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The Javanese in transition: a postcolonial study of the priyayi class in the works of an Indonesian author, Umar Kayam
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posted on 14.02.2017by Sarwoto, Paulus
The postcolonial study of Indonesian literature is still very limited. Indonesia’s distinctive history has contributed to the scarcity of writers examining the colonial legacy through literary representation. In fact critical reflection on the colonial legacy has never been a major theme in Indonesian literature, theory and criticism. Among the few vernacular writers whose stories deal with the legacy of colonialism is Umar Kayam, yet he is almost never discussed in a postcolonial perspective. Kayam’s fictions, his Manhattan stories and priyayi novels and stories, are the primary texts of this research.
The thesis centres on the postcolonial reading of the constellation of priyayi figurations in the four major phases of Indonesian history: the early twentieth century; 1942 – 1949 (independence and revolution); 1965 (Gestapu); and 1966-1998 (the New Order). Kayam portrays the priyayi’s strategy in negotiating social change in each historical moment. The figuration of priyayi characters in facing social change reflects the variation between those who adhere to the concept of the compassionate priyayi and those who manipulate values for personal glory. Throughout the colonial and post-independence periods, the compassionate priyayi find themselves at the dead end of their struggle and hence become marginalized, whereas the latter gain material prosperity and a strong political position.
My analysis of the failure of the priyayi class as a postcolonial transformative agent in Kayam’s stories allows the idea of the third space in postcolonial community to be re-imagined; instead of being, as commonly viewed, as a positive transformation, it becomes an instance of a postcolonial failure to establish a just state. Kayam’s solution for the failure of the priyayi class is to give primacy to individuality, supplanting class identity. To this end the stories offer a typically universal humanist thesis, i.e. that priyayi-hood is a universal trait beyond the limitations of race and nationality and that a chauvinist view of traditional and tribal identity is prone to manipulation by other hegemonic forces in postcolonial Indonesia.