I La Galigo is a sacred text of the Bugi seafaring people of South Celebes/Sulawesi. It has been compared to the Odyssey of Homer, but is much longer. In Indonesia and abroad it is being much studied and translated. In 2004 Robert Wilson, American director of theatre, staged his version of I La Galigo in Singapore. The production was later brought to Amsterdam with the help of the Prince Claus Fund. The prominent staging of a non-Javanese Indonesian cultural legacy abroad raised questions in intellectual circles in Jakarta.
In 2004 the Indonesian review of art and philosophy (Mitra Jurnal Budaya & Filsafat) dedicated its issue nr.11 to I La Galigo.
Among the intellectuals asked for contributions was Adriaan van der Staay. His “Fourteen reflections on I La Galigo” was published in Mitra and later reproduced in the newspaper Tempo. At that time he was member of the board of the Prince Claus Fund.
Immense Indonesia is immense not because its archipelago encompasses many longitudes. It is immense in its ability to keep secrets on every island, on every coast. Indonesia is not so much wide or long, as deep. In this I am not speaking about its people. Like every people in the world most Indonesian people are not much cognizant of secrets. But I am speaking of islands that keep secrets as if they were safes. Indonesia is, or was, a collection of secret treasures. Treasures the Indonesian people and other people do not know of. This is what makes Indonesia deep.
These safes are, as becomes islands, filled with flotsam and jetsam. Washed ashore like coconuts, half filled bottles, and whatever else the sea may feel fit to regurgitate. At every island there must exist some Eternal Wrecker, a beachcomber: barefoot and with a cloth over his shoulder to carry home whatever he picks up. It remains secret what uses he makes of his treasure. But little of what washes ashore will remain unused. Indonesia is an enormous memory of things from afar.
Anyone who knew Bali when it was still an island will understand what I mean. With what wrecked ship did Good Old Barong arrive? Did he dance off a Chinese junk? The Eternal Wrecker of Bali will have bumped into in him, barefoot, on a beach. At one time it seemed impossible for Bali to forget what came to it from across the sea. It did not forget Hindu Java. It did not forget European Symbolism. Bali turned the whole world into its guru. A faraway guru that launched worlds and words, mantras and mudras, Sri Lankan kosala kosali, to drift ashore on beaches of black or white sand.
The Bugi is both a dweller of islands and a seafarer. More than the other islanders he is part of the sea. As a dweller of islands he does not forget whatever washes ashore. The Bugi has created a whole caste of keepers of safes. These guardians of treasured flotsam wear white shrouds and spectacles they picked up on some beach. Their preferences are uncommon. They are the ones who stayed at home, when the sailors set out from the beach. The Bugi sailors on the other hand went after the origins of the wreckage, in search of treasure. They went to importune distant gurus. They returned with words and with stories.
The Bugi seafarers have become part of the sea, not of the land. Perhaps it was their destiny. Like the Javanese became part of the land, not of the sea. Land and sea meet at Tanjong Priok.
The lofty, indefinable masts of the Bugi ships signal the sea. The ships do not always touch land there. They remain at a distance, the Bugis plying back and forth in dugouts. If they touch a quay, it is with a long tree-trunk, over which the sailors balance. They are not beachcombers but true pirates, scavengers of wreckage at sea. They will content themselves with the endless retelling of lore and reworking of fare, which are the fare and the lore of the distant shore. What shore? The Bugis knew of many shores, but above all of the sea, where a story may serve endlessly.
Such a story, consisting of many stories and words, was the history of the first Bugi: I la Galígo. Just like every people of land or sea will have a story about its first man. Or the first Later Man, like Uilenspiegel from Flanders. Sometimes the First or Later Man will turn out to be an animal. Like in the Story of the Monkey, Sun Wu Kung, who went with a monk to look for enlightenment in the West. This Monkey Tale tells the Chinese something about themselves. About their drive and their overconfidence and self-centredness, and the quandaries they contrive to fall into. Like Tijl Uilenspiegel. Land sailors from China and Flanders they are. So I la Galígo is the first and last real Bugi. From the beginning he is a split personality, between land and sea, between home and the faraway.
