Achdiat Mihardja – author of Atheis

Darul Aqsha

Achdiat K Mihardja

ATHEIS (The Atheist) is a masterpiece of the Indonesian literary history. The novel was published in 1949 and written by Achdiat Karta Mihardja, an Indonesian author of the 45 generation, a generation that was creative around and after the independence of the republic between 1942-1966. Achdiat was a contemporary of Indonesian poets, authors and journalists such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Chairil Anwar, Asrul Sani, Idrus, Mochtar Lubis, etc.

Despite its controversy, Atheis has been studied not only in Indonesian schools and universities but also in the other regional countries, including Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. Even in several Indonesian blogs, focusing on the Indonesian literary, many young people actively discuss the novel. In addition, it has been translated into English and is included among UNESCO’s collection of representative works.

Inner struggle

I was surprising to learn that Atheis also has been studied nationally at A-level in Brunei Darussalam’s schools for more than four decades. “I read the novel when I was a student in the 1960s,” my boss, a former teacher and former official in the sultanate said, adding that he had read the novel 10 times.

No wonder he, in his late 50s, can remember well the unique characters in Achdiat’s novels such as Hasan, Kartini, Rusli and Anwar. He even still remembers its theme which focuses on the inner struggle of its main character Hasan, a pious Muslim whose faith was wobbly in facing global ideologies: atheism and Marxism. However, in the end of the novel, the author killed almost all the main characters.

Achdiat K Mihardja was born in Garut, West Java, in March 6, 1911, from a devout Muslim family of Sundanese descent. His father, a bank clerk, had a collection of books which sparked his interest in literature. After graduating from AMS (Dutch senior secondary school) majoring in oriental literature, he studied autodidactly. Achdiat also studied Western philosophy under Prof Dr RF Beerling at the University of Indonesia (1948-1950). That’s why he fluently spoke on atheism and Marxism in his novel Atheis. He himself was a member of the Islamic mysticism order of Tareqat Naqshabandiyah when he was still a teenager.

Indonesian literary critic Boen S Oemarjati in her book Satu Pembicaraan Roman Atheis (A Discussion on Roman Atheis, 1961) commented that, in Atheis, Achdiat had amazed his contemporaries, not only because its themes were so brave and honest, but also “because of its unique writing technique and a lively language style”. Achdiat told Oemarjati that he never learned a particular writing technique, but was influenced by some of history’s most famous writers, including William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy, William Faulkner and Andre Gide. Achdiat used flashback narration in Atheis.

A masterpiece

Dr George Quinn, Head of the Southeast Asia Centre, Faculty of Asian Studies, the Australian National University, and an expert in Indonesian and Javanese languages, said that Atheis is a masterpiece. “It has a big potential in narrative originality and describes the maturity of thinking. The Roman sees a human being as a complicated creature,” Quinn said as quoted by Wienta Diarsvitri, a post-graduate student at the ANU in her obituary for Achdiat in Kompas daily.

Almost of all Achdiat’s careers had links to writing and teaching ranging from teacher, reporter, editor, writer, critic and lecturer. While working for the government’s publishing house Balai Pustaka, he wrote for a number of Indonesian magazines. He also headed the Jakarta Cultural Division of the Department of Education and attended a number of international congresses as an Indonesian representative.

During the revolutionary war, he was active as an informant in the guerilla war against the Dutch. He moved his family from one to another place in West Java during the Dutch air bombardment. This moment was recorded by his first daughter Wenny Achdiat in her coming autobiography, Daughter of Independence, written with co-writer Aussie author Bryce Alclock and to be published at the end of 2011

In 1961, Achdiat moved to Canberra to teach Indonesian language and literary as a senior lecturer at the Australian National University until his retirement. The university invited him after his political party, the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI), was banned by President Sukarno for opposing his campaign of the union of nationalism, religion and communism (Nasakom). “Sukarno became a ‘dictator’,” Achdiat told The Jakarta Post. Actually, “We were best friends but not in terms of ideology,” he said, adding “Worse, out of the blue he banned my party.”

