The ‘Malay world’ in this novel is not a closed, impenetrable world. In this novel at least, that kind of world does not become ‘local color’. Usually in literary criticism, what is called ‘local color’ is something identifiable—because it is whole, homogenous and distinctive: descriptions of landscape, customs and local dialects used in the story.
NOT many people these days will remember Sir Joon, and probably more never knew him. So let me tell you: Sir Joon is a young man of Portuguese descent. He lives in Bengkalis, as the fictional character in the novel by Suman Hs, Mencahari Pencuri Anak Perawan (Search for the Girl Kidnapper), which is often claimed to be Indonesia’s first detective story.
From the old-style spelling of the title, it is obvious that this novel comes from a time when its language was still far from that of the era of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. First published in 1932, and set in a small town in the Riau Islands, it quickly became associated with the ‘Malay world’, just as the novel Siti Nurbaya was associated with the ‘Minangkabau world’.
But the ‘Malay world’ in this novel is not a closed, impenetrable world. In this novel at least, that kind of world does not become ‘local color’. Usually in literary criticism, what is called ‘local color’ is something identifiable—because it is whole, homogenous and distinctive: descriptions of landscape, customs and local dialects used in the story. But that kind of ‘color’ is not present in this fascinating small novel. Suman, who came from the Mandailing area (his full name was Suman Hasibuan) depicts Bengkalis, almost a century ago, as a world more cosmopolitan than the big cities in Java.
We follow the story: Sir Joon, who is called ‘Sir’ because he likes to insert English into his speech, is engaged to a young woman called ‘Nona’. As far as I recall, she is of Chinese descent and adopted by Dago who is probably a Malay and has a small laundry business. But Dago changes his mind. He wants to betroth Nona to Tairoo, a Keling and rich businessman. The engagement between Nona and the man she loves is broken off. Tairoo has promised a high dowry—600 dollars.
Sir Joon is unable to match that. He is a bachelor of uncertain age and uncertain parentage, and it is not said how he earns his money. It seems that this short novel does not consider this a helpful detail. But Sir Joon is well off. He has a house with a servant. He has leisure time to play football, and becomes known as the best goalkeeper in Bengkalis. Later it is revealed that he can hire a boat and pay someone to sail to Singapore to live there.
At the beginning of the novel, Sir Joon is injured in a soccer match crowded with spectators—an incident that becomes the talk of the town. What they do not know (nor does the reader), is that this injury is faked. Sir Joon, who is lying helpless in his room, is actually perfectly well. Late at night, he cleverly escapes the house to carry Nona away from Dago’s house.
The next day, Bengkalis is in an uproar. The girl has vanished. It is unclear whether she has escaped or been kidnapped. Sir Joon, meanwhile, continues his neat subterfuge with Dago and Tairoo. They, and the reader, are still unaware of the trick. He walks painfully on crutches to express his sympathy and offer help to both Dago and Tairoo. He says he is ready to help with the search.
The two men believe him. Sir Joon’s face reveals no animosity towards them.
Eventually, through Sir Joon’s cunning, Dago comes to suspect Tairoo. Dago knows that his daughter does not love Tairoo, so it makes sense that she has been kidnapped to convince or force her. Tairoo, on the other hand, suspects Dago who is money-grabbing; it is extremely likely the laundry-owner has hidden Nona in order to get an increase in the dowry.
And so mutual suspicion is planted. The ‘kidnapper’ is chased when it is discovered—thanks to information from Sir Joon—that he intends to carry Nona away by boat.
But the search team chases the wrong boat. Sir Joon is not with them. He is ‘chasing’ a different boat, where Nona is waiting…
We cannot call this novel a detective story in the classic sense. There is no universally censured crime. There is only deception motivated by love—and the story is basically one of love daring to face danger. There are no police. There is transgression, but it ends happily.
If there is an element resembling a detective story, we find it in the ‘who-done-it’ question—a mystery. There is also suspense as the story moves step by step to express that mystery.
In the context of Indonesian literature, the similarity between Mencahari Pencuri Anak Perawan and the common detective story is in modern sensibility. Its suspense is secular. Its narrative is created out of the solution of a problem which is totally reliant on reason, without prayer or soothsayers.
Seen in this way, Mencahari is close to the Naga Mas serial that was so popular in the 1950s in the magazine Terang Bulan published in Surabaya. The detective calling himself ‘Naga Mas’, like Sir Joon, is of obscure origin. Even though he is more of a metropolitan character, like Sir Joon he is an individual who does not represent any group. He works systematically without God—and even without any help of the State.
But I must add: Bengkalis in the time of Suman’s novel still portrays something traditional: the absolute role of the parent in determining the fate of the daughter. But one also finds rebellion against this is not portrayed as an offense. If it is a detective story, it is one without criminality.
What is clear is that this story is from an exciting time—when the State was not yet manifest, when the police, population census, records of identity, immigration offices and the Majelis Ulama had not yet set up their fences.
On the one hand, it feels ‘old fashioned’. On the other, it is imagination that can now be called ‘post-modern’, or the story of ‘fluid modernity’. When it seems to be speaking outside of history, it entertains us with a lost paradise.