(translated from the Indonesian by David T. Hill)
Matias Akankari was taken from the dense jungles of West Irian by a parachutist. In a night-time jump over the jungle, the parachutist had become entangled in a tall tree. With great difficulty he saved himself and when he had recovered, he set off on foot in search of his companions. But before he managed to find them he came across Matias - a sick and suffering Irianese man. He gave Matias what medical treatment he could and luckily Matias recuperated. Although unfortunately Matias could not speak Indonesian, he was a most trustworthy guide, and saved the parachutist from all sorts of calamities, enabling the man to return safely to Jakarta.
That briefly is the story of how he met Matias.
But it did not end there, for Matias Akankari was then taken by the parachutist to Jakarta. Unlike other people from Jakarta serving in West Irian who went home bearing TVs, refrigerators, and all kinds of luxury goods left behind by the Dutch, the parachutist took his mate Matias, a friend in time of need whom he would never forget.
But Matias was more than a luxury good. He ate about three helpings a meal so in just one day nine plates of food would disappear into his belly. Of course the parachutist, who was only a private, was taken aback. How could he feed this "luxury good" on his paltry wage?
After giving this a great deal of thought, the parachutist finally came up with an idea. He dressed Matias up in some smart, expensive clothes which he had bought in West Irian. Matias put on a wool suit, a shirt, a tie, and imported shoes. In a borrowed jeep the two of them headed for the bustling city centre. Matias had only been in the capital for three days, and was agog at all the neon glitter of the city's lights. He was bedazzled, amazed at the buildings, amazed at the human jungle. No-one looked like him. He blinked and blinked, turning his head right and left. Occasionally, when some fascinating sight was scattering from view behind the speeding car, it was as if his head was screwed on back the front.
Arriving at Senin, they went to the movies. It was the first time that Matias Akankari had seen a movie. Since all his attention was riveted on the screen, when the parachutist left him alone just for the hell of it, Matias did not sense a thing and was totally oblivious.
"I'm bored!", said the parachutist to a friend of his - another parachutist - who happened to be watching the film too. "I slipped out leaving Matias Akankari on his own when he was watching the film. I'm curious to know how someone primitive survives in a big city. Who knows, maybe one day I'll make a fortune writing a book about it!" laughed the private to his friend, before hurrying towards the jeep and bolting.
As soon as the film ended, Matias started, and looked around him. It was only now that his heart began pounding, but because he did not speak a word of Indonesian he could not say a thing. His reddish eyes sunk in his black skin scoured amongst the forest of bodies, looking for his friend. In vain. He was swept outside with the stream of humanity. Once outside his heart drummed anxiously.
The man upon whom he depended totally - the parachutist he had met in the middle of his friendly jungle - had actually vanished. Matias was in the midst of a jungle - a jungle of lights, human bodies, pedicab and car wheels, and strange sounds; in short, a jungle of commotion not nearly as peaceful nor as friendly as his jungle expanse. He drifted along, totally alone.
Suddenly he heard the sound of a loud speaker. Ah! That was something he had seen once in West Irian when some important officials came from Jakarta. The loudspeaker crackled loudly but unfortunately he could not make out anything it said. He approached the loud noise, only because he felt drawn by memories of his home village. But while last time lots of people just like him had swarmed around the device with the loud noise, hearing their own regional language, now the people around it were unlike him, and the language was different.
Slowly he broke through into the centre of the circle, to see the person speaking. "He must be a friend of the man who came to West Irian before", he said to himself in his own language. When Matias needed help, such sounds were useless. He needed someone who would take him home; to a home with a roof, a place to sleep and regular food. He needed someone to protect him.
Then, as he stood, anxiously hoping, there came a helping hand. A gentle, friendly creature, speaking to him with a distracting gaze, made his heart jump for joy. There followed a beckoning hand gesture. Then a pedicab arrived and the two of them left together for a district Matias Akankari had never visited before.
