Jennifer Mackenzie reviews “The Question of Red” by Laksmi Pamuntjak

The-question-of-redThe Question of Red

by Laksmi Pamuntjak

Gramedia Pustaka, 2013



From where she was standing, on the backyard of the hospital, the only objects she could make out were the parts chosen by the dying light. Idlehorse carts, bamboo bushes deep in sleep, an abandoned pile of buckets. She walked on, into a garden that suddenly opened up, ending in a tight barricade of trees. She heard the slapping of wings as birds tried to sneak into pockets of warmth amid the leaves. She could hear the gentle snap of twigs and their descent to the ground. There was nobody around. Then she saw a flash of light, a strange sheen from the direction of the thicket of the trees. It refracted through the landscape infusing it with sadness. Strangely it was the colour blue.

Later, Amba would learn that Bhisma had never taken colours for granted. He would ask her endlessly about how she perceived different hues, listening intently to her descriptions, whether a poetic burst about a sunset or a reflection on a fruit as banal as the aubergine. When she finally understood the reason for this rich strangeness it would be too late: he would be long gone. For now, she walked toward that light. (181)


Colour is central, as we may ascertain from the English title of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red (Amber in the Indonesian edition). The novel was launched at the Ubud Festival in October last year and colour glows with symbolic resonance over the surface of the narrative. In the passage quoted above, Amba is walking towards a light, which in its portentousness, will be the occasion of irrevocable change. But if it is the colour blue which appears to signify the embodiment of love, it is the colour red which appropriates and dominates, a volatile red broadcasting the dangerous, unpredictable and bloody world of revolutionary Indonesia in the 1960’s. And it is red, with all these connotations as we will come to understand, which the colour-blind Bhisma is unable to perceive, which will separate the doomed lovers, Amba and Bhisma.

The Question of Red is in part a bildungsroman set in an era of political turbulence. A young girl, Amba, fulfils her dream to study at university, rejects her devoted suitor Salwa, and has a brief passionate love affair with Bhisma, a worldly doctor educated in Europe. Parallels are drawn, a little heavy handedly, with characters of similar names and destinies as in the classic tale of the Mahabharata. There appears to be no irony in the depiction of Amba’s father, Sudarminto, bestowing the fate of the name upon his daughter. The Question of Red tells the multi-vocal story of Amba and Bhisma’s love affair, which begins in a hospital in Kediri in East Java, and is played out in two short weeks, amidst the violent days surrounding the attempted coup and Suharto’s coming to power in 1966. Leaving the hospital Bhisma, who has left-wing sympathies, travels to Jogjakarta to treat a dangerously wounded revolutionary, accompanied by the apolitical Amba, a naïve student of literature at Universitas Gajah Mada. Significantly out of her depth and struggling to maintain the emotional thread to her lover, she is separated from him by the bombing of a protest rally they are attending, and never sees him again. Some years later, Bhisma is transported to the island of Buru, the notorious camp set up for political prisoners by the Suharto regime. When the novel begins Amba, now in her early sixties and having received a mysterious e-mail, travels there to discover his fate. The strength of The Question of Red lies very much in its evocation of place and mood. Changes in village life show traditional social structures being overtaken by new political agendas and a hardening of attitudes by an increasingly divided populace employing intense and heated rhetoric no matter what their political persuasion. Engaged to Salwa, but troubled by his undemonstrative devotion, Amba moves to Jogjakarta and at first her studies go well. Campus life is fondly described.

However, political strife both distracts and impedes her studies. To break the impasse, she takes the rash step of journeying to strife-torn Kediri to help out in the hospital office where she meets Bhisma. Bhisma has been working in the hospital where victims of communal conflict are brought in daily, and he has been treating patients of every political colour. But the properties of colour, the question of colour for him “can be a problem …I have to guess the colour by its light. I can’t tell if the berets worn by the soldiers who come to the hospital are red or green!” (227) Fundamentally, colour-blindness leaves Bhisma exposed, both politically and personally, as it compromises his capacity to clearly read signs of danger. It was on the third day of October when news came through that PKI (Communist Party of Indonesia) leader Aidit had fled to Jogjakarta. At this point, Bhisma and Amba are drawn into the conflict.

