Belenggu (Shackles) by Armijn Pane

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

Published in 1940, Belenggu (or Shackles in its English reincarnation) is widely considered the first modern Indonesian novel. I agree with this assessment. Prior, Indonesian prose focused on the dramatic romances of star-crossed lovers with rotten villains twirling metaphorical moustaches. Granted, early Indonesian literature had cultural and social commentary to make up for the soapy melodrama, but for the most part, novels like Sitti Nurbaya have always elicited eye rolls from my part.

Belenggu is a love story too. A love triangle, in fact. However, the novel was written in a radically different way than its predecessors. There is no antagonist; all the conflict is strictly internal. No one is a paragon of virtue or a symbol of all evil. It is also a city novel, unlike previous prose that favored rural settings.

Despite its revolutionary status, however, I didn’t like Belenggu much.

**

Tono and Tini’s marriage is fading. They scarcely spend time with each other and when they do have to face one another, Tini is angry and bitter while Tono is nonplussed and retiring. Worse, their ideologies clash. Tono wants a traditional wife who stays at home and takes off his shoes. Tini wants independence and freedom – she explicitly states that she has the right to go out anytime, just like her husband.

When Tono meets his childhood playmate and neighbor Yah again, he finds in her the woman of his dreams. Yah is warm, polite, and completely devoted to pleasing him. It is not long until they fall into an affair.

**

Despite the summary, Belenggu couldn’t be further from torrid. This is a thinky, Freudian novel – with massive amounts of thought processes and philosophical meanderings. My biggest problem with Belenggu is that for its modern storytelling approach to work, the fictional characters had to be at least somewhat believable. The characters in Belenggu are not, sadly. After a certain point, they even stopped speaking like normal people. Going further, they became symbols. Or conduits for Pane’s philosophical reflections.

My edition of Belenggu (I read Shackles, the English version) is only 162 pages long but the story dragged so badly. There really wasn’t much of a story to begin with – which makes all the thinking and philosophizing and symbolizing feel like copious padding.

Pane tried to tackle a myriad of themes in Belenggu: equal rights, politics, ideology, gender relations, philosophy, even the meaning of life. Yet all of them fell flat and none of them stood out.

The usage of shackles as a motif is good. Everyone in Belenggu is shackled by something: shackled to a marriage, shackled to an ideology, and most of all, shackled to the past. Motifs alone don’t make a good novel, though.

**

Overall, I think Belenggu is valuable mostly for scholars studying the development of Indonesian literature. If you’re a casual reader wanting a readable novel, look for something more contemporary.

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11 thoughts on “Belenggu (Shackles) by Armijn Pane

    1. I had some trouble writing this review just because Belenggu was so meh I didn’t quite know where to start and what to elaborate. It does make my patriotic side sad to review Indonesian novels badly, but oh well.

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  1. I have never read an Indonesian novel, so thank you for the recommendation. I want my reading to be as diverse as possible, so I always look for gaps in my reading history. Currently there are so many! But I’m working on it, which is an exciting thing to look forward to. 🙂

    I do like the concept and motifs in the novel, but perhaps this shouldn’t be the first Indonesian work I read. Do you have any other recommendations?

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    1. It’s funny but when I first encountered your blog, I thought: ‘I love his mission and I love his content, but I can’t do that myself. I’d feel a bit limited.’

      I humbly admit I am wrong. Reading diversely is not limiting at all. So many possibilities! There are SO many great books by non-white authors just waiting to be discovered. You must feel like you’re on a constant treasure hunt.

      Some recommendations:
      1. I am absolutely evangelical about Ahmad Tohari’s writing. I recommended him on your blog already so I’ll spare you my preaching. Sadly, the one novel of his that has been translated into English (with the rather boring title The Dancer) is unreasonable expensive when I last checked Amazon.

      For accessibility’s sake, I would recommend Pulang (translated to Home) by Leila S. Chudori. I read it earlier this year and it was immediately given five stars on my goodreads account. It has some minor flaws (contrived romance, pretentious academics) but Pulang is the best Indonesian novel I’ve read in years. The writing is great, the storytelling is great, and Chudori was very brave to delve into the darker events in Indonesian history — even though there is a lot of hope and strength in Pulang as well. Pulang was released in English by a small Texan press and the price is much more palatable.

      Some links to my reviews on Tohari and Chudori’s Pulang:

      https://areaderofliterature.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/anak-ini-mau-mengencingi-jakarta-by-ahmad-tohari/

      https://areaderofliterature.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/pulang-home-by-leila-s-chudori/

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  2. Haha, thanks! I do love the boundless limits of my blog. But I do read white authors on the side. I read tons of Fantasy & Sci-fi, so naturally I’m drawn to the many stories written by all kinds of authors.

    You have sold me on Pulang! Thank you so much. I will try to get a hold of a translation. I’ll look for it at my local indie bookstore, but I will probably have to buy it online. That’s OK. I have sooo many books to read from different countries. It’s baffling and daunting, but it’s also very exciting.

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    1. Do you like Robin Hobb’s fiction? I bought a few of her fantasy novels some time ago rather blindly…. (I shouldn’t do that)

      I’m so glad! I hope you can easily locate Pulang and enjoy it as much as I did.

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  3. I agree with your opinion on this book. ‘Belenggu’ is one of my first experience in reading ‘Poedjangga Baroe’ literary works. Even though it’s praised as the first modern Indonesian novel, I found it really difficult to finish despite its short pages. Maybe because, just as inferred from your review, ‘Belenggu’ simply lacks of story plot while heavily features philosophical thinking and motifs, which most readers will find it difficult to enjoy.

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    1. Hey Abi, sorry for the hopelessly late reply!

      We have the same reaction and opinion then. I feel like if Armijn Pane cut down on the many themes and strengthened the plot, he would have produced a much better novel. But alas, it was not to be.

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