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Individual and Society in Contemporary Thailand and Java: An Anthropologist's Comparison of Modern Serious Fiction


The purpose of this article is to gain insights into the relationship between individual and society in contemporary Thailand and Java by investigating how this relationship is seen by the most creative Thai and Javanese authors of modern Thai and Indonesian serious fiction. These authors have been selected because competent local informants thought them to be the best writers of socially relevant novels and short stories. It is expected that the comparative dimension of this article may be conducive to gain a finer understanding of the relationship between individual and society in two culturally related societies than would be possible to achieve by the study of each of them in isolation. Moreover, such comparison may help to control the observer's bias by raising questions that are not necessarily related to the latter's cultural or academic background.

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1 The criterion of social relevance excludes the works of the important Thai author Manat Canjong whose absurdist stories fall beyond the scope of this discussion. Neither could I include a discussion of Khykrit Praamoot's excellent Sii phäändin [Four Reigns] because of its specialized historical character. On the other hand I included the genre of the mystical novel in the discussion of Javanese Indonesian fiction because it appears to be entirely relevant to understand the Javanese relationship between individual and society.

2 For aspects of the historical and cultural relationships between Thailand and Java, see Coedés G., The Indianized States of South-East Asia (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1968).

3 About the analysis of Indonesian comic strips, see Bonneff M., Les bandes dessinees indonésiennes (Paris: Puyraimond, 1976).

4 This idea has been argued by Geertz C., “‘From the Native's Point of View’: on the Nature of Anthropological Understanding”, in Symbolic Anthropology, ed. Dolgin J. et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

5 This investigation will largely ignore questions that pertain to the sociology of literature, such as when did who write what for whom. Neither will it deal with questions that belong to thefieldof literary criticism. These questions have been extensively discussed by many others, for instance in the case of Thailand by Bunkhacon Triisin, Náwánijaaj káb sangkhom thaj (2475–2500) (Bangkok: Suksitsayam, 1980), and Suchaat Sawadsii in his introductions toLäängkhěn, Thanon saaj thiinam paj súu khwaamtaaj, Myan jáang maj khöj, and Kham khaanrab (Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1975, 1976) , and in the case of Indonesia by Jassin H.B., Kesusastraan Indonesia modem dalam Kritik dan Esei, 4 vols. (Jakarta, 1967) , and Teeuw A., Modern Indonesian Literature, 2 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967, 1979). With its narrow focus on the relationship between individual and society this article will neither try to give a general picture of contemporary social life and thought, such as offered in the selective compilations ofPhillips H.P., Thai Thoughts: An Anthropological Inquiry into Contemporary Thai Literature (forthcoming) and J.J. Ras, Javanese Literature since Independence: an Anthology (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979). Ras only considers fiction written in Javanese whereas this article will only discuss works written in Indonesian by ethnic Javanese. The good reason for this decision is that there is hardly any production of modern good-quality fiction in Javanese, all of the most important Javanese authors writing in Indonesian. Yet there appears to be a specific Javanese flavour in their writings that sets them apart from the other authors writing in Indonesian. At present there is even a tendency that the former “javanise” their novels, as exemplified by the genre of the mystical novel and the recent publications of Linus Suryadi AG and Y.B. Mangunwijaya (see below).

6 There exist several later and more extensive editions of this collection, the latest being printed in 1979.

7 He returned from exile in Sweden to Thailand in 1981.

8 If here or in the following I am economical in commenting on certain pieces of literature, I still find it important to mention them in order to indicate the sources from which I derived my ideas and that may illustrate my argument. At the same time this procedure opens me to those critics who may hold a different opinion.

9 See, for instance, the compilations of short stories bySuchaat Sawadsii(ed.) referred to in note 5.

10 Forthis interpretation, see Wiryamartana I. Kuntara.“Poetika Jawadalam Kancah Sastra Indonesia”, Basis, Majalah Kebudayaan Umum 31, no. 6 (1982): 231–37.

11 For further elaboration of the sangkan-paran idea, see Mulder Niels, Mysticism and Everyday Life in Contemporary Java (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1978), p. 13.

12 During the short period that these novels freely circulated in Indonesia, Bumi Manusia was printed three or four times in unprecedented editions. In the middle of 1981 Pramoedya's new books suffered the same fate as his earlier writings and were officially banned. Meanwhile a translation by Lane Max has appeared in English, This Earth of Mankind (Penguin Books Australia Ltd., 1982). For some other translations of Pramoedya's work, seeOemarjati Boen, “Development of modern Indonesian Literature”, in Dynamics of Indonesian History, ed. Soebadio H. and Sarvaas C. C. du Marchie (Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Co., 1978).

13 For a more extensive presentation of these books, see Foulcher Keith, “Buma Manusia and Anak semua Bangsa: Pramoedya Ananta Toer Enters the 1980's”, Indonesia 32 (1981): 115.

14 See Evers Hans-Dieter (ed.), “Loosely structured” Social Systems: Thailand in Comparative Perspective (New Haven: Southeast Asia Program, Yale University, 1969).

15 These classifications have been elaborated in Mulder Niels, Everyday Life in Thailand: An Interpretation (Bangkok: Duang Kamol, 1979).

16 For a descriptive analysis of Javȧnese kebatinan mysticism, see Mulder , Mysticism (1978).

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
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