The scenes in Jogjakarta are particularly well-drawn by Pamuntjak, as she conveys the volatility and crisis-charged behaviour of the revolutionaries. She also convincingly portrays the action of people attempting to retain some kind of normalcy through this situation. Bhisma takes Amba to an artist colony which he considers ‘safe’, a place raided by soldiers a few days later. Amba, desperately clinging to her love for Bhisma, Is shown choosing clothes as if she is going to a party, deciding on a red blouse as a suitable item to wear to the ill-fated rally, a choice which has tragic consequences for both of them.

The novel portrays locations vividly and incorporates key historical events without weighing down the narrative. With much sensitivity, Pamuntjak describes the response of a local man, Samuel, to Buru post-prison:

It is the afternoon. Amba and Samuel are sitting on the stone seats beneath an assembly of trees in a schoolyard in the village of Walgan … He [Samuel] sees anew how pretty the school is. Banana trees line the outer walls, while inside the courtyard is hedged by a row of duku and turi, and a durian tree. The sense of prison has gone, now its fences and borders resemble nothing of the Buru that raised Samuel. But at the back, where pinang, aren and tall grass spill out uncontrollably far into idle land, the school suddenly looks endangered and vulnerable, for there it is no longer sheltered under a signage, no longer fenced in. (64)

The scene suggests the absence of Bhisma, the silence emanating from many untold stories and the crisis to which Samuel is a witness. Pamuntjak is at her best conveying place, from village life to Jogjakarta, from Buru to the Jakarta art world.

Being a large rather unwieldy novel encompassing many time-frames and a large number of characters and settings, the book’s main difficulty lies with characterisation, a difficulty which could have been effectively addressed with astute editing. The narrative would have sparkled with the elimination of certain sub-plots; for example, the story of Samuel merely diffuses rather than encapsulates the intensity of Amba’s search for Bhisma. In the English version reviewed here there is also a problem with register, with the occasional colloquialism and anachronism having a jarring effect. In regard to characterisation, it is difficult to reconcile the early portrait of Amba with the woman viewed by Samuel, and pointedly, by Amba and Bhisma’s daughter, Srikandi, with the shift from interiority to appraisal being quite unsuccessful. The depiction of Amba growing up as a mild rebel in a fairly conventional family of wise father, thwarted mother and empty-headed sisters is followed by an extended piece delineating her insecurities in relationship to Bhisma, and this lengthy piece works against the image of her as a strong and independent woman, the version which the reader is supposed to accept. The reduction of this depiction of insecurity would have strengthened the novel considerably. The idealisation of male figures in Amba’s life is also something of a weakness, a problem that is somewhat addressed through the forthright character of Srikandi. There are also unexplained absences in the plot. It is not clear why Bhisma did not attempt to find Amba in the years following the coup, and for Amba to excuse her lack of action as due to a sense of unworthiness, is rather exasperating as issome of the second-guessing going on with various plot tie-ups. These deficiencies significantly reduce the impact of Bhisma’s Buru letters to Amba.

Despite these problems with plot and characterisation, The Question of Red is at its best in presenting the days prior to the Indonesian holocaust of 1966, and in its sense of the personal tragedies it brought to so many, when the country’s dream of freedom and independence lost all colour and was reduced to ashes. It is from this perspective that we can view a scene late in the book when Srikandi, daughter of colour-blind Bhisma, at her exhibition opening, is asked why there is so much red in her work:

I grew up with red you see, it has been the colour of my life. I learned at school, of course, that red meant one thing: Communism, and I understood how that made us all fear it… At home as a child I grew up with the most glorious shades of red – ruby, scarlet, vermillion, puce, carmine, claret, burgundy, crimson, magenta, damask, garnet, maroon, and I knew the power of each of those names. And for that I have my mother to thank. She was a warrior, someone who was not afraid of anything.” (332/3)


JENNIFER MACKENZIE is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge 2009) reprinted in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, Jakarta 2012)