Not an atheist

Atheist and his involvement in the formation of Lekra in 1950, the cultural wing of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), led some to believe he was an atheist himself. But, he denied the accusation, saying that things had happened “behind my back”.

In 1974, Atheis was adapted into a movie with the same title. The movie was directed by the Moscow-graduated film director Sjuman Djaya and starred Deddy Sutomo (Hasan), Farouk Afero (Anwar), Kusno Sudjarwadi (Rusli), and Christine Hakim. The making of the film also sparked a controversy because the Soeharto regime at that time was so sensitive with communism. However, Achdiat himself was disappointed with its result. “The film misinterpreted the novel’s message,” he said.


Besides Atheis, Achdiat also wrote some works, including the play Bentrokan Dalam Asrama (Conflict in the Dormitory, 1952) and Pak Dullah in Extremis (1957); short stories Keretakan dan Ketegangan (Rift and Tension, 1956), Kesan dan Kenangan (Impressions and Memories, 1961) Belitan Nasib (Entangled in Fate, 1975) and Pembunuh dan Anjing Hitam (The Murderer and Black Dog, 1977); and novels Debu Cinta Bertebaran (Scattered Dust of Love, 1973) and Manifesto Khalifatullah (2005) (Manifesto of Allah’s Representative in Earth, 2005. He also edited on the cultural polemics in 1930s, Polemik Kebudayaan (Pustaka Jaya, 1977). The Indonesian government bestowed him the Indonesia’s national literary award (1956) and Indonesia’s arts award (1971).

Written at age 94

At least, the publication of Manifesto Khalifatullah, written at age 94, had fulfilled his wish to write a work during his 90s, as did Greek playwright Sopochles and Irish author George Bernard Shaw. “Both of the excellent authors still wrote their dramas when they were in their 90s,” Achdiat said in a discussion with his fans from various generations in Canberra, November 2004.

Author Bryce Alclock found a common thread among his three novels: Atheis (1949), Debu Cinta Bertebaran (Scattered Dust of Love, 1973) and Manifesto Khalifatullah (Manifesto of Allah’s Representative in Earth, 2005). In Atheis, Achdiat explored the conflict between Islam and atheism/Marxism, while in Debu he focused on the human’s moral decadence and hedonism, and in Manifesto he portrayed the confrontation between secularism and religion. Achdiat himself admitted that Manifesto was the answer to Atheis, and said its message is that “God created humankind to be His representative on earth, not the representative of Satan”. For man who started by questioning everything, “there were no longer any doubts”, Alclock concluded.

Alclock underlined that these three works illustrate his development as a thinker. “The common thread is an inquiry into modern, Western world views – materialism, rationalism, secularism – with the critique of those ideas becoming more clearly stated over time. His dedication to the search is inspiring,” he said.

I myself read Atheis when I was a student of junior secondary school in early 1970s, and read the novel again as university student. The novel taught me that in anticipating future challenges, a Muslim should not only master religious knowledge but he/she should also master others, especially global ideologies.

More beautiful

In an interview after the Manifesto launch in Jakarta, Achdiat explained that while in the first novel the main character Hasan fervently questioned God, “in Manifesto the search was over,” he said. However, critics said that in a literary sense, Atheis is better and more beautiful than Manifesto. It could be understood because Achdiat wanted to speak on the role and core meaning of the existence of human being in the world. Renowned poet Taufiq Ismail commented, “Written in the condition of the author’s eyes were almost blind, Manifesto Khalifatullah is a kind of the closing lecture on the meaning of life from a professor emeritus of literature.”


In 2009, Achdiat expressed his interest in writing his autobiography, but as quoted by Tempo magazine, he said that he was unable to complete this work. Later next year, the grandfather of former MTV’s DJ and Indonesian artist Jamie Aditya, suffered a stroke. On July 8, 2010, Aki (Grandpa) – as his family and close friends called him – passed away of complications in Canberra at the age of 99. He was buried in the city on the same day. He is survived by his wife, Tati Suprapti Noor, and four children.

The Brunei Times
Sunday, August 7, 2011

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