GABY RUSLI WRITES (in a series of reviews on Indonesian classics) — Corruption. Collusion. Nepotism. The hypocrisy of the wealthy. All odds are stacked against the poor. These are some of the authentic and intriguing themes in Mochtar Lubis’ third novel, Twilight in Djakarta (1963). Lubis’ story challenges an autocratic leader and government which controls a country freshly freed from hundreds of years of colonialism and dealing with the ingrained separation of race and class.
Twilight in Djakarta tells the intertwining stories of several characters from the upper, middle, and lower classes of Indonesian society over six months. The upper-class revels in their expensive cars and extensive connections, seeking out ways to be wealthier while the poor struggle to fulfill their needs, and the middle class remain in a state of economic limbo, making do but never achieving complete comfort. This book is Lubis’ critique of Soekarno, Indonesia’s first president after its independence under the Dutch and the Japanese occupations, where bureaucratic corruption was rampant at the expense of a starving majority.
Twilight in Djakarta was written by Mochtar Lubis as he was placed under house arrest by President Soekarno for his brutal criticism of Soekarno’s presidency through his works, which also includes There is No Tomorrow (1950), The Never-Ending Road (1952), and Barren Land (1966). Lubis’ journalistic background, stemming from when he was the co-founder of several magazines and foundations, prompted his politically charged writing style. Twilight in Djakarta was the first Indonesian book to be published in English. It was considered one of Lubis’ more exemplary works, well-recognized in the Western world.
Twilight in Djakarta portrays an Indonesian’s complicated love for his country. For Lubis, it was never a question of which political or religious ideology would better fit Indonesia. Instead, he questioned the missing national consciousness that resulted in the “every man for himself” mindset, which continues to plague Indonesia today. On one side, Indonesia is blessed in natural resources and culture. On the other hand, Indonesia feels hopelessly handicapped by the lack of change in its corrupt and nepotistic societal structure.
Lubis highlighted the irony of a supposedly Democratic republic that has done more to silence its people than live true to its principles. Knowing that spoken criticism would only get him so far, he utilized pen and paper to guarantee that his outrage would be heard by the Indonesian people, regardless of the consequences he could face. One can feel Lubis’ disappointment and resentment towards the hypocrisy of the elite few and towards scholars who only lament but never take action despite having the influence to do so. Though relatively short in length, Twilight in Djakarta has done an outstanding job of touching on subjects that many choose not to discuss for fear of state-sponsored persecution.
New Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate and environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.