Desi Anwar: Lost for Words
The other day I went to the H.B. Jassin Library of Indonesian literature in the Taman Ismail Marzuki arts complex in Central Jakarta. H.B. Jassin was the pope of Indonesian literature. He was a professor, critic, documentarian of literary works and publisher of the literary magazine ‘Horison.’ He set up the library from his personal collection in 1976 to document the riches of Indonesian literature.
Here one can find original manuscripts of novels and poetry written by some of Indonesia’s finest authors, as well as original letters by writers and playwrights — something even the Indonesian National Library doesn’t have.
The thing that catches my eye is the manuscript of one of my favorite novels, ‘‘Atheis’’ by Achdiat Karta Mihardja, published in 1949. The manuscript is typed and bound with the title of the book hand- scrawled by the author on the cover and underlined with curlicues. It lies among other musty-looking manuscripts of some of the most important novels in Indonesia’s modern history, displayed in a haphazard way in a rather sorry-looking glass case. And I am moved.
The whole place moves me. From the torn and faded sign of the documentation center at the entrance made of printed plastic to the iron steps leading into the blue building that resembles a large prefabricated shed from the outside, the place hardly does justice to the value of its hallowed contents.
A paraplegic man in a wheelchair greets visitors behind a table with a high-pitched, jovial voice. He is the man in charge of the place. Every day he has to hoist his wheelchair up the metal steps as the building does not have wheelchair access. The mind boggles at this feat, for the steps are high and steep. And I think, here is the living symbol of the place’s neglect and lack of interest.
Inside, a few wooden tables are scattered about the bare lobby — places for visitors and researchers to sit and read as the public is not allowed into the library itself. The books are not for loan but for reference use only. I was lucky to be given access to the library: a long room with rows of wooden shelves on either side, dimly lit under energy-saving neon lights. I hear the monthly budget to keep the place going is a mere Rp 11 million ($1,150).
An old typewriter without its casing sits on a table. I thought it was a display of a nostalgic relic of the days gone by when writers would give birth to their masterpiece by pounding on the keys of an Olivetti or an Olympus. I am wrong. A coffee cup next to it and a sheet of labels stuck in the roller reveals the typewriter is still fully functional and used to type up the book catalog labels. Yes, everything is still painfully cataloged manually. The world of the digital and the Internet has not crossed the threshold of this place.
The works themselves are kept in files or folders inside boxes labeled and cataloged using what I guess is the Dewey Decimal System. To find a specific book, you have to look through the wooden catalog drawers in the lobby, and then a library assistant will look through the shelves and in the file boxes.
I wonder why they keep the books in document files and not simply arrange them on the shelves. Taking one out of a folder, I understand. Most of the books are old, small paperbacks whose pages are thin, fragile and wrinkled, printed as they were in poorer times. As for the letters and correspondences, they have faded away with age and can’t withstand too much handling.
Here in this sorry-looking place is the repository of a history, timeline, thoughts, ideas, ideologies and events that trace the development of this country and help define who we are as a nation. In these books, some familiar, others obscure and unheard of, such as folktales from the many islands of the archipelago as well as translated stories from local languages that have most likely disappeared, are clues to what it is that makes Indonesia the way it is today. Hidden, forgotten and eaten away by time.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be contacted at desianwar.com and dailyavocado.net.