Monday, 28 April 2014

Lost Words

The other day I went to the HB Jassin library of Indonesian literature located in the complex of the Jakarta Arts Institute, TIM.  HB Jassin was the pope of Indonesian literature.  He was a professor, literary critic, documentarian of literary works and publisher of the once well-known literary magazine ‘Horison.’  He set up the library from his personal collection back in 1976 to document the riches of Indonesian literature.

Here one can find the original manuscripts of novels and poetry written by some of Indonesia’s finest writers, as well as original letters written by writers and playwrights. Something that even the Indonesian National Library doesn’t have.

The thing that catches my eye is the manuscript of one of my favourite novels ‘Atheis‘ by Achdiat Karta Mihardja, published in 1949.  There is the manuscript, typed and bound with the title of the book hand scrawled by the author on the cover of the book, and underlined with curlicues as if some teenager’s exercise book.  It lies amongst other musty looking manuscripts of some of the most important novels to be written in Indonesia’s modern history, displayed in a haphazard way in a rather sorry-looking glass case.  And I am moved.

Actually the whole place moves me.  From the torn and faded sign of the documentation centre at the entrance made of printed plastic that looks like a temporary thing put up there when the centre was built and somehow failed to be replaced, to the iron steps leading into the painted blue building that from outside resembles a large prefabricated shed, the place hardly does justice to the value of its hallowed content.

A paraplegic man in a wheel chair greets the visitor behind a table with a high pitched jovial voice.  Most of the time I cannot fathom what he’s saying. He is the man in charge of the place.  Every day he has to hoist his wheelchair up the metal steps as the building has no wheelchair access. The mind boggles at this feat, for the steps are high and steep.  And I think, here is the living symbol of the place’s neglect and lack of interest.  

Inside, a few wooden tables are scattered about the bare lobby - places for visitors and researchers to sit and read as the public is not allowed into the library itself.  The books are not for loan but only for reference use only.  I was lucky to be given access into the library:  a long room with rows of wooden shelves on either side, dimly lit under energy saving neon lights.  I hear the budget to keep the place going is a mere Rp 11 million rupiah. 

An old typewriter without its casing sits on a table.  At first I thought it’s a display of a nostalgic relic of the days gone by when writers would give birth to their masterpiece by pounding on the keys of an Olivetti or an Olympus.  I am wrong.  A half full coffee cup next to it and a sheet of labels stuck in the roller shows that the typewriter is still fully functional and used to type up the book catalogue labels.  Yes, everything is still painfully catalogued manually.  The world of the digital and the Online has not crossed the threshold of this place of Indonesia’s finest literary oeuvres.

The works themselves are uniquely stored.  They are kept in files or folders inside file boxes labeled and catalogued using what I guess is the Dewey Decimal System.  To find the book the reader looks through the wooden catalogue drawers in the lobby whereupon the library assistant would look through the shelves and in the box files.  I wonder why they keep the books in document files and not simply arrange them on the shelves.  Taking one out of the folder, I understand.  Most of the books are old small paper backs whose pages are thin, fragile and wrinkled, printed as they were in poorer times.  As for the letters and correspondences, they have faded away with age.  They cannot withstand too much handling.

The last time I encountered these books was when I worked as a library assistant at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.  A whole floor of the multi-level library of this university was devoted to South East Asian literature of which Indonesia occupied a large part.  They were all in good condition and students and library members were free to browse and borrow them at will.  The more valuable documentation, such as missionary papers and original manuscripts were kept in a climate controlled room with fridge like temperature. The contents however, were made available to readers on microfiche. These days they’re probably all digitized.

And yet, here in this sorry-looking place is the repository of a history, timeline, thoughts, ideas, ideologies and events that trace the development of this country and help define who we are as a nation.  In these books, some familiar only as titles in school children’s text books, others obscure and unheard of, such as folk tales from the many islands of the archipelago as well as translated stories from local languages that have most likely disappeared, are clues to what it is that makes Indonesia the way it is today.  Hidden, forgotten and eaten away by time.

Soon, no doubt, they will disappear.  Along with our knowledge of our history and the narrative of our own life story. 


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