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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Rainbow Troops

Andrea Hirata

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To purchase The Rainbow Troops

Title: The Rainbow Troops
Author: Andrea Hirata
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005 (Eng. 2009; rev. 2013)
Length: 291 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: The Rainbow Troops - US
The Rainbow Troops - UK
The Rainbow Troops - Canada
The Rainbow Troops - India
Die Regenbogentruppe - Deutschland
La tropa del arcoíris - España
  • Indonesian title: Laskar Pelangi
  • Translated by Angie Kilbane
  • Laskar Pelangi was made into a film in 2008

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Our Assessment:

B+ : has irrepressible appeal

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 9/2/2013 .
Toronto Star . 15/2/2013 Jason Beerman

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a charming and uplifting book, full of exotic Indonesian words, references to Islamic prayer times and ethnic groups that peacefully coexist (Malays, Chinese immigrants, native Sawangs). It makes for a refreshing break from the middle-class navel-gazing of most Western fiction." - The Economist

  • "(O)nce you give yourself over to the fact that this is an entirely earnest tale of perseverance and of chasing impossible dreams, the story skates forth effortlessly and endearingly, and the optimism that Hirata infuses into each of his characters becomes contagious. (...) Like a good fable, the book imparts a simple moral" - Jason Beerman, Toronto Star

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Rainbow Troops is narrated by Ikal, and is mainly an account of his school-years on Belitong (Billiton) Island in Indonesia. Almost all the action revolves around the tiny school he attended, Muhammadiyah Elementary School, and his classmates -- a ragtag bunch nicknamed 'Laskar Pelangi' (the "Rainbow Troops") by their teacher. From the beginning, the school's very survival -- and with it the possibility that these children can even get an education -- is in question: the story opens on their first school day, when everyone desperately waits to see whether the necessary minimum of ten children can be found to even keep the school going; later, it is imperiled by the local mining company's interest in the tin on the school grounds.
       The small island -- which, after all, gave mining giant BHP Billiton its name -- is dominated by tin mining and by PN Timah (now PT Timah), to the extent that Belitong has become more or less "a corporate village". The company staff live in a walled-off and guarded part of the island called the Estate, which is also where the PN School is -- "a place for the best", with all the amenities. Muhammadiyah Elementary School isn't so much a place for the rest as it is the last possible option, and the few children who go here come from extreme poverty -- and even then it is a great sacrifice for their families and them, with one of them bicycling huge distances daily just to get there.
       Led by an idealistic new teacher, Bu Mus -- herself just fifteen and just out of junior high school -- they are united by a commitment to the school and to learning. It turns out that one among them, Lintang, is exceptionally bright and he becomes their star student; another, Mahar, is artistically very gifted (though he and another student -- the girl Flo, a later addition who fled the PN School -- become rather obsessed with mysticism and the like, eventually losing some of their academic focus).
       Some of The Rainbow Troops is about perseverance and overcoming obstacles, and there are small triumphs on larger stages, too, in academic contests with other schools and the like -- the long empty trophy case doesn't remain entirely empty -- but it's not entirely a feel-good novel of anything being possible. It is a realistic account -- clearly also autobiographical -- and not all the triumphs are complete, and this attempt to get an education isn't enough to change some of the island fundamentals for the students.
       The account is very loosely episodic, with little sense of the years that pass. Chapters focus on different events and episodes, with some of the action stretched out over several chapters, but there is only a limited and occasional sense of continuity or personal growth. Along the way there is a variety of action -- encounters with crocodiles, first love, the challenges the school faces just to survive, and more -- even as there is little sense of gradual individual progress, as the story simply jumps from one set of circumstances to the next. The students generally aren't described in much detail, and Ikal's own family and familial circumstances remain almost entirely obscure. While the novel revolves closely around the school (even as quite a bit of the action takes place apart from it), even the teachers come across more as idealized figures rather than tangible characters.
       The last forty pages of the novel leap ahead -- to 'Twelve Years Later', as Ikal describes his second push at advancement through education, as well as some of what became of the others, a mixed bag of successes and setbacks.
       As a novel, The Rainbow Troops is a bit of a mess. Structurally it is frailer than the barely-standing structure that houses Muhammadiyah Elementary, especially by the standards of carefully blueprinted MFA-honed American-style works of fiction. Yet there's considerable charm to the irrepressible narrative, too -- winning enough that it, and the colorful exoticism presented here, prove quite captivating. Hirata's controlled tone helps: despite the occasional cliché -- in both style and substance -- there's an agreeable liveliness to the writing. It helps too that it is almost relentlessly upbeat, with little wallowing in any of the abject misery (as would be easy enough to do) or depressing turns (though arguably a bit more focus on the sadder turns might have helped, as this is a story where people who are out of sight are immediately more or less entirely out of mind, and there's practically no long- (or even medium-)term reflection on loss).
       Ikal is an avid reader, but as with everything else, Hirata does not go into much detail about that. Someone speaks of "the power of literature", but Hirata more or less leaves it at that, Ikal just briefly noting: "Literature, asked my heart, what's that ?" but not dwelling on it then. And while he dabbles in poetry (sending them to his first love) and admits to: "an affinity for writing", Ikal is not one of these characters who lose themselves in fiction (and go on and on about that):

I occupied myself by reading practical psychology books on self-development and becoming more fanatical about John Lennon's inspirational sentence.
       (The sentence is: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans !" which Ikal came across in an interview by Lennon in a newspaper clipping.)
       Ikal believes his strengths are in playing badminton (though that hardly figures in the book) and writing; an amusing aside from the last section of the book describes a last-ditch effort to tie that all up into one big project:
I studied pop culture and trends of personal development to enrich my book. Even its title was impressive: Badminton and Making Friends. Indonesia had never seen a book like that. Unfortunately, based on commercial considerations, there were no publishers willing to print the book. They were more interested in pornographic books full of words like condom, masturbation, and orgasm. Those were more profitable.
       That even the adult Ikal would not only think of writing but actually complete a book on Badminton and Making Friends gives a good sense of where this novel is coming from. Not quite so far-fetched, The Rainbow Troops is nevertheless equally sincere and idealistic, presenting a world in which everything may not quite be possible, but everyone sure is going to try their darndest. (It also remains the antithesis of those 'pornographic books' that do get published: Ikal feels youthful passion for a girl, but this is a very decorous book, and there's no adolescent lust or adult activity to be found here, as a childish innocence is maintained throughout the book (another reason why there's little sense of the characters growing or maturing in (m)any ways ...).)
       Yet for all its apparent ingenuousness (and near-relentless good cheer), the novel does not shy away from the reality of the consequences of the lack of educational opportunities in this society. These characters make the best of what is available, idealistic teachers and ambitious students making do with whatever they have -- but that isn't necessarily enough. Hirata (and Hirata-as-Ikal) offer this book as tribute and fulfilled pledge to their teachers, and if its basic message of the importance of education is a familiar one, it is nevertheless presented with more than enough heart, exotic frills, and appealing writing (rough around some of the edges, but still quite winning) to not seem simply a didactic social-moral tale.
       An interesting glimpse of a slice of (fairly) modern rural Indonesian life, The Rainbow Troops is somewhat basic but also undeniably appealing.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 February 2013

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The Rainbow Troops: Reviews: Laskar pelangi - the film: Andrea Hirata: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Andrea Hirata is a popular Indonesian author.

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© 2013 the complete review

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