Australia has an odd relationship with Indonesia. On the one hand, they are a strong economic partner, with their language singled out in the Asian Century white paper as one of the four key languages to be taught in schools around the country. On the other hand, a recent survey suggested that 40% of Australians didn’t know that Bali was a part of Indonesia. So it’s nice to see Random House Australia commissioning a translation of the best-selling Indonesian novel of all time.
In a small town on the small island of Belitong, a tin mining company has set up a huge mine, bringing with it the benefits of globalisation and development. But these benefits are not trickling down to everyone. In a small public school in the jungle of Belitong are the Rainbow Troops—a band of determined young students led by an even more determined young teacher struggling to get an education with minimal funds.
I can’t recall any other novel quite so focused on education. I’m not talking about stuffy British and American campus novels, or even love stories set at universities, but novels about the nitty-gritty parts of education, the love of learning that needs to be inspired in young children for them to succeed at school, and as a result, at life. This is something that we in the developed world probably take for granted, but in many parts of the developing world, where education resources (including teachers) are rare, the benefits of education are not always clear. So it’s good to have novels like this that remind us how great learning is—not just formal education, but that love of learning about the world around us.
Much of the novel concerns itself with class in Indonesia, and widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in contemporary Indonesia. Though many parts of rural Indonesia have benefitted greatly from the tin mining boom (that is, of course, ruining the environment), creating communities of company employees who have access to health care, education for their children, comfortable housing, and all of the other mod cons, there are just as many people who do not have jobs in these companies. These other people are the people whose children populate Muhammadiyah Elementary.
In some ways, the central tragedy of this novel is the thought that, if these children had been born in a different part of Indonesia—not even a different part of the world—they would have been granted access to a full, well-stocked education system that would have been able to nurture and grow their talents in maths and science, in history, in music. Lintang, the smartest child in the class, becomes this figure of tragedy: he is stupidly smart; he can do maths problems in his head without thinking about them; but he has to cycle 40 minutes each way to and from school just to get a chance to go to a crappy village school. It’s a depressing thought.
Or, at least, it would be, if this book weren’t so optimistic. The first scene, where the village struggles to get even ten children to form a class for the year, really sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Though they might worry about not being able to succeed, there is always something that gets them through the tough times. This is pretty much the standard for all other obstacles and hurdles that are thrown at this band of young students throughout. If they just believe in themselves, if they knuckle down and work hard, if they help each other through the good times and bad, they will be able to accomplish anything. With a message as broad as that, it’s not hard to see why it sold millions of copies in Indonesia.
The multicultural nature of Indonesian society is portrayed well here—though the school is free, it is an Islamic school. Yet, despite this, people who are not Muslim, including Malays, attend the school seemingly without problem. Indeed, the first girl Ikal falls in love with is a Chinese girl whose uncle runs a stall in the local market. It’s safe to say Hirata is far more concerned with interrogating the role of class and wealth in modern Indonesia rather than any potential race issues.
In the world’s least surprising news, this is a heavily autobiographical novel. Hirata himself was born and raised in Belitong, and went to a school similar to this. As a result, it’s hard not to see the main character simply as Andrea Hirata, moving beyond that traditional autobiographical first-novel tone to something rather like a memoir.
The language is nothing to write home about—fairly workman-like, though thankfully, it never reaches the level of twee that marks other novels set in developing nations (I’m looking at you, Alexander McCall Smith). The chapters are often short, each dealing with a different event in the school years of these children’s lives. If I had one complaint, it would be that the editing could have been a bit tighter—the timeline is a little dodgy at times, and events keep getting mention as though they are about to happen, but then don’t occur until the end.
This is a novel about David beating Goliath. It is a novel about globalisation in a developing world—rampant modernisation might be good for some, but there will always be some left behind. But just because the government doesn’t care about them doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy, or can’t help themselves. I hate to use this word, but it is a heartwarming tale. Definitely a feel-good novel.