Sun, 14 Jan 2001

World of Javanese novels in the '50s

Priyayi Abangan -- Dunia Novel Jawa Tahun 1950-an (The World of

Javanese Novels in the 1950s)

By Sapardi Djoko Damono

Yayasan Bentang Budaya, Yogyakarta, 2000

xi + 434 pp

JAKARTA (JP): Originally a dissertation for a postgraduate degree in literature under the title of Javanese Novels in the 1950s - a Study of Function, Content and Structure which noted poet and literary translator Sapardi Djoko Damono successfully defended at the Jakarta-based University of Indonesia in 1989, the book is a must-read for those interested in popular literature.

In this book, Sapardi explores in great depth, popular literature in Javanese published during the first decade of the second half of the 20th century, encompassing six novels published by state-owned book publisher Balai Pustaka and 14 serials published in Penyebar Semangat (Disseminator of the Spirit) magazine in Javanese.

The period of study is confined to the 1950s because the decade was important in Indonesia's history in at least two respects. Following the proclamation of Indonesia's independence on Aug. 17, 1945, Indonesians could freely be exposed to classical and modern world literature after 350 years of Dutch colonial rule during which they were practically denied any literary development; and the 1950s witnessed a lot of important social changes marked, among other things, by the promotion of democracy and literacy. As a result, there was a noticeable increase in quantity of the publication of literary works in Javanese.

In this study, Sapardi treats Javanese novels as popular literature as these works gained popularity among Javanese readers in general. Previously, Javanese literary works were mostly circulated behind the walls of Javanese palaces: they were usually penned by court writers and intended only for the Javanese nobility.

Parts of these works, usually in verse form, are familiar to the general Javanese community but this is more the result of an oral tradition than a reading habit. To most Javanese these quotations are usually taken as pieces of advice for a better life, which explains why most readers of Javanese novels wish to gain an insight into life and get useful pieces of advice. In general, they do not care much about the quality of the works. What is of paramount importance to them is that reading the novels can give them advice, a condition clearly indicating that the younger Javanese readers have simply continued the reading tradition that their predecessors had, in connection with the Javanese literature of yore.

Another interesting point Sapardi raises in the book is that most of the works are written with the point of view of an omniscient narrator, a condition closely resembling the shadow puppet play in which the puppet master knows everything and tells everything. This close resemblance with the shadow puppet world is easily understandable as the Javanese people are generally raised in this tradition. They are very familiar with popular characters in the shadow puppet plays and in many cases model their own lives upon these.

Sapardi has the following to say about this issue: In the Javanese community, the shadow puppet play is an art form which can break through social partitions; it is performed in the palace and in remote rural areas. It is no exaggeration to say that in the 1950s, the shadow puppet play was still part of the culture inherent in writers and readers of the new Javanese literature. It is also quite reasonable to say that the relation ship existing between the puppet master, the shadow puppet play and the audience was made a model for the writing of new Javanese literature, or novels.

As new Javanese literature is put in the category of popular literature, something must be said about its readers. In the 1950s, these new Javanese novels were popular among the newly literate group of people, who included the new priyayi (the upper-class). These new priyayi originally belonged to the category of commoners. They could get to a higher social class thanks to their education and position in society. These readers might find themselves reflected in the novels and periodicals published in 1950s, which explains the popularity of Javanese novels among these people. Sapardi writes that "The world created in the Javanese novels is that of the priyayi abangan (Javanese of the upper social class not adhering strictly to their Islamic precepts) and the world view expressed by the writers is also that of the priyayi abangan".

He also writes that the world created in the novels under study is dominated by the priyayi and the shadow puppet play and that even the kiai, venerated scholars or teachers of Islam, convey their knowledge about the shadow puppet play rather than about the Koran. Hence the use of the term priyayi abangan, a combination of two different concepts in the Javanese community, a member of the Javanese upper class with scant attention to religious matters and greater interest in the values inherent in the Javanese shadow puppet play with which the priyayi are usually associated.

As literature reflects the condition of a particular society in which it is created, the Javanese novels of the 1950s also present the social conditions then prevailing. These works depict the attempt made by the abangan, the Javanese commoners, to climb the social ladder in order to reach the status of a priyayi or preserve the values of the priyayi. Logically, therefore, the common thread of Javanese novels in the 1950s is the spirit of the priyayi. As Javanese commoners are depicted in the novels as attempting to reach the status of a priyayi, it can be easily seen that what prompts them to do so must be their high deference to the moral values of the priyayi. It is clear, therefore, why, as referred to earlier, the shadow puppet play assumes an important role in Javanese novels of the 1950s.

In their attempt to live the life of a priyayi as much as possible, the characters are usually portrayed as heroes in the world of the shadow puppet play with control over their desires and a refined attitude. In relation to this, Sapardi writes that "In Javanese novels it is clearly portrayed that a shadow puppet play is an inseparable part of the life of the priyayi; an ideal priyayi is one with a good mastery of the art and the shadow puppet play is part of his main knowledge."

-- Lie Hua