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.