Burung-Burung Manyar is opened with an episode of the Javanese adaptation of Mahabharata. The main story is divided to three sections, each took place in three different periods in Indonesian history: The Late Occupation (1934-1944), The National Revolution (1945-1950), and The Early New Order (1968-1978). Having written more than 20 years ago (1981), the classical Indonesian literature feel is incredibly thick here. There is many Javanese and Dutch terms that are explained on the footnotes. This reprinted edition also contains footnotes that explain old terms in Bahasa Indonesia that are already uncommon nowadays. There is still many old terms left unexplained, though. But then again, if they were explained, this book would consist of mostly footnotes. After a while, I became familiar with the terms and storytelling style. With the classic feel under the historical setting, I felt like time travelling to the periods where the story took place.
The Late Occupation
The story in this period centers around the Keraton Mangkunegaran. It shows the feudalistic life of Javanese royal society, where women must show her deep submission to her husband. It was opened by the male protagonist's narration, Teto, during his childhood. Then the female protagonist, Atik, was introduced. It was a happy, rather funny childhood of army and royal family. A few chapters later, things turned grim since the Japanese occupation began. The Japanese occupation grew strong hatred towards Japan for Teto. Atik's family also felt the same hatred, but they were also learned the civilized side of Japanese culture outside the fascist military in the World War II through music and movies. They also realized how the Javanese royal's tradition also has its civilized and cruel side.
Indonesia will not be a cruel independent state. - Atik
The National Revolution
After the declaration of Independence Day, Teto became a lieutenant of NICA, whereas Atik became a pro-revolution who adores Soekarno, Sutan Sjahrir and the rest of the Republicans. Despite their growing love, they keep opposing each other's political stance. In Teto's view, Indonesia needs some more time to mature as a nation before they gain its independence. He detests the Republicans who seemed like hypocrites who obeyed the Japanese to gain their own will through political maneuver. In Atik's view, it was more like "now or never". Life free or die hard.
You have to be able to read between the printed lines. Otherwise, you are just a mere captive of the texts. - Atik
In this period, we were introduced to Verbruggen, a Dutch Mayor who proposed Teto's mother in the past (obviously rejected). Having brought Teto to become a lieutenant in significantly short time and took an influence in Teto's character development, he became one of the important characters in this book. He has a foul mouth, but a fair amount of wisdom in contrast. We were also introduced to Karjo and Samsu the Setankopor (The Briefcase Demon) who will be shown again in the next period.
This period was ended in the midst of the devastating result of the two Politionele Acties (Agresi Militer Belanda) that brought both Indonesia and the Dutch military force much grief and loss, as shown on both Teto and Atik's side. Meanwhile, they began to realize how they long for each other. However, the harsh reality kept drifting them apart, much that Atik began to reconsider her long wait for Teto's proposal.
The Early New Order
There is quite much time skip from the previous period to the last period. After the Roundtable Conference, Teto quitted from NICA and studied Mathematics in Europe to be a computer expert. In addition, he gained a new nationality, which was not mentioned explicitly in the book (though I assume that he became a Dutch). He became the Production Manager of a multinational oil company. In this period, he visited Indonesia for the third time since he got the new nationality. He visited his new best friend, John Brindley, an European Ambassador who keeps pet snakes in his garden. Afterwards, he attended Atik's dissertation defense. Accepting Atik's family's invitation, Teto decided to stay at their place for a while. How will Teto and Atik's relationship develop, after years of separation and opposing ideals?
In this period, Teto seems to already calmed down significantly. He grew up and accepted the loss he has been experienced since ever. He also began to accept the changing era and acknowledged his own mistakes. Like the rejected male weaverbird, he rebuild his nest - his life and dignity - after passing through the phase of anger and denial, where he furiously destroyed his rejected nest (ideals).
Beside showing the societal and political aspects that were occuring in the corresponding periods, Romo Mangun (the author's nickname) also took us back to experience the changing ecological condition of Java in the 40s to the 70s. The scene where Atik fed the birds and watched their behavior told me how diverse the city birds in Java back then. It shows how srigunting, jalak, gelatik, manyar and kutilang were still commonly wild in the cities in the 40s. The diversity gradually decreased and finally the wild weaverbirds became rare in the 70s. Nowadays, there is mostly sparrows and occasionally a few more kinds of city birds roaming in the cities of Java. The other kinds of birds are mostly kept as caged pets today.
There are many things that I like from this book. I like how I got to refresh my memory on the history of Indonesia through the three periods shown in this book. Even instead of refreshing my memory, I felt more like diving those periods, experiencing the events occurred there from the Republicans and the Dutch armies' side. The narration style, of which I assume adopted the way people talk in the corresponding periods, really helped to live up the atmosphere. I also like how this book shows how people from different sides in this book perceive the three periods that were used as time settings. It taught us to sympathize with those different sides, even if they are commonly seen as the antagonists.
This book ends beautifully, leaving a bittersweet feeling that seemed to have accumulated since the second period. However, it felt a bit odd when I realize how Karjo and Samsu was not furthermore involved in the story. What is the purpose of their presence, other than to describe the society and political issues in their corresponding periods? Overall, I enjoyed reading this book a lot. I would love to recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical literary fictions.
The international edition of this book, The Weaverbirds, was published by Lontar Foundation in 1991. Unfortunately, the edition is already considered rare now. I hope Lontar Foundation will consider to reprint this book in the future so that this book can be accessible to more readers.
Anyway, I have not encountered footnotes in fictions for ages until I began to read this book. Is it because I have not been an avid reader for some time until recently, or it is indeed already uncommon nowadays?