In all the years I taught non-Western literature, the litany from my students was the same: “Why are these books so depressing?” Or, “Why is there nothing to make us feel good about?” Granted, a vast majority of serious novels by Third World writers take things pretty seriously, often present situations bleakly, ending on a negative note. I won’t go into the multiple reasons for this harsh atmosphere, other than to say that many novels by writers from former colonial areas critique the situation brought about by decades (sometimes centuries) of colonialism and, quite expectedly, there is little to feel good about. That is why Andrea Hirata’s The Rainbow Troops is such an upper, even though the setting (Indonesia) and the context (the vestiges of colonialism) are often leaden. Not so the story or the characters in Hirata’s remarkable narrative.
“The rainbow troops” is the collective name Ikal, one of ten students at a school on the island of Belitong, gives to his friends, all of whom are the poorest of the poor and, were it not for Muhammadiyah Elementary, unlikely to be educated. They would not be accepted by other schools, nor do their families have the money to pay for school fees, let alone uniforms. The school itself replicates their own dire situations. The two teachers, Bu Mus and Pak Harfan, are not paid for their teaching. They do it out of a love for education. After teaching, they must put in long hours to support themselves.
And the school, the building itself? There’s no toilet (they have to use the bush) or no first-aid kit. “If seen from afar, our school looked like it was about to tumble over. The old wooden beams were slanted, unable to endure the weight of the heavy roof. It resembled a copra shed. The construction of the building hadn’t followed proper architectural principles. The windows and door couldn’t be locked because they were not symmetrical with their frames….” The roof leaks. The room is virtually empty. No teaching aids—not much more than a chalk board and a few desks.
The school wouldn’t even exist, if the teachers hadn’t been able to round up ten students—the minimum requirement for government approval. But that does not mean that the state contributes anything to the school’s upkeep. Yet, the government still has the power to close down the school. And that threat of closure (manifested in Mister Samadikun, the school inspector) always hangs over the ten students and their dedicated teachers. Samadikun “was extremely irked by our school…. He was personally responsible for making sure we took our exams at another school because they considered our school incapable of administering its own examinations. He was also unhappy with us because we didn’t have any awards.”
What Muhammadiyah Elementary does have besides its two thoroughly altruistic teachers is several brilliant students, diamonds in the rough, who overcome enormous obstacles to attend the school, have unlimited respect for one another, and an unbounding capacity to learn. Ikal states of all of them: “We were hopelessly in love with our school.” There’s Lintang, for example, the son of an illiterate fisherman, who bicycles 80 kilometers each day, to and from school. He has to get up four AM in order to get to the school. In one of the most moving scenes in the novel when Lintang’s bicycle wears out and it looks as if he will have to stop attending classes, his mother gives him her wedding ring—the only possession the family has—to pawn in order have his bicycle refurbished. “Lintang wouldn’t let go of the ring. The gold dealer had to pry his fingers open one by one to take it. When Lintang finally let go, he let his tears go as well.” Eventually, he will prove himself to be the most gifted mathematical student on the entire island, a mathematical genius in fact, well before the students complete their sixth grade at the school.
Lintang, Ikal, and the others would be nowhere without the inspiration and the support they receive from Bu Mus, who is only fifteen years old at the beginning of the story. She “had just graduated from SKP (Vocational Girls’ School), which was only equivalent to junior high school.” She had hoped to acquire additional education, but that was not possible, so she decided that she would be a teacher—even if there was no payment for her work. It is Bu Mus, along with the support of the much older teacher, Pak Harfan, who stands up to the school inspector and eventually fights the local government which intends to move Muhammadiyah Elementary school because it sits on top of land rich in tin.
Belitong “is the richest island in Indonesia,” because of deposits of tin, gold, silver, copper, uranium and numerous precious stones. Historically, PN Timah (the state-owned tin company), controlled everything. The result was an enclave of rich people who ran the company and lived in an exclusive area called The Estate. It was children of the elite company officials who attended PN School and assumed privilege over all other schools. It is Bu Mus’s gifted students, at a dilapidated school with no amenities, who will eventually put the students at PN School in their place by winning the regional Academic Challenge.
There are, indeed, major hardships and disappointments encountered by Bu Mus’s rainbow troops in this extraordinary account of fighting tooth and nail for educational excellence on a remote island of Indonesia, twenty or thirty years ago. In the long run, buildings and teaching supplies are not necessary. All that really matters are inspiring teachers and dedicated students. That is what Andrea Hirata (supported by a glowing translation by Angie Kilbane) shows us by the end of his story. And, yes, that is no typo. Andrea is a man, and The Rainbow Troops is also a story about how he became a writer.
This is such a major work—the most successful novel in Indonesian publishing—that it will quickly become a cherished work for book clubs around the world. I adored The Rainbow Troops. How fantastic to begin the new year with such a memorable story.
Andrea Hirata: The Rainbow Troops
Trans. by Angie Kilbane
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 291 PP., $26
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.