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by Bamber Gascoigne

Anwar Chairil (1922-1949)


Indonesian writer who lived wildly and died young, but who had a deep influence on Indonesian postindependence poetry and prose. Anwar Chairil was the primary architect of the Indonesian literary revolution. He released poetry from the bonds of traditional forms and language, and his idealistic challenge, "I want to live for another thousand years" ("Aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi"), made him an artistic icon already during his life-time. With his energetic devotion to literature he is regarded as the principal figure of the Angkatan Empatpuluh Lima ("generation of 1945") and one of the greatest poets of his country.

Though bullets should pierce my skin
I shall still strike and march forth
Wounds and poison shall I take aflee
'Til the pain and pang should dissapear
And I should care even less
I want to live for another thousand years
(in 'Aku', 1943)

Anwar Chairil was born in Medan, East Sumatra, into a family which had moved to Djakarta. Nothing much is known about his parents. In one poem he wrote: "My mother falls asleep, sobbing, / Prison crowds are always lonely, / Even my father stretches out, bored, / His eyes fixed on the carved-stone crucifix!" (The Complete Poetry and Prose of Chairil Anwar, edited and translated by Burton Raffel, 1970, p. 89) Chairil's formal education was short. After attending elementary school, he studied at a Dutch-language middle school, M.U.L.O. (Meer Uitgebbreid Lager Onderwijs) for eight years. Throughout his literary career, he  read widely and deeeply – in Dutch, German, English, Spanish and French.

Chairil began to write as an adolescent, before he moved in 1940 to Djakarta, where he led a restless exitence. "I'm going straight on . . . straight on, understand?!!!" (The Development of Modern Indonesian Poetry by Burton Raffel, 1967, p. 82) At one point he lived with his mother at 19 Jalan Latuharhari, and did some trade in secondhand goods. With the money he had earned he bought secondhand Dutch and English books. When he found a job at a statistics office, he moved with his mother to a house in Kampong Kwitang. After two moths, he stopped going to work, complaining his Japanese supervisors at the office twisted numbers to make propaganda.

During the Japanese occupation he was tortured by the Kempentai for some names and addresses; "it hurt too much" and he gave in. However, although he knew some of the members of the resistance, Chairil himself was not actively involved in the movement. He praised Colonel Yamazaki Yasuyo, the hero of the battle for Attu in 1943, in a letter to his girlfriend Ida Nasution: "A brave warrior from Attu! Ah, be in harmony with this noble spirit. The personification of the ideal!" (The Complete Poetry and Prose of Chairil Anwar, p. 168)

For a period, Chairil worked in the editorial board of Gema Suasana, but was rarely seen in the office. Chairil spent more of his time in hanging around with his friends. "When I die I don't want it to be in a bed. I want to die in the middle of the street," Chairil once said. He had no permanent address, he moved constantly from one friend's house to another. Well aware of the prize that he would pay for his destructive lifestyle, Chairil wrote in his final notebook: "Let's / Leave here / Just as we planned,  just / As we agreed / Once". (Anthology of Modern Indonesian Poetry, edited by Burton Raffel, 1968, p. 52) From a short-lived marriage to Hapsah Wiraredja he had a daughter. Chairil died on April 28, 1949, in Djakarta. He had suffered from syphilis, tuberculosis, typhys, and cirrhosis of the liver. A collection of his poems published after his death stirred accusations of plagiarism of Western poetry.

Chairil served on the editorial board of one of the most important literary journals of the period, Siasat (Strategy), established in Jakarta in 1947. Its cultural column, called "Gelanggang" (Forum), attracted a number of young writers and artists belonging to the "Generation of 45". This politically conscious literary and cultural movement, describing itself as the voice of the Indonesian revolution, identified with European modernism in the search for new literary forms and accents. From this generation emerged writers such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, often called Indonesia's greatest modern prose-writer, and Mochtar Lubis, a courageous political journalist and novelist, who contributed both short stories and essays to Siasat.

The most celebrated work of fiction in Dutch by an Indonesian author was the novel Buiten het gareel (1940) by Suwarsih Djojopuspito. Bahasa Indonesia, a language which formally came to exist in 1928, became through Chairil's writings a vital literary language. The earliest Indonesian novels were published in the 1920s. Pudjangga Baru (The New Writer) literary school, which was established in 1933, influenced greatly the development of literature. It advocated the idea that traditional literary forms had to be replaced by modern means of expression. Its founders and first editors were Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana and Armijn Pané, the brother of Sanusi Pané.

Another movement, 45 Group, reflected the ideas of the independence struggle. It has been said that the difference between the Pudjangga Baru generation and that of 1945 was the difference between hope and impetuosity. Chairil Anwar and other its members tried to released the poetry from the bonds of traditional forms and literary language. Other important writers were Idrus, Surwarsih Djojopuspito, Achdiat Karta Mihardja, Toha Mohtar, Mochtar Lubis (imprisoned by the Sukarno regime for four years), Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The first Indonesian dramatist to gain wide recognition was Utuy Tatang Sontani (1820-1979). Poetry in Javanese since independence were dominated by St. Iesmaniasita and Muryalelana (b. 1932). In preindependence fiction in Sundanese the central figure was Mohamad Ambri (1892-1936). Liem King-hoo has been considered the finest Chinese-Indonesian novelist.

