‘The Rainbow Troops’ by Andrea Hirata
‘The Rainbow Troops’ by Andrea Hirata, Vintage; $32.95
Indonesian critics claim that Andrea Hirata has single-handedly revitalised the nation’s literary culture. Since its release in 2005, his debut novel The Rainbow Troops (Laskar Pelangi) has sold an estimated 20 million copies in Indonesia. Even accounting for the 15 million-odd pirate editions included in that figure, his sales have smashed national records.
Hirata once told The Jakarta Post that “what matters most in literary work is the context, not the text”. An uneven work that deals bravely with a difficult subject, The Rainbow Troops shows how context can frame enormous success.
The ‘troops’ of the title are a group of ten children at a village school on the island of Belitong, off the coast of Sumatra. Though the island is rich in tin, the vast majority of its Malay population live in poverty. The ‘troops’ are in a battle on multiple fronts: they must protect their school’s land from conniving local officials and hungry mining companies, defend their minds in a world interested only in the economy of their physical labour and remain children, while they still can.
Their lives are recounted in loosely linked episodes – the narrator’s first love affair, the struggles of their brave young school-teacher, encounters with adults, crocodiles and ghosts. Scenes at the impoverished school are juxtaposed with the obscenely privileged world of ‘the Estate’, built for the families of mining executives.
The English translation is true to Hirata’s portrayal of poverty, which he delivers in a light-handed, often humorous style that refuses to turn his characters’ lives into tragic titillations.
Hirata himself grew up on Belitong, and dedicates The Rainbow Troops to his schoolteachers and friends. Despite taking full advantage of the conventions of memoir, he describes the work as “a semi-autobiographical novel”. It’s a confusing definition, especially during the narrator’s occasional flights of hyperbole, when readers may wonder where Hirata has drawn the line between fact and fiction.
The novel’s ambiguity works when Hirata refuses to name the president in the framed photograph the students must hang on the Belitong schoolroom wall. By leaving the exact date of events uncertain, Hirata releases his story from the past.
In its modern context, read as contemporary narrative rather than historical memoir, The Rainbow Troops shows how much, and how little, has changed in Indonesia since the fall of the Suharto regime. Hirata and writers like him now have the freedom to speak directly about injustice, but the country of Hirata’s childhood – an Indonesia of rampant resource-extraction and economic disparity, where so few people are telling the stories of the villages – is still alive and hurting.