In the opening pages of Forgotten Wars, historians Christopher Bayley and Tim Harper make a claim about World War Two that could unsettle Western readers. “This was the Great Asian War,” they write, “a connected arc of conflict that claimed around 24 million lives in lands occupied by Japan, the lives of 3 million Japanese, and 3.5 million more in India through war-related famine. The Great Asian War was longer and ultimately bloodier than Europe's civil war.”
Knowing that this “civil war” must compete for horror with the wars of Asia is curiously jarring: World War Two and its totemic signifiers — Hitler, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor and the Blitz — are an increasingly vital part of the nationalist myths of the West. Attendance at ANZAC ceremonies in Australia and New Zealand, to give but one example, has increased dramatically in the last decade; hundreds of young New Zealanders are traveling to Gallipoli, in Turkey, to revisit the site of that country's most famous defeat. The solemn jingoism of such rituals — which hardly ever questions what antipodean soldiers were doing in Europe, let alone what such soldiers are doing overseas today — is not a likely ally of historical complexity.
Nationalism, it seems, is no friend to nuance; but in the face of myth, fiction is perhaps a better corrective than scholarship. So it is that with some pleasure that we revisit Ismail Marahimin's 1977 classic And the War Is Over. Set in the Sumatran village of Teratakbuluh, the novel tells the story of a Japanese internment camp at the end of the World War Two. Cutting between the Japanese commander Osé, his Dutch prisoners of war, and the local villagers, And the War Is Over is a restrained portrait of the end of the Japanese empire.
The novel is organised around a prison break, that classic motif of war fiction. Over the course of the novel, a dozen Dutch internees plan their dash into the jungle, where they hope to find (and conquer) a communal paradise. Curling around this plot like strands of vine are the stories of the villagers. Marahimin focuses mostly on the various suitors for Lena Zen, daughter of a local merchant, specifically Krikor, who works in the camp and is compelled to help with the Dutch escape.
Krikor's flowering love for Lena is a major presence in the novel, and its tough to know exactly how to read it. An ungenerous critic might dismiss the entire subplot as melodrama—which it can be, as when the couple meet on the river towards the novel's close: “'If your mother and father have no objections, I will stay here forever,' he told her. 'I love you, Lena,' he added, almost inaudibly.” It goes on: “Oh Kliwon,' Lena sighed, while pressing her body against his. Kliwon embraced her tightly and kissed her face, then her lips...'”
This is not quite what one expects in a novel about a Japanese internment camp. As the characters begin to learn that the war is ending, the villagers shift their focus to matters of peace: marriage; inheritance; and the political economy of village life. Despite the setting, this is the kind of novel Marahimin appears to want to write.
This hint of melodrama is a surely a sign of the Marahimin's limits; but it is, more importantly, a sign of just how generous and humane a writer he is. This is a generosity he extends to all his characters, most of whom are imperialists, sadists or misogynists of one kind or another; and it is the novel's great asset. Even in moments of torture or suicide, Marahimin keeps a respectful distance. As a result, his writing sometimes lapses into an analytical, almost anthropological, diction: “It is not usually members of the lower social strata of a culture who maintain the traditions that outsiders view as characteristics specific to that culture.”
That is indeed a mouthful, but it reveals, as digressions sometimes do, the novel's intellectual core: And the War Is Over is a fundamentally a meditation on power, culture and free will. More specifically, it's about the utter failure of free will in the face of guns, jackboots and social expectations. At one point, Pastor Van Roscott, one the Dutch internees, in a fit of heroism, decides to take a stand against Japanese brutality. He is, of course, beaten. He rebels several more times, and is beaten several times more. In Marahimin's cool hands, such defiance—which would be given with strings in any number of Hollywood films—appears as a hopeless, even meaningless gesture.
There is nothing heroic about the Pastor, nor anyone else in And the War Is Over. At one point, Lieutenant Osé is summoned to the city of Parakanbaru, where he is told by his commander that the war is, indeed, over. After the news is made official, several officers withdraw their swords and commit suicide, each of their bodies convulsing, “like a chicken with its head cut off.” As Marahimin puts it, “Very few paid attention.” Even the noble act of seppuku is unheroic. While the bodies of the suicides are taken away, the men get drunk on beer and sake and sing old military songs. In the morning, they return to their districts, and wait for the Allies.
And the War Is Over — as the matter-of-fact title suggests — is short and simply told. At times, Marahimin, in his search for a plain and unimposing style, indulges in clichés and platitudes (“It is difficult if not impossible to fathom the ins and outs of human life”), which is unfortunate. But the pleasure of the novel is not its sentences, but its structure, which is remarkable. The novel's apparently naïve and comforting rhythms, which slowly plait together its various narrative threads, lead you to an ending that is as astonishing as any you will ever read.
Matt McGregor lives in Wellington, where he works for Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand. He has written reviews for The Monthly Review, The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Millions and The Literary Review.