In Other Words


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A WIDE-RANGING AND BEAUTIFUL COLLECTION OF ESSAYS FROM ONE OF WORLD LITERATURE’S MOST IMPORTANT WRITERS

Goenawan Mohamad, activist, journalist, editor, essayist, poet, commentator, theatre director and playwright, has been doing just that for 40 years in his weekly column for Tempo, the Indonesian weekly magazine that he founded in 1971. His output of essays is staggering. His vision is uniquely Indonesian, yet breathtakingly universal, setting his work apart from his contemporary South-Asian writers. As much at home in Paris as in Java, Goenawan is the leading political thinker in Indonesia. But his reach is far deeper than mere politics. His writing is stirring and original – a sledgehammer of thought. Just as Orhan Pamuk offers his cosmopolitan view from Istanbul, Goenawan offers the same from his window in Jakarta.

His writing is lucid, illuminating, urgent, timeless. Critics have called him the “Borges of Southeast Asia” and compared his best essays to Italo Calvino (whose Invisible Cities, he often cites). His writing is lucid, illuminating, urgent, timeless. Critics have called him the “Borges of Southeast Asia” and compared his best essays to Italo Calvino (whose Invisible Cities, he often cites).

Goenawan is as much at home drawing lessons from Indonesia’s complex history as he is reflecting on world cultural figures, events and places (Martin Luther King, 9/11, or the Ka’aba). He enjoys engaging with philosophers (Aristotle, Kant or Confucius), writers (Goethe, Garcia Marquez or Camus), and psychoanalysts (Jung, Freud, or Lacan). He delights in exploring the ancient myths of the Mahabharata, the Arabian Nights, Exodus, or the thoughts of Laozi, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas, or even the mystic revelations of al-Hallaj, Meister Eckhart, and Rumi.

Who else would insert in an essay on Jerusalem, a quote of the poet William Blake, and then draw parallels with Oedipus, Hamlet, and Arjuna of the Bhagavad Gita, before ending with the words of the guitarist John Lennon, ‘God is a concept by which we measure pain’? Who would begin an essay entitled Tso Wang, by comparing fundamentalism to digital technology and then suggest ‘both are virtual. They don’t touch the soil,’ before citing the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a 10th century Javanese mystical poem described as ‘sepi, sepah, samun’ (silent, vacant, secret), and ending with the 4th century Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, of the Daoist School who said ‘the highest stage of knowledge is stillness without movement within what cannot be known absolutely with reason, a state called tso wang?

Or capture this solar eclipse over Borobudur: ‘It was as though the Buddha statues in their stupas had suddenly gone mute. These stones had been standing for centuries at Borobudur without movement. But when the eclipse happened and the strange filtered light fell even to the distant hills, the sensation of silence was sudden. Astonishing.’?

Few contemporary writers possess such dexterity and immediacy. Or cut so cleanly with their samurai pen. Goenawan’s essays speak to the universal, drawing deep insights from the commonplace and far afield, always linking Indonesia to the wider world.

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“Goenawan Mohamad speaks for humanity, complexity, nuance, and ultimate justice. On the way he provides a marvellous read.”

THOMAS KENEALLY

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