Several crocodiles make appearances in The Rainbow Troops. They are presented without much fanfare, as they pose just one of the everyday dangers of living poor in an Indonesian swamp. When a crocodile blocks his way, Lintang, the unlikely star of his ten-student, one-room schoolhouse, simply hacks a new route to class. He is well-trained in the art of making do—although just barely. When his bicycle chain snaps, he pawns his father's wedding ring to repair it. His classmates hope the chain will hold, since Lintang's family has nothing else to pawn, and the bike is his only means of transportation. In fact, the fates of all his classmates rely on that chain's durability: If the number of students at their school drops below ten, the government will shut it down, and the children must disperse and find work as underage cake sellers and pepper pickers.
The efforts of this gang of ten, who call themselves "the rainbow troops," to secure an education at the Muhammadiyah Elementary School are the subject of Andrea Hirata's runaway hit debut novel. In Hirata's native Indonesia, the book, released in 2005, has sold more than five million copies, not including pirated versions. In 2008, it was adapted into a movie that has become the most-viewed Indonesian film in history.
The novel is set on the remote Belitong Island off the coast of Sumatra, where the author himself grew up near a government-owned mine. In the book, the parents of the rainbow troops work as mining coolies or subsistence fishermen. Grandparents occupy themselves by picking maggots out of rotten rice to salvage their dinner. Belitong is rich in tin deposits, but the profits are sucked up by the national mining company, which also runs a posh school. None of the rainbow troops can afford that school's fees, so they assemble instead at the public school to be taught by two volunteer teachers, the heroes of the book. Readers are guided through life at school and on Belitong more generally by Ikal, a student who spends his extracurricular hours devising ways to catch a look at the elusive A Ling.
However foreign the premise or setting, readers will recognize in The Rainbow Troops the familiar outlines of the Bildungsroman—plucky young hero on a quest, neat capsule tales of challenges and their resolutions, and the pursuit of an idealized romantic interest. The novel also contains traces of the Bildungsroman's lowbrow offspring, the self-help guide, in that it advises children to how to become adults, and adults on how to become more successful versions of themselves. Hirata's recommended steps include adherence to Muslim values and pursuit of education at all costs. But all this is delivered with an appealing winking irony. The author clearly doesn't share Ikal's naivete.
Ikal's journey to adulthood begins at school but is kicked into another gear by a girl. He meets A Ling under chaste circumstances, glimpsing only her hand as she passes a box of chalk through the grate at a Chinese shop that smells of rotting shrimp paste. He is stricken lovesick by her fingernails, "cut with breathtaking precision in the shape of a crescent moon." The first time he sees her face, "a strange feeling of happiness" settles over him. "It far exceeded my happiness I'd felt when my mother gave me a two-band transistor radio for complying with my circumcision." And at what age does that normally take place in a typical Malay boy's life? Hirata doesn't tell us, but apparently at one advanced enough to allow both memory and consent.
After an exchange of messages and poetry through an intermediary, as well as one magical Ferris wheel ride with Ikal, A Ling's parents pack her off to Jakarta in pursuit of a better education, and a more suitable, Chinese boy. Here is how Ikal takes the end of the affair: "After 480 hours, 37 minutes, and 12 seconds of mourning my loss of A Ling, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. Instead of reminiscing over the stinky Sinar Harapan shop and the moment my heart was badly broken there, I was now diligent about visiting the municipal library in Tanjong Pandan. There, I loyally read books about the secret to success, how to socialize effectively, steps to becoming a magnetic individual, and a series of books about managing self-development."
All of a sudden, the book pivots from childhood romance to adult bootstrap-pulling, and takes on a more fatalistic tenor. Ikal struggles to become as magnetic an individual as possible in a world full of powerful men out to line their pockets and mining companies raring to dig under poor public schoolhouses. As he soon learns, without the qualities learned at school and from self-help books, neither he nor Lintang nor any of their classmates stand a chance. And here is where the question of why this book appealed to so many readers in the world's most populous Muslim nation becomes interesting. At its core, The Rainbow Troops is about how to wring success out of a tough existence, even when the only means to attain success are hopelessly corrupt. And the novel manages to combine the optimistic determinism of self-help with the fatalistic acceptance of religious belief. Hirata proposes that fate, effort, and destiny conspire in mysterious ways to shape our future. "What I know for sure from my experience at the poor school is that a hardworking life is like picking up fruit from a basket with a blindfold on. Whatever fruit we end up getting, at least we have fruit."
Even after strenuous effort, some of the rainbow troops manage only a bitter harvest. One ends up a shopkeeper, another a coolie, another in an insane asylum. Lintang ekes out a life as an undernourished manual laborer, rather than the respected scientist Ikal dreamed he might become. Though Hirata alludes to capitalist rapacity and ferocious income inequality, the politics of the novel are muted. Rather than critique the system or embrace the morality of by-the-bootstraps individualism, he makes a different point: that it is only through a group effort to achieve, through mutual education inspiration and work, that life might take a better turn.
Of course, the crocodiles may get you anyway. And individual success, hard-won and improbable, is incomplete without those to share it with. Ikal lands a lucrative job at a telecommunications company, and a scholarship in Europe, but he mourns the fate of his less fortunate schoolmates, and is especially sick over the failed promise of Lintang. Of the ten members of the rainbow troops who surged together, only Ikal is hit with the lightning bolt of success. Chalk it up to self-help, and to Allah.
Rachel Nolan is a former staff member of The New York Times Magazine.