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Bestselling novel suffers from lack of small details

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THIS is Indonesian author Andrea Hirata's first novel (he has now written six). Originally published in 2005, and only in Indonesia, it was a sensation.

Officially, it sold a national record-breaking five million copies. Unofficially, an estimated 15 million contraband copies have also been sold. Indonesian police reportedly confiscated truckloads of counterfeit copies.

It has also spawned three sequels and a 2008 Indonesian-made movie.

As a debut novel -- it has just been released now in Canada -- it has some merit. But its literary worth is divorced from its astonishing sales figures.

The main character and narrator is a boy named Ikal, a student at Muhammadiyah Elementary school. He and his classmates -- nicknamed the Rainbow Troops of the title because they liked to climb a filicium tree beside their school after rainstorms to better search for rainbows -- revere their two teachers, and desperately want an education.

But they face obstacles from within (grinding poverty, long daily journeys to and from school, lack of supplies and textbooks) and without (hostile government officials, greedy corporations and an indifferent educational bureaucracy).

Both teachers and most of the 11 students who make up the Rainbow Troops are slightly offbeat. They have to be to yearn for and pursue an education that the world seems to want to deny them.

Yet there's a mysterious glue that keeps them together, keeps them returning to their school year after year, and keeps them succeeding academically.

And when their little school does the unimaginable and defeats all the uniformed, bigger, and rich-kid elementary schools in a public competition to win their island's annual Academic Challenge trophy, even they are astonished.

Hirata nicely evokes the simplicity and joy of village life and the kids' dilapidated school. And their story is often heartwarming and charming.

But there are chapters that lack texture and nuance. What's sometimes missing is a good eye for the small details of place and personality.

It's billed as an autobiographical novel. And it frequently reads like a memoir, part of its problem as a work of fiction.

The young narrator seems like Hirata's alter ego. Time and again -- intentionally or not -- it lulls you into a sense this is the author's life story. It's even set in a village that invokes the place and circumstances in which Hirata was born and raised, the Indonesian island of Belitong.

Nor do you sense Hirata's rearranged some of his life events for maximum narrative effect. The ratio of fact to fiction appears unusually large for what's ostensibly a novel.

Only the novel's too contrived resolution seems altogether fictional. It's a Disneyesque, feel-good ending that strains credibility -- in which the kids' 15-year-old-girl teacher confronts the male CEO of a state-owned tin-mining corporation.

The children's story eventually plays out, only to be followed by a couple of chapters that feature the narrator as an adult. But they don't really work, and constitute an awkward postscript to the main story.

The Rainbow Troops is a sometimes engaging little tale. But its rampant success in Hirata's native Indonesia notwithstanding, it doesn't measure up as top-drawer fiction.


Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2013 J7


Updated on Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 1:58 PM CST: adds fact box

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