On entering the woman's bedroom, Matias was immediately sent into a spin by this small, delicate creature. And even the firm-bodied Matias submitted! He could do nothing else. He needed a friend, a home, a small island at which to harbour. He found it. Happily he spent that night sleeping beside this woman who had been so friendly to him. Waking early he was given food and drink, all of which had already been laid out on the bedside table.
After breakfast he was sent for another spin. And he submitted again. At the conclusion of all these goings on (which were very new to him) another ritual began.
Sitting facing the woman, it was as though Matias was watching a pantomime. He was bewildered. For a long time, for a very long time, he was puzzled. He only understood when the woman pointed to the pieces of paper. Her finger pointed accusingly at Matias' chest, then turned to her own breast again.
Matias shook his head and threw up his hands to tell the woman that he didn't have any paper like that. He didn't have anything except what hung on his back.
Then the woman grabbed hold of Matias' coat, and pointed accusingly at his chest. Matias understood that gesture. He took the coat off and gave it to the woman.
After this scene, the small, delicate creature turned quite rough. She dragged Matias to the door, and shoved him outside. Then slammed the door and had a rest.
Matias turned left and right. But there was no-one he knew. He felt like he had been cast back into a jungle not nearly as friendly as his in Irian.
Now he walked slowly away. In a city like Jakarta, to walk for hours just for the sake of walking was something of a record for people who usually lived on wheels, but Matias regarded it as quite normal. It was common for him to walk for days in his friendly jungle.
As evening was falling he came across a church on his journey. There was no other way for him to expiate the sins he committed unintentionally during that one night with the woman except by going into the church and asking Christ's forgiveness. And he went into the church to pray. When he came out, the day had turned to night. He sat down in front of the church reminiscing about his home village.
There, on his distant island, he went to church wearing a koteka2 and stood amidst a crowd of people in the choir in front of the pastor and sang. He had been in the choir since he was a child. Almost all the choir members were illiterate but the hymns were like songs everywhere across the face of the earth - easily memorised.
Once Matias made such a nuisance of himself that he was expelled from the koteka choir. This was the stir he caused. When all the choir members were standing in front of the congregation and the minister to sing, Matias, who was right at the very front, took off his koteka which had evidently been made into a flute. When he played the hymn on it all the congregation listened in delight, but then broke out laughing, which shattered the solemnity of the worship. Because of this Matias was berated by the pastor and the other choir members and was kicked out of the choir.... Well, that's the way it goes! Even now he took his koteka everywhere he went. He put his hand inside his shirt, and took his koteka out. Slowly he began to play.
It was getting late. A young man carrying a folder drifted shakily towards him from the distance. Matias observed him carefully. As he came closer, it was obvious that the sole of the man's shoe had come partially unstuck. He had first to lift his toe up high before putting it back down on the ground. And it was this that made him walk so unsteadily. Nevertheless he eventually arrived at the church, went inside and not long afterwards emerged once again.
"This church is always open. It's different from the other churches in the city", said the young man, sitting down close to Matias who was more smartly dressed than the young man holding the folder. Matias was still wearing the expensive imported long sleeve shirt, a tie, and woollen trousers. The young man was in second-hand clothes.
Matias did not understand what he said, but since the young man did not know that Matias could not speak Indonesian he went on talking.
"I have absolutely had it with trudging around this city! Now the sole on my shoe keeps flapping like an iguana's tongue! I am actually a university graduate but I haven't been able to get work yet", he said, toying with the iguana tongue of his shoe.
Seeing that, Matias took off his shoes and gave them to the unemployed graduate.
"Wearing shoes is torture for me! In dense forests and vast jungles full of thorns and prickles I never wore shoes and my feet never hurt. But after wearing these shoes my feet are killing me! Here, take them", said Matias in his Irianese language. The man only heard strange sounds and saw the new shoes heading towards his feet.
