Cross-Cultural Synergies

The poets Martin Jankowski und Agus R. Sarjono come from two utterly different worlds. By giving public readings together in Germany and Indonesia, they hope to provide each other the opportunity to reach new audiences. Lennart Lehmann reports

Indonesia is made up of nearly 18,000 islands – home to around 200 million people and 200 different languages. Around 91% of the Indonesian population is Muslim, and one of them is the poet Agus R. Sarjono. In the South East Pacific region, he is one of the most significant writers alive today; in Germany, people are only now beginning to take notice of him.

Indonesia – "a land of illusions"

Cover of "Frische Knochen aus Banyuwangi" - "Fresh Bones from Banyuwangi"

​​In his poems, which have now been published in German translation, Sarjono describes the South Sea idyll of Indonesia as “a land of illusions“, where a brutal minority holds sway behind a façade of democracy, dividing the country’s riches among themselves at the expense of the people. This dictatorship, “the huge Authority”, built “a dam of indoctrination, ceremonies and bayonets. The dam broke and the flood came and made a lake of tears and blood where the people washed their memories; and terror made them swap their heads for coconuts”.

Nothing remained but human bones whitening in the sun, a spectacle for the tourists, “the fruit of fantastic politics, madness and swarms of lies, muddled up with vengeance and the people’s despair”. Hence the title of the collection: “Frische Knochen aus Banyuwangi” (Fresh Bones from Banyuwangi).

Sarjono’s literary success in Germany is largely due to the Berlin poet Martin Jankowski. The two writers met at a literary festival in the German capital, and Jankowski became a “literary godfather” to the 41-year-old journalist and theatre scholar from Jakarta.

The friendship that developed between the two writers also enabled each of them to reach an audience in the other’s native country. Jankowski supported the publication of Sarjono’s poems in Germany, and joined him on a reading tour of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. In return, Sarjono will now help to make Jankowski’s name known in Indonesia.

Indonesians – Experts in cross-cultural communication

Though Sarjono’s poems originated in such a distant and unfamiliar cultural environment, they can still be read with pleasure by Europeans. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Indonesia is a multi-ethnic state, in which more than 200 languages are spoken – and where every inhabitant is thus obliged to be an expert in cross-cultural communication. As Sarjono says, “In Indonesia, nothing happens in isolation; everything is connected with some other culture.”

Sarjono knows how to address all the senses by using powerful images and a language full of contrasts. His poems thrillingly evoke the dreams and traumas of the tristes tropiques; and he reveals people as human beings, not merely as products of their culture. In Europe, he sees “essentially the same human culture” (though the “technical details” undoubtedly differ); so why, indeed, should any European fail to understand him?

Sarjono is an artist with a strong interest in politics. For years, he has fought against the dictatorship in his tropical homeland. “If anything went wrong, Suharto usually blamed it on the communists – although he had in fact already had most of Indonesia’s communists wiped out. And when all the actual or alleged communists had been exterminated, then suddenly Islam was the root of all evil… For me, literature is an attempt to oppose all-too-simple thinking. All this talk of the Americans, the Moslems, the Islamists, etc. – that’s what I’m writing against: this always-mistaken attempt to turn human beings into abstractions, to define them in one way or another.”

Islam as deliverance

Sarjono’s religion is important to him, but only an attentive reader will notice this in his texts. Islam was brought to Indonesia in the 13th century by Persian and Arabian merchants, and it soon established a firm footing there. “In the past, religion played a substantial role in our literature; not only Islam, but also Hinduism, Buddhism, Javanese nature-religions, and so on. Nowadays, religious thinking has only a minor influence on contemporary literature.”

As Sarjono sees it, the problems facing the former Dutch colony have nothing to do with Islam; and he says that “in Indonesia, Western and Islamic ways of thinking and writing are mixed in with our own ways”. Recently, however, some Indonesian intellectuals have in fact shown a stronger tendency to turn to religion. Sarjono sees this as a result of the “impossibility of fighting an entire State apparatus”, and of a growing “scepticism regarding the modernisation of [Indonesian] society… In isolation, a poet may seek salvation in a divine authority.”

Lennart Lehmann

© 2003

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

On August 20th, Jankowski and Sarjono appeared on stage together at the Goethe Institute in Jakarta. Sarjono will present poems that reflect the impressions he gathered in Europe, while Jankowski read from his cycle of poems, “Indonesisches Sekundenbuch”.

To check out some of Martin Jankowski’s poems in English and some Articles about the poet in Indonesian, visit his website at For a short biography of Agus R. Sarjon, click here.