AND THE WAR IS OVER By Ismail Marahimin Translated from the Indonesian By John H. McGlynn Louisiana State University Press 173 pp. $16.95
MOST contemporary novelists from the Third World are the equivalent of at least 300 years old. They have been colonials and revolutionaries, they have survived world wars and civil wars, they have witnessed the devolution of tribalism and religion and seen their replacement by foreign ideologies. Many can remember the arrival of electricity and the first stirrings of industrialism. As writers of fiction about brand new nations, they have consorted with the heroes and martyrs of liberation, and they have suffered the inevitable post-independence disillusionment. And now they and their books travel the world. Ismail Marahimin, the prize-winning Indonesian writer and university lecturer, has already lived several lives.
And the War Is Over, Marahimin's poignant first novel, was originally published in his home country in 1977. In 1984 it won the Pegasus Prize, established by Mobil Corportion to bring to American readers fine literary works from "rarely-translated" languages. (The winning works are published in English translation by the Louisiana State University Press).
The novel is set in a tiger-infested Sumatran jungle in the days just before and just after Japan's surrender to the Allies in 1945. The jungle accommodates an Edenic village of Muslim Sumatran fishermen and a Japanese prison-of-war camp for Dutch internees and conscripted Javanese laborers who work together to build a railroad. All the ingredients for an updated Bridge on the River Kwai are present -- the cruel, inscrutable but vaguely honorable Japanese commanders, the abused European prisoners of war, the exotic and perilous tropics, the ironies and the manhood-testing opportunities inherent in popular literature about World War II. But Ismail Marahimin is not interested in the Europeans' view of the war. What is remarkable about And the War Is Over is that we finally get the familiar war from an unfamiliar, non-combatant, Asian point of view.
The subject of this novel is not a conflict between two culturally distinct heroes -- the Japanese commandant and the Dutch internees' leader -- the subject is colonialism, as practiced on Indonesians by both the Dutch and the Japanese. The war destroys the old Dutch colonial order and establishes a grim, Japanese imperial order. Brutality and impotence are symptoms of this new colonialism. The Japanese occupation disrupts traditional values -- the village rogue of pre-war years becomes rich, and therefore, respectable. Innocent village wives become black-market traders in, and hoarders of, hard-to-get staples. At the same time, the occupation frees the local people from gender roles and social taboos; it encourages and rewards personal effort. And when the war is over, the villagers are reluctant to return to traditional values. "People no longer knew where they stood or where they were to go. Revenge, suffering, sacrifice were suddenly matters of no consequence."
The novel's most extraordinary scene occurs in a commandeered village schoolroom after an assembly of Japanese officers is informed that the emperor has surrendered. Two officers of the Dai Nippon Army commit public seppuku: one shoots himself, the other disembowels himself with his sword while the assembly sings the slow Japanese national anthem. Marahimin, while respectful of the occasion, provides realistic details -- the body twitches, the death rattle, "the spray of flesh and blood" -- that accompany the execution of the ritual.
Marahimin's "main" characters are numerous, and they speak in many different languages and understand each other only imperfectly. There's Captain Ose, the sensitive Japanese commander who loves tradition (sumo, judo, tea-making) but who questions his nation's obsession with militarism. Among the internees, there are two rival leaders: Wimpie, a crude, womanizing, blackmailing pugilist, and Pastor, a masochistic chaplain. Among the romusha or the Javanese laborers, there's Kliwon, an adulterer, and there's Anis, an opportunistic trader.
Two women get to tell their stories: Satiyah, a widow who flees a scandal in her native village and who works as a maid for Captain Ose, with whom she is in love but whom Captain Ose cannot marry and take back to Japan because she is dark-skinned, foreign and low-born, and Lena, a beautiful, impetuous village girl who runs away from her loving family into the jungle to be with the unworthy Kliwon (and so causes the final catastrophe to happen). The women -- strangely, one might think, in a Muslim culture -- demonstrate greater courage, more sexuality, more resourcefulness, than the males.
The multiple points of view underscore the foreignness of Marahimin's narrative strategies. The American reader might have found the novel more accessible if the large, desolate tale of colonialism had come from the well-developed point of view of any one man or woman. But Marahimin, like most contemporary novelists from post-colonial Asian societies, is clearly more interested in the historical and sociological capacities of fiction than in the demonstration of a protagonist's psychological motivations.
The "plot" centers on Wimpie's breakout from the prison camp, and utilizes all requisite ironies and visually dramatic tragedies. However, it is not my intention to give the end away.
The English prose of the translator, John H. McGlynn, a resident of Jakarta, is painfully unsubtle. People wear "serious demeanours", they "bide their time" and are "mindful of detail." But somehow the Sumatran jungle with its tigers, its fish, its mosquitoes, its deep green brush and its swamps, survives the translator's infelicities. ::
Bharati Mukherjee is author of two novels, "The Tiger's Daughter" and "Wife," and a new collection of stories, "Darkness."