictatorial Suharto as president, and then anti-Communist purges that left hundreds of thousands dead across the archipelago nation.

The bloodletting has been consistently glossed over, or denied, in official Indonesian histories, and even in the West it has received relatively little academic and general attention compared to, say, the Khmer Rouge genocide. (The Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing shifted this to a degree.) Home, originally published in Indonesian and now translated into English, goes a way towards changing this.

The story focuses on Dimas Suryo, who is abroad with his colleagues when the 1965 killings begin. They are warned to stay out of Indonesia as they are suspected of being leftist sympathisers, who are being rounded up to be interrogated, and worse. His friend, Hananto Prawiro, who should have been the one to travel abroad instead of Dimas, is eventually executed by authorities. The exiles work their way to Paris, by way of Peking, where they eventually open an Indonesian restaurant that becomes the focus of the exiles’ lives. Dimas marries a Frenchwoman, Vivienne, and together they have a daughter, Lintang. Lintang studies documentary-making, and eventually travels to Jakarta to complete an undergraduate assignment, which happens to coincide with the violence of May 1998. Dimas longs to return home, but as the government remains in power, he must stay in Paris.

This is at heart a family historical saga that you can really sink yourself into, while also learning about an angle of Indonesian history even those familiar with 1965 events may not have considered closely. It’s a world removed from the brash somersaulting of Indonesia’s literary posterboy Eka Kurniawan (see our Beauty is a Wound review); it’s quieter, poignant, and for us, more absorbing—which isn’t to say the book doesn’t have some minor faults.

The prose occasionally teeters on becoming a little melodramatic or cheesy. And yet in the end, the story is woven tightly and compellingly enough together that the reader can overlook the occasional flourish or awkwardness. And some descriptions are stunning, too. Dimas says:

“Scatter cloves and jasmine flowers on my grave so that their scent reaches my body lying there below, silent and alone. I am confident of capturing their fragrance through the spaces in the soil that kindly provide a path for their scent I know so intimately to reach me.”

The jumps between points of view we found a little disjointed; there didn’t seem to be a good reason for this happening, considering some parts of the book were told by a third person omniscient narrator. But again, in the end this doesn’t matter too much as there is so much to enjoy in the story.

We loved, for instance, the way the creation of the exiles’ culture is unselfconsciously explored:

“But just as it was forbidden for her to criticize the works of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and James Joyce, it was also forbidden to mock Led Zeppelin. Her father was in awe of their music. Lintang now turned her gaze to the walls. Oh.... The large shadow puppet of Bima, the strongest of the Pandawa brothers in the shadow theatre pantheon, which usually stood erect as would befit such a mighty character, now hung aslant, as if forlorn and sad.”

(How refreshing, too, to see discussion of wayang puppets in the context of individual characters and not as a tired metaphor for Indonesian politics.)

Naturally, identity and belonging are themes consistently simmering to the surface. Dimas’ French wife, at one point, tells him: “Home is where your family lives.” To which he, forlorn, replies: “Home is the place where I feel I am at home.”

Meanwhile, those who are still at “home” and have been linked to leftists have to shed their identities if they want to be successful in the mainstream Indonesian world: “You know, don’t you, that most former political prisoners use pseudonyms when they write for the mass media and that their children don’t use their father’s name?” asks one character.

The personal is the political in this book, but politics still pokes its head above the surface, with the echoes of 1965 reverberating down the generations (as Michael Vatikiotis argues in Blood and Silk will keep happening as long as impunity continues in Southeast Asia): “There’s something weird about the group psychology in this country,” says Alam, Lintang’s lover, when anti-ethnic Chinese riots are breaking out in Jakarta in 1998. “When people are in a group, as soon as one of them screams ‘Thief!’ or ‘Communist!’ there’s no stopping the rest of the group from attacking the target, whether the target is an individual or a family and regardless if the accusation is right or wrong.”

We particularly loved Chudori’s delicious descriptions of Indonesian food, and the way food, scents and emotions are integrally connected for all her characters. “How could the colour of food change, chameleon-like, with the mood of one’s heart?” one character asks, after losing his appetite.

This is a book worthy of your attention for its illumination of a part of Indonesian history that has been consistently given short shrift. Read it for the history, for the evocative settings, and for the flavour of Indonesia that wafts gently from its pages.

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