[Book Review] Burung-Burung Manyar (The Weaverbirds)

burung manyarBurung-Burung Manyar (The Weaverbirds) is a book written by Y.B. Mangunwijaya (1929-1999), an Indonesian architect, writer, and Catholic religious leader. The book is opened with an episode of the Javanese adaptation of Mahabarata. The main story is divided in three big chapters: The Late Occupation (1934-1944), The National Revolution (1945-1950), and The Early New Order Regime (1968-1978). Written in 1981, it was one of the classical Indonesian literatures.

It was a bit hard to start with the book since it uses many Javanese and Dutch terms (explained in the footnotes) that were no longer used nowadays. After a while, I started to become familiar with the terms and the storytelling style used in this book. Romo Mangun (familiar name of Y.B. Mangunwijaya) successfully brought the historical setting comes to life. He brought the readers travel back in time to where all the stories took place.

The story centered around the Keraton Mangkunegaran. The book describes well the feudalistic Javanese royal society way of living, where women must show their deep submission to their husbands. This view was told by the male protagonist’s narration, Teto (Setadewa) during his childhood. Both of their childhoods were decribed to be happy and fun in between the royal family (Atik, the female protagonist) and army family (Teto).

The late occupation

Everything then turned sour as Japanese took power in Indonesia from the Netherlands. The Japanese occupation grew strong hatred towards the Japan for Teto. He was swollen into his hatred that makes him decided to fight against the Japanese and even the newly declared nation, Indonesia, by joining the KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army – Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger), the military force maintained by the Netherlands in its colony of the Netherlands East Indies (also known as the Dutch East Indies, in areas that are now part of Indonesia).

The national revolution

After the declaration of Independence Day, Teto became a lieutenant of NICA (Netherlands Indies Civil Administration), whereas Atik took her place as a pro-revolution who works in Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Sutan Sjahrir. Despite their growing love, they keep opposing each other’s political stance. In Teto’s point of view, Indonesia needs some more time to be mature as a nation before they claim their independence from the Netherlands. He detested the Republicans who seemed to him like hypocrites who always obeyed those who are in power only to gain their own will through political maneuver. While for Atik, it was more to 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

During this period, we were not only introduced by the avant garde and idealistic Indonesian intellectual who were later became Indonesian first prime minister in 1945, but also to Verbruggen, a Dutch Mayor who had history with Teto’s half Indonesian-half Dutch mother in the past. He became one of the important characters with his relationship with Teto. Even though he was described of having a foul mouth, but he was also pictured to have a fair amount of wisdom in contrast with his endless love to Teto’s mother.

This period was ended in the midst of the devastating result of the two Politionele Acties (Dutch Military Agression) that brought both Indonesia and Dutch military force much grieves and loss. As the story goes, the love between the two people also grows in the painful way.

The early new order regime

The story fast forwarded to after the Roundtable Conference when Teto finally quitted from NICA and studied Mathematics at Harvard University to later come back as a computer expert. He also ambiguously told having new nationality. He become the production manager of a multinational oil company in Indonesia. While Atik, who was since the beginning was pictured as a strong will smart woman, grew her passions in fauna and flora by having a doctorate degree in this field.

After years passed between the two love birds and impeded by their different political point of view, they tried to reconcile with their unsolved love story and their pasts. In this period of time, we could see how Teto has changed much. He was described as a rejected male weaverbird, who tried to rebuild his nest (life and dignity) through the changing of time after dealing with his anger and denial for what had happened..

This is one of the books that I really love. The kind of book that makes your heart full after reading it. I like the way Romo Mangun re-tell the history of Indonesia in the charming and flawless way. For young generation like me who never experienced these three periods, he successfully described everything nicely as if I experiencing the events by myself. The narration style (which I assume to be adopted from the way people communicate in the corresponding periods) really helped to live up the atmosphere.

I also adore the way Romo Mangun brought different perceptions of history in this book that somehow made me able to sympathize with both sides.

This book ends beautifully, leaves a bittersweet feeling that is already accumulated since the second period. However, I still feel a bit odd realizing that there were two characters in the story, Karjo and Samsu, that I thought quite important as well but there was no closure with these characters which made me questioning their existence in the story other than to describe the political and society issues back then.

I highly recommend this book for those people who enjoys historical literary fictions that is full of local transcendence and traditional values. The English version of this book was published by Lontar Foundation in 1991 with title The Weaverbirds.

The homeland is there, where there is love and closeness of the hearts, where no people stepping on the other people. — Teto


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