The Exposed Text

Some three years ago, German writer Martin Jankowski met with Agus R. Sarjono, one of Indonesia's most renowned poets. Now, after having traveled extensively in Indonesia, he has written a book with his lyrical observations

​​Whatever its particular character or tendency, every traveller's tale begins with an act of appropriation: it translates an experience of foreignness into the writer's own lan-guage. The traveller-as-narrator becomes a kind of scout, recording his encounter with the Other as a proxy for the sedentary reader.

In this respect, a traveller's tale is like a spy's report sent back to headquarters: by appropriating the foreign, the writer delivers it up to us – and, consequently, renders it usable.

We might call this "the economy of narrative appropriation"; and Martin Jankowski's "Indonesisches Sekundenbuch"* subverts that economy, idiosyncratically. This be-gins with the material circumstances of the book's appearance: a slim volume of barely 40 poems, it is the first travel book written by a German to appear exclusively on an Indonesian publisher's list. In this way, Jankowski's work reverses the standard orientation of travel literature.

Rather than addressing those who share his language and culture, he seeks to communicate with the very "foreignness" that provoked and inspired the book's crea-tion.

Meeting with Agus R. Sarjono

In previous years, and in a variety of contexts, Jankowski had already sought to ad-dress the linguistic and cultural cosmos of Indonesia. His meeting with the poet Agus R. Sarjono, one of the best-known writers of the South-Eastern Pacific region, devel-oped into an intensive poetic debate about how the foreign is experienced and trans-formed into literature.

That discussion has continued and developed right up to the present day (Lennart Lehmann reported for Qantara).

Martin Jankowski lives in Berlin. In 2003, Universitas Indonesia invited him to spend eight weeks in Jakarta, where he gave guest lectures on contemporary German lit-erature. He then spent several months visiting various Indonesian islands. The texts collected in Detik-detik-Indonesia are a selection from the notebooks he kept during this period – the slim logbook of a long journey.

Photographing with words

Jankowski himself compares his lyrical strategy with snapshot photography: "Instead of taking photos, I photographed with words, whenever the heat permitted."

Indeed, many of his texts are like swift sketches of a passing moment, in which the I of the narrator almost vanishes behind the sensuality of the impressions he evokes. Thus, despite the density and economy of Jankowski's language and a sometimes excessive wealth of images (sights, sounds and smells), his texts develop an almost documentary perspective.

The lurid and the unobtrusive, the banal and the sacrosanct appear side-by-side on an equal footing: "kleine opfergaben aus weihrauch und blüten / auf dem weg zum supermarkt vor dem haus..." ("before the house on the road to the supermarket, / small oblations of incense and flowers").

"If you have problem, best ask the gangsters"

Landscapes are finely, almost meditatively evoked – and these descriptions are abruptly counterposed with talk of corruption, poverty, the destruction of intact natural environments and the loss of ancient traditions.

Again and again, Jankowski conjures up colourful and exotic worlds before allowing them to collide, just a few lines later, with a reality that is far from idyllic; "...wenn du ein Problem hast, frag / lieber die Gangster, die haben manchmal / noch Ehre im Leib." ("if you have a problem, best / ask the gangsters; sometimes / they're still hon-ourable men.")

Playful mastery of dissonance and incongruity

Yet the dominant tone of these texts is neither cynical nor melancholic. Detik-detik-Indonesia is neither an act of mourning nor a work of archaeology. Jankowski has no intention of digging up a better and more natural way of life in the exotic East; in-stead, his poems demonstrate a playful mastery of dissonance and incongruity. While giving voice to his own yearnings, he also allows the Other to talk back.

In one poem, the traveller says: "Hier gibt es die Strände, von denen du träumst" ("Here are the beaches you dream of"); meanwhile, an Indonesian woman speaks for herself: "Deutschland muss schön sein / "Dort ist es kühl, gibt freie Busspuren, Fahr-radwege, Bürgersteige, / und wenn es mal Stau gibt, (...) fährt man mit der Straßen-bahn." ("Germany must be beautiful. / It's cool there. Room to move, on the street, in the bus lanes, on the cycle paths; / and if there's ever a traffic jam, […] you simply take the tram."

Paul Celan once wrote: "Poetry doesn't impose itself; it exposes." This could be the motto of Jankowski's lyrical sketches. His "Indonesisches Sekundenbuch" is as far as possible from being an exhibition of ethnological "specimens" or an entertaining guide to exotic worlds; instead, the author has the courage to submit his poems to the judgment of the Other they evoke. The hope remains that Detik-detik Indonesia is merely the prelude to a long and uninterrupted dialogue.

Jan Valk

© 2006

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

Martin Jankowski: Indonesisches Sekundenbuch - Detik-Detik Indonesia. Poems in German and Indonesian – translated by Katrin Bandel, edited by Dorothea Rosa Herliany, with a fore-word by Goenawan Mohamad. Published by Indonesiatera / Magelang (Java), approx. 120 pages, approx. 10 €.

The book was published in December 2005 and is not available in European bookshops. It can be ordered di-rectly from the author (, or via:

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