From the church porch the two of them headed to Banteng Square. There, without speaking, they fell asleep under the West Irian Liberation Monument. That night both slept very soundly. Waking early the graduate sneaked away, leaving Matias. He was afraid of waking him because if Matias woke, they would certainly both end up travelling on together. That would be too much of a spectacle. So he just left a letter in Matias' shirt pocket.
When Matias awoke his friend was no longer there. He saw the piece of paper in his pocket but because he could not read he turned the paper over and over then screwed it up and threw it away. He went back to sleep again on the cold, expensive tiles, blown by the wind of Banteng Square.
When he woke up it was evening. Although his stomach was empty, he was still energetic enough to walk. He wandered through a district with many homeless poor. Here he came across a woman giving birth, lying on sheets of paper. He remembered that Christ had once been born on hay and wrapped in swaddling clothes. This time he met another christ being born on sheets of paper! Then in the midst of the birth it started to rain. Fortunately the homeless woman had some sheets of plastic. But under this plastic "roof" was spread only paper. Matias took off all that clothed his body and handed it over to the woman who was giving birth to the baby.
"Thanks, thank you", said the woman.
Matias put on his own traditional garb. He fitted his koteka. By that time the rain was getting heavier and heavier, and after everything had finished - he had given the woman all the help he could - he walked off in the rain.
He arrived at Thamrin Road, a highway fenced in by multi-storey buildings. Near the Hotel Indonesia he stood agog. All the cars dashing through the rain had to stop or slow down to check him out. At one stage a car passed which contained a creature like him, a black man wearing a suit, accompanied by a graceful, beautiful, sweet girl. The car pulled over near him, with the entire contents of the car staring. Seeing someone who looked like him, Matias leapt forward eagerly and clung to the rear of the car. It accelerated immediately but Matias managed to keep a hold. Finally the car headed for the Hotel Indonesia and dropped off the black guest. He was an American Negro. Matias had guessed wrongly.
When Matias noticed a large number of uniformed people beginning to crowd around him, gesturing as if they were trying to capture an animal, he bolted back into the heavy downpour.
The people were not brave enough to follow, because they were concerned about getting wet. Only, not long afterwards, he was tailed by a person in a raincoat. The man chased him. Of course, Matias took off like an arrow. As he was passing a multi-storey building, he ducked in. He ran blindly into a narrow room, the door of which opened then shut suddenly.
It turned out the narrow room was a lift which rose upwards and suddenly opened again into a dim room in which only a stage was illuminated by spot light. On it were naked women wearing only skimpy coverings on their genitals, just like him: he wore a koteka while the women wore G-strings. And ... would you believe it? The dance the women were doing was more or less the same as dances at Matias' home village. He leapt towards the stage with his koteka on, and danced with the women. Applause arose from the audience in their dimly lit seats.
But all this brought Matias' wanderings to an end. The newspapers published his story and Matias was re-united with his parachutist 'master'. But this time Matias had become wealthy. He had been given funds so he could be returned to his beloved village and lots of people there wanted to hear his stories.
He told the tale that the 'high class' 3 in Jakarta are just the same as in West Irian: they all only cover their genitals!
1 The Indonesian-language story "Matias Akankari" was originally published in Gerson Poyk (1972) Matias Akankari: Kumpulan Cerita Pendek, Balai Pustaka, Jakarta (2nd ed., 1975). I would like to thank the author for giving me permission to translate the story, and Jan Lingard and Marian May for their valuable comments on earlier versions of this translation.
As this current edition of SPAN was going to press, it was brought to my attention that a translation of "Matia Akankari" had just appeared in John H. McGlynn (ed.) Menagerie 1, (The Lontar Foundation, Jakarta, 1992). I have not yet seen a copy of that translation.
2 The koteka is a penis gourd worn traditionally by Papuan men.
3 The English term 'high class' is used in the original.
New: 16 April, 1996 | Now: 12 April, 2015