Two Men, Two Survivors
Several weeks ago the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) asked me to write a special article for them on "anger." Among the 17 international authors they gathered for this task were Karl Ove Knausgaard, Peter Handke, Liao Yiwu, Antonia Baum, John Green, Vladimir Sorokin, and Oskar Roehler. So I turned mine into the story of two Buru Island ex-political prisoners I happen to know personally, who have had to dealt with, or overcome their anger, in all its complexities. Here's my article in FAZ, published today, and its English original:
Two Men, Two Survivors
(An article commissioned by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published on Sunday, 11 October 2015)
by Laksmi Pamuntjak
It was July 2006 in Buru Island, and I remember that afternoon well. The poet and I had just stepped off our van and walked towards a lookout point. From the outcrop where we stood, the rice fields that were once woodlands gleamed in the sun like an unexpected gift. But the stunning vastness of the landscape and all that it obscured—the years of hard human toil that went into it, the mass humiliation, the blood spilled—wasn’t the only thing that took my breath away. It was the look in the man’s eyes.
Even after several days of journeying with him to the island that, for nearly a decade during the Suharto regime, once held him and some 12,000 other alleged Communists captive, he remained an enigma. He was a poet, in his mid-sixties, his face unreadable. He was witty, tutored in suspicion, with quick eyes trained on the world’s every gesture lest it might betray him again. He was a small man, but he knew how to walk taller than everyone around him. He was also a master storyteller, and he had been generous in sharing his memory of his life in the Buru penal colony between 1971 and 1979.
But when it came to the subject of anger he was curiously oblique. Granted, anger is an aporia, and one that is at once porous and explicit in its cause, nature and manifestations. Yet surely it is the most logical emotion at play in the context of such inhumanity. And, according to him, many of the prisoners were just that: angry—as in consumed with rancor and rage, while others chose to live their days in near-cancerous silence. Some of them opted to resort to religion, others to the special brand of amor fati and tremendous self-control often attributed to the Javanese ethnic group, in order to justify their docile acceptance of their fates. But he was his own person. His ability to corral even the most blatant instances of barbarity into the comic was one of a kind.
Until that moment on the lookout, I merely thought it part of the whole deal—a faculty of irony so adroit it might seem perverse, yet necessary to his survival. But at that moment, after a very long silence, he said, in a grim, almost cruel tone, “They miscalculated, you see. Suharto thought this island would become his Communist graveyard. But what we prisoners found was a rice trove, a new soil and a new life. Plant almost anything in this Buru soil, even a political prisoner, and it will live.”
And so it was: just when the message merited gestures of triumph, of a justifiable smugness even, I realized that what I was witnessing was anger.
These days, there is certainly a lot of anger in our nation of 17,000 islands. The recent religious bloodbath in Papua between Muslims and Christians—eerily reminiscent at its inception of the one that tore the Maluku Islands, where Buru Island is located, between 1999 and 2004—is only one example among countless others.
It’s easy to argue that the frequency of anger we Indonesians have witnessed, a domestic skirmish or a clash choked in primitive fury, in our own backyard or in a neighboring province, would desensitize us to violence. Yet the fact that we have lived with difference and practiced tolerance for centuries still makes it hard for us to understand how people—friends, neighbours, relatives—come to acquire the virus of remorseless anger.
A friend once told me that anger could be a useful thing: it triggers motion, is an appeal to action. I confess to knowing a thing or two about this myself; there are times I write best when I am angry, because I can’t rid myself of it if I do not channel all that energy into something—an act of defiance, a determination not to be defeated. But I also know something of its darker side: for instance when, out of ego, I hurt someone just to prove how much she or he has hurt me. When I resort to anger in an effort to force a reaction from those too thrifty with their shows of emotions.
But the kinds of anger I know—from rejection, betrayal, loss, grief, slander, humiliation, intolerance, injustice, abuse both verbal and physical—are nothing compared to what the poet went through. In addition to having had to endure all said offences he was labeled, defined, ex-communicated, oppressed, stigmatized for life. And he had to live with that crushing double defeat: of the Communist Party and of Communism itself.
“Anger has no future,” another ex-prisoner told me. He was another type of survivor: one whose bruised spirit has rendered him quiet and unobtrusive, like someone trained to retreat into the shadows. Yet this doesn’t mean he was any less courageous and astute. He was even unequivocal about his anger, as when he spoke about the difference between his fellow ex-prisoners who lacked fight altogether and those whose resignation turned into bottled-up anger, or about the circumstances that led to his own arrest and incarceration in Buru. He was 17 at the time, and not even a member of the Communist Party.
The two men might have different ways of dealing with anger. After watching Joshua Oppenheimer’s landmark 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, a testimony of the Indonesian mass killings from the point of view of the perpetrators, even their reactions were different. The poet had been enthused over it, among many reasons because the film had attested to, in the absence of any official state affirmation, the fact that the massacres did actually take place. Yet his colleague did not see it quite as a triumph, let alone liberation. Instead, he confessed to a certain inexplicable sadness in watching the film, which brought back all the painful memories. “Watching the film was a torture for me,” he told me.
Yet they were both proud souls who refused to be defeated by hatred and vengefulness. Slavoj Zizek might have argued that what renders a report of a traumatised subject truthful is precisely “its unreliability, its confusion, its inconsistency.” We might never really know the ‘truth’: whether mellowness or even forgiveness came later, or whether it truly did offer temporary redemption at the time it occurred.
But the two men had spoken with the same genuine wonderment at random acts of empathy and solidarity. Like Victor Klemperer who spoke equally tenderly in his diary of the Nazi years about supervisors of forced labour who were kind and sympathetic to elderly Jews, the two men spoke of prison guards who sat and laughed with them, trading stories, cigarettes and the occasional gripes about their bosses. “They too were just as angry and needy as we were,” the poet told me, “And therefore just as desperate for respite, for some fun, and perhaps even a measure of salvation.”
The intimacy that often develops between the oppressor and the oppressed is certainly not news to us, yet we all know it doesn’t eradicate the oppression itself. But the two men have, in their own ways, attained that quality we only reserve these days for epic, fictional heroes—the Hectors and Achilleses of the imagination—namely that there may be such a thing as man finding his highest humanity at the point of destruction.