Reviewed by Enrico Bruno
First published in Indonesia in 2005, The Rainbow Troops has made its way to 23 countries before finally arriving in America this month. It is not only the best-selling Indonesian novel of all time, but has been adapted into a movie, musical, and television show. The worldwide attention the book has received shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as the book tackles widespread issues like faults in the education system and class inequality in highly digestible prose that is engaging and humorous, even if it slips into the cliché at times.
The novel follows Ikal, one of ten students attending the Muhammadiyah School, a dilapidated shack on Belitong Island that serves as the elementary school for the island’s poorest families. The school is so rundown that “if bumped by a frenzied goat preparing to mate, [it] would collapse and fall to pieces.” There’s no toilet, no first-aid kit, and the holes in the roof are so large that students hold umbrellas over their heads on rainy days.
However, life is not the same for all the children of Belitong Island. Within the walls of the Estate compound is the PN School, which offers an entirely different academic experience. At PN, the classrooms are fully equipped with maps and other educational tools, the students alternate between three tailored uniforms, and each subject is taught by a different teacher. The Muhammadiyah School being “just an arm’s length outside of those fortress walls,” is like “village children sitting next to a peacock.” This opposition, rooted in the socially-constructed inferiority of the Muhammadiyah students, is the source of much of the novel’s tension.
What the PN School seems to lack is a devoted faculty like Muhammadiyah’s: Bu Mus, a fifteen-year-old teacher, and Pak Harfan, the school’s principal and sometimes teacher. Bu Mus and Pak Harfan take a vested interest in their students and help them face various hardships throughout the novel—the threat of closure by a corrupt government official, an academic competition against the rival PN School, and numerous personal tragedies.
While Bu Mus and Pak Harfan are clearly the designated heroes of The Rainbow Troops, their unwavering righteousness often reduces the impact of their heroic actions—Bu Mus will always put the needs of her students before her own, she will always teach her students to do the right thing, and she will never, even for a moment, express a little self-pity. By the time Bu Mus saves the day for the tenth time, you’ll wish she would break her composure in the process—maybe even complain about being an unpaid teacher. Instead, she and Pak Harfan never make any serious mistakes, are always perfect role models, and literally cry when their students excel; when the students perform a dance routine in a parade, Ikal looks to his teachers to see “tears of pride running down Bu Mus’s and Pak Harfan’s faces.”
The sentimental description of Bu Mus and Pak Harfan crying is only one example of the novel’s great weakness; Hirata describes the emotions of most of the characters in the book—and especially the adults—with physical descriptions of their faces that are improbable and cheap. The reader is frequently denied the opportunity to get to know characters through their actions as Hirata introduces many of them with overt, simplistic descriptions like “she looked like she had an assertive character and knew exactly what she wanted,” and “The pulsing veins on his brow gave the impression that he often forced his agenda upon others.” Later, the leader of the PN School is introduced as a man who “look[s] friendly and willing to listen to others’ opinions.” While these descriptions prove accurate, seeing the characters in action is much more fun than reading rote descriptions anchored to their faces and demeanor, a gimmick that distances the reader from the characters, who ultimately feel one-dimensional.
Similarly, empty signifiers drain key narrative moments of any real emotion. When the students are called to the Estate compound to fight for their school, they say a quick prayer before their meeting. Ikal narrates, “It was both exhilarating and heartrending.” The actions in the passage are neither exhilarating nor heartrending.
While all of the adults in the novel suffer from their inability to break out of the confines of Ikal’s first impressions, the children are much more interesting and dynamic. Lintang, the class genius, lives so far from Muhammadiyah that he leaves at 4am just to get to school on time and frequently runs into crocodiles while wading through the swamps that separate his home from the school. (PN students are, of course, bussed to and from school). Mahar begins as the classroom’s artist but soon becomes interested in the paranormal, much to the chagrin of Bu Mus. Harun is so obsessed with the number three that he insists Bu Mus give him a three instead of an eight on his report card, only because “God likes odd numbers.”
These children are likable, amusing, and much more complex than their adult counterparts. The actions of the students supply the book’s few surprises. Some promising students turn out to be lazy or uninterested in school. Devoted students decide to drop out so they can get jobs and earn money. While Hirata may have meant for these transgressions to appear tragic, they are actually rather satisfying, as a tale of wasted potential is much more realistic and engaging than watching perfect characters fight injustice and always come out on top.
The Rainbow Troops has been described by some as a fairy tale, and when Hirata embraces those qualities in the novel, the book is all the better for it. Some of the book’s most memorable passages are those in which some element of the uncanny creeps into the work; we’ve seen a kind-hearted teacher protect her vulnerable students a thousand times, but we may not have seen a shaman rise from the murky waters of a swamp to tame a wild alligator. It’s much easier to accept the emotional overkill and flat characters in the novel if we believe that Hirata is writing in the fairy tale tradition, where these archetypes are allowed.
While the novel’s darker moments are sometimes too melodramatic to take seriously, the novel succeeds by embracing the whimsical and peppering the narrative with moments of levity, such as when the students translate the lyrics to “Have I Told You Lately” and discover the song is about a young man who falls in love while buying chalk for his teacher. Hirata’s balance of gravity and humor makes the plight of poor accessible enough that The Rainbow Troops should attract American readers.
Sarah Crichton Books, January 2013