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Anwar Chairil (1922-1949)


Indonesian writer who lived wildly and died young, but who had a deep influence on Indonesian postindependence poetry and prose. Both in poetry and prose, 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"), have made him an artistic icon. 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, tr.  Burton Raffael, 1970) Chairil's formal education was short. After attending elementary school, he studied at a Dutch-language middle school in Mulo. 

Chairil began to write as an adolescent, before he moved in 1940 to Djakarta, where he lived a restless life, moving from one place to another. For a period, he 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. From a short-lived marriage he had a daughter. During the Japanese occupation he was tortured by the police. He knew some of the members of the resistance, but was not actively involved in the movement. Chairil died on April 28, 1949, in Djakarta. He had suffered from syphilis, tuberculosis, typhys, and cirrhosis of the liver.

Chairil served on the editorial board of one of the most important literary journals of the period, Siasat (Strategy), which appeared 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 among others such writers as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, often called Indonesia's greatest modern prose-writer, and Mochtar Lubis, a courageous political journalist and novelist.

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 Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Dutch writers (H. Marsman, J.J. Slauerhoff). Although he had little formal education, he translated Rilke, Marsman and Slauerhoff, and modelled his Indonesian poems on them. Sometimes, in need of money, signed his 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."

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, first of which were Deru tjampur Debu (1949), Kerikil Tadjam and Jang Terampas dan Jang Putus (1951). 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: 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); 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); The Development of Modern Indonesian Poetry by B. Raffel (1967); '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) - See also Chairil Anwar: 'Aku'

Selected works:

  • Deru tjampur debu, 1949
  • Kerikil tadjam dan Jang terampas das Jang Putus, 1949
  • Tiga menguak Takdir, 1950 (with Asrul Sani and Ribai Apin)
  • Chairil Anwar, Pelopor Angkatan 45, 1956
  • 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)
  • Derai-derai Cemara, 1999

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