None of Chairil's early poetry have survived. According to the author, he destroyed them. Moreover, much of his work was affected by Japanese and Dutch censorship.  Among his earliest spared pieces is 'Life' from December 1942: "The bottomless ocean / is always banging, / banging, as it tests the strength of our dikes." (...) Chairil's work is marked by his emotional, and sometimes unconventional use of language. His poems convey a powerful, vitalistic individualism; they have a strong sexual tension, as in the poem 'Lagu biasa' (1949).

Chairil absorbed influences from such Western writers as T.S. Eliot, R.M. Rilke, Emily Dickinson, the Dutch expressionists H. Marsman and J.J. Slauerhoff, and modelled his Indonesian poems on them. Although he had little formal education, he translated Andre Gide, Rilke, John Steinbeck, Marsman and Slauerhoff and others. Sometimes, in need of money, signed his own name to a translated poem. His own approach to writing he once described: "In Art, vitality is the chaotic initial state; beauty the cosmic final state." A born bohemian, Chairil's personality stirred controversy. Curious about the world and full of passion for life, he socialized both with the cultural elite and people on the fringes of society. Chairil  could not endure working in an office bound to a desk. "I'm  a wild beast / Driven out of the herd," he said. Wenny Achdiat, the daughter of the writer Achdiat Karta Mihardja, recalls him as "red-eyed, wild-haired, disorganised and ill-mannered, with a loud rough voice." (Daughter of Independence by Bryce Alcock, Wenny Achdiat, 2013, p. 42) 

Among Chairil's most famous poems is "Aku" (1943), a cry for freedom and life ("Aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi"). Another poem from this period is 'Dipo Negro,' the title referring to an early nineteenth-century hero of the Indonesian national struggle: "Better destruction than slavery / Better extermination than oppression. / The hour of death can be an hour of new birth: / To be alive, you have to taste living."

During his lifetime Charil published only in periodicals, but there are several posthumous books, the first of which were Deru Tjampur Debu (1949) and, Kerikil Tadjam dan Jang Terampas dan Jang Putus (1949). Chairil wrote fewer than seventy poems, some essays and radio addresses, and some fragmentary translations.  Due to his influence, the developing Indonesian language attained equality with other languages as a literary medium. Chairil's complete poetry and prose has been published in English in The Voice of the Night (1992), translated by Burton Raffel.

For further reading: Friends and Exiles: A Memoir of  the Nutmeg Isles and the Indonesian Nationalist Movement by Des Alwi, edited by Barbara S. Harvey (2008); 'Anwar, Chairil,' in The Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol. 1, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); Modern Indonesian Literature, Vol. I, by A. Teeuw (1979); Cultural Options and the Role of Tradition by A.H. Johns (1979): 'Modern Indonesian literature in brief ' by M. Balfas, in Handbuch der Orientalistik, Abt. III: Literaturen, Abschnitt 1 (1976); A Thematic History of Indonesian Poetry: 1920-1974 by H. Aveling (1974); Chairil Anwar: the poet and his language by Boen S. Oemarjati (1972); Chairil Anwar, Pelopor Angkatan 45 by H.B. Jassin (1968); Modern Indonesian Literature by A. Teeuw (1967); The Development of Modern Indonesian Poetry by B. Raffel (1967); 'Chairil Anwar: An interpretation' by A. Johns, in Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde CXX, 4 (1964); 'My Love's on a Far-Away Island' and 'A Room', translated by Burton Raffel and Nurdin Salam, in Contemporary Asian Poetry, Winter (1962-1963); Pokok dan Tokoh by A. Teeuw (1959); Chairil Anwar by H.B. Jassin (1956)

Selected works:

  • Deru Tjampur Debu, 1949 [Melee of Noise and Dust]
  • Jang Terampas dan Jang Putus, 1949 [Plundered and Broken]
  • Kerikil Tadjam dan Jang Terampas dan Jang Putus [Sharp Gravel and PPlundered and Broken]
  • Tiga Menguak Takdir, 1950 (with Asrul Sani and Ribai Apin) [Three against Fate]
  • Chairil Anwar, Pelopor Angkatan 45, 1956 [C.A., Pioneer of the Generation of '45]
  • Sharp Gravel: Indonesian Poems, 1960
  • Selected Poems, 1964 (translated by Burton Raffel and Nurdin Salam, rev. Robert H. Glauber)
  • The Complete Poetry and Prose of Chairil Anwar, 1970 (edited and translated by Burton Raffel)
  • Aku ini Bintang Jalang, 1986
  • Voice of the Night: Complete Poetry And Prose Of Chairil Anwar, 1992 (revised translations by Burton Raffel)
  • Edisi kritis puisi Chairil Anwar, 1996 (disunting oleh Zaenal Hakim)
  • Derai-derai Cemara, 1999
  • Pulanglah dia si anak hilang: kumpulan terjemahan dan esai, 2003
  • 'Revolutionary Poetry,' 2009 (in The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo)
  • Spirit & Other Poems, 2020

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