‘The Rainbow Troops’ by Andrea Hirata
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‘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.