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Amba/The Question of Red (Indian Subcontinent)


Publication Date:

Speaking Tiger (India)


Amba/The Question of Red (Indian Subcontinent)


The Question of Red tells the story of two lovers, Amba and Bhisma, who were driven apart by one of the bloodiest communist purges in the 20thcentury—the massacre of up to one million accused Communists in Indonesia between 1965 and 1968. The novel was published in Indonesian in October 2012 under the title Amba and is a national bestseller. In the novel, the lives of the central characters reinterpret the Mahabharata—that timeless allegory of war within a family—and move from rural Java to Europe and to the prison camps of Buru Island, where approximately 12,000 alleged communists were incarcerated without trial during the Suharto administration.

Praise for

Amba/The Question of Red (Indian Subcontinent)

“In The Question of Red, Laksmi Pamuntjak takes on one of the bloodiest and most violent political massacres the world has ever seen, an event that - curiously - remains unknown in many parts of the world and barely spoken about in contemporary South East Asia: Indonesia's coup d'état of 1965, which cost a million lives and set the tone for fifty years of instability in the most populous Muslim country in the world. It is a love story, but also a bold confrontation of a country's past - its shame and its glorious potential. A huge bestseller on its publication in Indonesia, The Question of Red signalled Laksmi Pamuntjak's bravery and scope as a writer, and may yet prove to be a landmark work of South East Asian writing.  - Tash Aw, author of Harmony Silk Factory, Map of the Invisible World & Five Star Billionaire

“With this novel Laksmi Pamuntjak firmly establishes herself as one of the most eloquent writers of Indonesian history, intertwining scenes of great tension and reckless passion with sections of great historical interest…it needs a skillful pen to take on the Mahabharata and to rewrite Indonesia’s recent history.” – Saskia Wieringa, author of Lubang Buaya, writing for The Jakarta Globe

“This is a richly textured, multilayered novel; an intricate weave of erased histories, living memories and formative myths of war and peace... With passion and exemplary commitment, Pamuntjak brings to life a forgotten era of turbulence, with its casualties, its victims, and its perpetrators. I was immersed in the novel’s world for a week, and when I emerged I was spellbound for days.” Aamer Hussein, author of Cloud Messenger and Another Gulmohar Tree

“Laksmi Pamunjak's luminous imagination has brought us a seminal work of Southeast Asian literature. The Question of Red explores with urgent context and brilliant writing one of the world's least known but most brutal political mass murders of the twentieth century. This profound meditation on memory and forgetting deserves a worldwide audience.” – Margaret Scott Rauch, Indonesia Scholar, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Administration, NYU

“Many contemporary novels have explored 1965 and its psychological and social consequences, but in terms of its grasp of the material, its erudition, the depth of its humanity, and its stylistic mastery, (Amba) is simply world-class. In Indonesia itself this is undoubtedly one of the towering achievements of our country’s literature.” - Bambang Sugiharto, literary critic and Professor of Aesthetics, Parahyangan University

“What makes Amba not merely a historical epic or a common love story is the stylishness of its prose, the psychological depth of its characters, its reflexivity and erudition, and the meticulous research that lies at its heart, which breathes life to the setting and all the life situations and existential dilemmas it encompasses... What stands out first and foremost is the skill with which (its author) mines the potential of the Indonesian language. On the whole, the poetry of its prose… is one that succeeds in articulating the unutterable (in life’s conundrums), depicting scenes that are hard to render, and in so doing pulling every scene closer towards ever deeper dimensions of meaning. There is an immense skill at play in exploring diction and playing around with its semantic possibilities…” - Kompas, October 2012

“This novel will join the pantheon of the all-time greats in Indonesian literature.” -Goenawan Mohamad, essayist, poet, founding editor of Tempo magazine

Amba is the best (Indonesian) novel since the Earth of Mankind tetralogy.” - J.B. Kristanto, journalist, literary critic

“This novel… comes to us indirectly ‘at the point of forgetting’. A disappeared person; to stress his absence, the novel presents only the few letters unearthed from beneath the tree in a corner of Buru Island. We get the voice of a person, Bhisma, who ‘twinkles and fades.’ Amba is one of a few novels that stresses the sense of anxiety plaguing us in Indonesia these days: the anxiety that the terrifying ‘events of 1965’ will be lost, stripped from collective memory. We do not want to return to brutality.” Tempo, 14 October 2012

“Laksmi’s combination of poetry and prose achieves its strongest harmony in the letters…they exceed their function as the bearer of news; instead, they reinforce the subject in his absence. They arise like an echo.” – Tempo, 4 November 2012

“In Amba/The Question of Red, Laksmi Pamuntjak masterfully weaves a web of narratives dealing with a dark, bloody chapter of Indonesia’s history, the 1965-66 anti-communist purge – a topic that remains controversial to this day. It is more than a love story or a historical novel, it is also an erudite reflection of the stunning amalgam of what Indonesia is: a Muslim-majority country influenced by both the modern West and its Hindu heritage.”

