By Andrea Hirata (trans., Angie Kilbane)
WHEN it comes to learning about Indonesia from fiction, most Australian readers won't have gone much further than Christopher Koch's 1978 novel, The Year of Living Dangerously. It is a wonderful and important book, but part of its point is that it presents an outsider's view. The Rainbow Troops, written in Indonesian and first published in 2005, is very much the view from inside: it's an autobiographical novel in which Andrea Hirata recalls his childhood on the island of Belitong, where he attended the village school.
The Rainbow Troops has become a cult novel in its own country and is the first Indonesian novel to find its way into the international general fiction market. Hirata has written three sequels, and in 2008 the first novel was made into an award-winning film.
The troops in question are the 10 children - ''Belitong-Malays from the poorest community on the island'' - who attend Muhammadiyah Elementary School: ''It, too, was the poorest, the poorest village school in Belitong.'' They are taught by the dedicated but ageing Pak Harfan and his offsider, Bu Mus, a 15-year-old girl on her first day of teaching. From this day, which is when the story starts, the school is in constant danger of being closed down, and is always being compared unfavourably with the prosperous school run by the company that owns the island's tin mines.
While it's about a very specific time and place, told from the point of view of Ikal, the young narrator, the novel's cast of characters has great appeal and its general themes will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. It's a coming-of-age novel, a beautiful little love story, and a David and Goliath tale about overcoming poverty and standing up to the powerful. It's about courage, persistence, loyalty and dedication, and most of all, it's about the value and power of education.
If it were not so gently told, this story would also be a savage critique of corporate greed and government corruption, but it's easy enough for the reader to see the grotesque gap between rich and poor without having it spelt out.
Hirata's main focus is on the children and their hopes for the better life that education might be able to give them. The most heartbreaking part of the story is the fate of Lintang, Ikal's brilliant classmate, who rides his bike 40 kilometres to school and back every day but who, after his fisherman father dies, must leave school to support his extended family. The fate of Lintang alone might be enough to make some Australian readers of this book see Indonesia and its people in a new and disquieting light.
To read anything in translation is to read it through a veil; you can see the threads in the weave and you can see where the edges of the writer's intent have been fuzzed and foxed by an approximation in another language. This novel is about children and its style in English is simple, clear and childlike, as befits Ikal's voice, but Anglophone readers must take that style on trust.
A case in point is the title: the Indonesian Laskar Pelangi translates more accurately as ''rainbow warriors'', and while this might not be the reason for translating it differently, that phrase still has very specific associations for Anglophone readers that would badly skew their perception of the book. But the children are, in fact, little warriors: they fight for their school, for their teachers, for each other, and for their own educations and futures.