I la Galígo is the son of Sawéngading, the real tragic hero of the story. I la Galígo is only the teller of the tale. Before the Middle Kingdom comes to an end, the son is given time to recount the history of his family. The child at the end tells the beginning. The origins he tells of are of the world of the ancient gods, of the underworld and the upper world, of prohibited love, of misunderstandings and chaos, in short the world of absolute and sacred tragedy. I la Galígo is the last descendant of this bygone world, before it comes to an end. He is handsome, but unworthy, a good for nothing, a gay dog without a future. The son will have no offspring except his story.
If it were told in reverse order, I la Galígo’s story would begin with a failed marriage, as he is the child of divorced parents; his father, Sawéngading, once courted and married a Chinese princess, a kind of Turandot. His destiny was not really to love this terrestrial princess, but a supernatural creature, a twin sister. The father is unhappy. Moreover I la Galígo is conceived in the womb of a woman that despises the father. And his mother will reject her child. Only when it is too late will the mother discover that she never knew or understood her husband or her son: they are both handsome. Her life has been wasted, as has that of her husband, and that of her son.
The reason for this failed marriage was the taboo on the marriage of the two people that most loved each other. Every precaution was taken to ensure the lovers did not meet. Like in Oedipus, for other reasons, the male half of the predestined couple will have to leave his country, in this case because of the danger of incest. They are twins. To send him, Sawéngading, far away and for him to reach distant China, he will have to cut down the most sacred of trees, which will be turned in to a fleet of ships. The female part of the twins will be sent away too. She will be saved from seduction by sanctity. As a priestess she is sent to inhabit the upper world. The underworld will finally prove to be the destiny of the male half of the twins. Incest between the twins would destroy the existence of the human world itself. And they themselves were already children of different worlds. Not of this human world, but of the underworld and the upper world, of the loins of a supernatural father and an infra-natural mother.
Yet meet they will and everything will come to an end, because of this unnatural beginning. The world of the nether gods will split from the human world. And in some kind of happy ending an unexplained daughter of the tragic hero will marry an even more mysteriously begotten human child, a boy, of the priestess. Through this double deus ex machina everything will turn out well. A new world is about to begin in which love is requited and the gods make no tragic demands. The sacred world from which I la Galígo emerged is past.
And what about the storyteller, I la Galígo himself? Of him the libretto tells little. He has no future and no offspring. He is in short a Buginese sailor, who has no home and will never stay for long. In this story of a Bugi prince one senses a note of male sorrow. In every way it is more a male story than a female story. It is the story of men who will never shun a fight, but will always remain unfulfilled. Mothers, sisters, foreign princesses remain unattainable. There runs a tear of masculine sorrow through this tale, if not one of open self-commiseration. The Bugi male will rove, gamble, fight and even win, but his final harbour will be in the underworld, or a world in decay. He will never feel accepted, however handsome he may look. The only solace he will obtain, is that a woman will cry over him.
This is a romance of two worlds. One world of masterly, unearthly unhappiness, another one of common terrestrial happiness. Both will prove forever unattainable. In Robert Wilson they have found a lucid interpreter. Especially the images he creates remain in our memory, with their static backdrop of immovable sacred realities, and the continuous progression of small things and people that pass by, from right to left, and from above downwards, as the action goes on.
This story is also about one world. The world of the sacred that is already doomed to disappear before the story starts. It is narrated by Indonesian artists from many islands. It is the music, the dancing, the chanting, and the material culture of these many islands that fills the theatre with light and sound and with the evocation of the beginning of time and space. One may be less satisfied with certain minor aspects, but as a whole I la Galígo creates a truly Indonesian opera, with true Indonesian beachcombers and true Indonesian flotsam.
Looking at the opera from a higher level of abstraction, it no longer seems to matter these days whether one stages Oedipus Rex, the Mahabharáta, or I la Galígo. One will always have to recreate a world that has disappeared and on which we look back like a country of origin that we have lost forever. As did I la Galígo. So as to ask ourselves (like Robert Wilson did, or Peter Brooks, or Sardono Kusuma) who we are today, having become beachcombing wreckers all of us.