- Yenni Kwok, journalist for Time and The New York Times

"The way Laksmi Pamuntjak approached the traumatic events of the 1965 coup, the massacres and persecutions in Amba/The Question of Red shows her mastery as an author. By interweaving story lines and changing environments the writer engages her readers on various levels. For an Indonesian public that has been immersed in a one-sided state-organized presentation Amba offers a new perspective involving real humans while through The Question of Red an international public is offered an insight in the effects that the events of 1965 had on lives through a novel that is literary in its construction and language but very down to earth in its protagonists." - Wim Manuhutu, historian and review editor of Moesson magazine in the Netherlands

"If I was allowed only one word to describe Laksmi Pamuntjak’ s The Question of Red, I would say: stunning! If two, my other word would be: stylish. In the Indonesian/Indian world, the "Mahabharatha" is what Homer’s Iliad is to the Occident; having influenced their lives for millenniums, still continues to do so. Pamuntjak’s clever use of characters and allusions to events described in the epic, underscores the significance and weight the events of the mid-sixties bear on all Indonesians to this day, and will continue to, way into the future. The author’s unemotional, deadpan rendering will scare the life out of you. Is this what men do to other men? - Raman TRR Krishnan, author, publisher, editor, critic, bookshop owner, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

"I am always blown away by the meticulous research that goes into Laksmi's books and the depth and breadth of her talents. Whether she is taking on the complex and varied cuisine of her native Indonesia (Jakarta Good Food Guide), breathing life into renowned works of art (The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art) or tackling the thorny history of Indonesia's darkest era, there is little she cannot master or distill for readers at home and abroad. This, like her other works, will endure as an important reference for anyone trying to better comprehend this vast archipelago." - Jason Tedjasukmana, Time magazine's Indonesia correspondent from 1999-2012

“… The enormous success of the book in Indonesia shows at what crucial time the book was published. Now an international reception of the book is crucial. The Question of Red is one of the best Indonesian books I have read. I was drawn into the story immediately and it wouldn’t let go off me for many weeks.” – Katrin Sohns, Program Director, Goethe Institut Jakarta

“Laksmi Pamuntjak’s novel is a skillful interweaving of the epic and the personal, the mythic and the recent past. In its meditation on the significance of the most humble of lives and the intimacy and immediacy of the most momentous of historical events, Amba reminds us that lodged within the breast of History is a living, beating heart.” – Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large, Asymptote

“Meticulous historical research combined with a profoundly moving love story result in a highly-nourishing, must have novel.”- Femina Magazine

"There are hidden meanings in Laksmi’s characters in her novel—be it Amba, Bhisma, Samuel, or Salwa—far more subtle and affecting than the authorial messages/commentaries present in most Indonesian novels.”Antara News

"An affecting blend of history, mythology and romance, The Question of Red will resonate with audiences well beyond Indonesia's borders. Pamuntjak's evocative prose and storytelling skills make for an engrossing read." Pallavi Aiyar, journalist for The Hindu Times

“A compelling love story, elegantly and passionately told by one of the sharpest minds of her generation, set in a history held as most taboo in [Indonesia]," Ariel Heryanto, Associate Professor of Indonesian Studies and Head of Southeast Asia Centre, Australian National University

“Laksmi Pamuntjak offers, with her stunning diction, a love story that isn’t just colossal but also profoundly moving. It serves up not just romance but also opens up many windows into history and lessons of life.” Dewi Lestari (Dee), best-selling novelist, short story writer, songstress

“This novel merges the imaginative and the real in a way that is at once beautiful and astute. Amba is an essential part of the struggle against forgetting…” Amarzan Loebis, poet, senior editor of Tempo magazine, former political prisoner in the Buru Island prison camp

“... carefully crafted and meticulously researched, this is compelling reading and an important contribution to literary imaginings of 1965.” Pamela Allen, Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Hobart, Tasmania

“In less than seven weeks, the phenomenal novel Amba is already in its second printing…” Her World, January 2013

“ … perfectly captures the dizzying unsteadiness of a traumatized world poised between normalcy and catastrophe.” – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in its Top 8 Books of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 section

“ … an absolute must-read … it holds so many important lessons about Indonesia.” – Die Zeit

“The novel combines poetic language and the conviction of literature as an instrument of enlightenment without once sacrificing its aesthetics.” – Neue Zuercher Zeitung

“The most important Indonesian novel of this winter.” – Cornelia Zetzsche, Weltempfaenger 2015 jury member

“The Mahabarata has left its marks in Pamuntjak's novel – as in the tradition of this huge epic ... there is no black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. Shades are important to Pamuntjak, the grey areas in human behaviour ... as she confirmed in the many instances of dignity and forgiveness among prisoners in the penal colony, where guards and prisoners sometimes became friends.” - Sueddeutsche Zeitung

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