A disturbing novella of murder and revenge, rediscovered for a first publication in book form
Set during the Indonesian decolonisation war and told from an Indonesian perspective, Basuki Gunawan’s Winarta reflects the brutality of that period, but is also tinged with post-war existentialism and the search for purpose. In the end, atrocities committed for vengeance become as hollow as the meaningless crime that demanded them.
Winarta, an Indonesian medical student with artistic ambitions, is convalescing from a bout of TB when he receives news that his mother and father have been killed by the Dutch colonial forces. Initially he assumes that his parents must have been involved in the independence struggle and had risked their lives knowingly, but when he finds out that their cruel murders were a case of mistaken identity, he swears revenge and joins an anti-colonial militia. Winarta pursues his goal single-mindedly, gaining a reputation for fearlessness and brutality, but finds no satisfaction and discovers that he is too changed to go back to a life of peace. Instead he seeks death in a reckless raid on an enemy munitions depot. This leads to arrest and imprisonment and it is from his jail cell that Winarta tells the story of his parents, his decision, his relationships with women, and his disillusionment. The tone is factual, at times almost laconic, registering horrors with fatal detachment.
The novella recalls works like An Untouched House by W.F. Hermans or Camus’s l’Étranger, but contrasts with the latter in that it is not an alienated colonist who is speaking here, but one of the colonised. While describing his lover, Nuraini, Winarta draws a link between himself and Lermontov’s Pechorin, and in a sense Winarta too is a nihilistic hero of our times, set on a path by circumstances and seeing no choice but to follow it to its destructive end.