In 2002, Langit Kresna Hariadi authored Gajah Mada, a historical novel portraying the saga of the legendary patih (chief minister) in the Majapahit Kingdom during the reign of King Hayam Wuruk. Unexpectedly, the book sold like hotcakes.
Gajah Mada emerged as a new magnet for ardent readers of historical fiction. Within less than two years, he churned out four sequels. The author followed with several other bestselling historical fiction novels, including the Candi Murca (Vanishing Temple) series, the two-part Perang Paregrek (The Paregrek War), the Majapahit saga and the Menak Jinggo serials.
After the heyday of the historical martial art fictions in the second half of the 20th century – written by authors such as of SH Mintardja, Kho Ping Ho, Widi Widayat and Herman Pratikno – the genre slumped, as no new writers emerged during a 10-year span. Only two historical fiction popped up following that – Arswendo Atmowiloto with Senopati Pamungkas (Heroic Commander) and Seno Gumira Adjidarma with Naga Bumi (Earth Dragon) – but the late ‘90s and early 2000s saw an influx of teenage fictions and pop novels. It was into this literary terrain that Langit reintroduced historical fiction to the country.
Born in Banyuwangi, East Java, Feb. 24, 1959, Langit said he had started his writing career only by accident. Gajah Mada was originally a radio drama titled Dhuaja Bayangkara (Security Banner), which he wrote for Sanggar Prativi studio in Jakarta in 1993.
But the manuscript was never aired due to the explosion of TV stations in the early 1990s, causing listeners to abandon radio dramas. Then, Langit changed his drama script into a novel.
“I offered the novel to several publishers, but only Tiga Serangkai in Solo was interested, though the company wasn’t sure of its market. I understood that space was very limited for historical novels, so I felt surprised when Gajah Mada sold well,” he said during an interview in his house in Perum Darmais, Jaten, Karanganyar, Central Java.
As a child, Langit was fond of reading and writing. When he was in elementary school, he had been familiar with the martial arts novels of SH Mintardja and Herman Pratikno. “After reading them, I used to retell the stories to my schoolmates,” he recalled.
In junior high school, he started trying to rewrite the martial arts tales in his own style. As a senior high school student, Langit won several writing contests for his renditions.
After high school, his parents forced him to study physics at Surabaya’s Teachers’ Training Institute (now Surabaya State University), but his passion for art and literature made him feel out of place, and he eventually quit.
“I fled to Solo, having no job for weeks until I was employed as a broadcaster for Radio PTPN,” said Langit, now a father of two. At the station he began to write radio dramas in his spare time.
After writing a number of dramas for Radio PTPN, he moved to Radio Roiska. Two years later, he joined Sanggar Prativi Jakarta to write dramatic pieces.
“I had to write 10 pages a day to be aired by deadline. Working in this way for years made me skilled in writing very quickly. I was able to type with my eyes closed, having got so used to the computer keyboard,” he said.
Langit, however, lost his income source when the radio business was overwhelmed by private TV stations. He was supported by his older brother until his novel Gajah Mada was published.
“Before Gajah Mada, my first novel was in fact Balada Kimpul [Kimpul’s Ballad], published by Balai Pustaka [in 1998]. Only 1,000 copies were printed, and it was a flop. Actually, I thought it was my best story,” he said, laughing.
Despite the novel’s success, Gajah Mada was criticized over its historical validity and the logic of its storyline. Langit took it as a wake up call and dug in to work on the second volume.
“The first Gajah Mada volume was a mishap, as I wrote it only based on my memory. Later, I completed its sequels after researching and reading academic books. I even stayed in Trowulan, Mojokerto, East Java, for two weeks to continue the volumes,” said Langit.
When he wrote Candi Murca – which depicts the 13th century rebellion by Ken Arok, the first ruler of the Singasari Kingdom – Langit set up an office, what he called his “homebase”, in Singasari, around 20 kilometers north of Malang, East Java.
As a historical fiction writer, Langit deems it necessary to make his stories conform to historical artifacts and studies. But he indicated that a novelist should never be a historian. “For me, a novelist is a fiction writer rather than a historian or researcher. I just don’t want to repeat the errors I made in the first Gajah Mada,” he said.
Now middle-aged, Langit remains a prolific writer. It takes about three months for him to finish a novel of 300 to 500 pages. He plans to go to Germany this October to offer three of his novels to publishers there.
“It’s discipline that makes writing easy. By writing 10 pages a day, 300 pages are finished in a month. A novel is ready for publication in two months,” he said.
Currently, Langit is finalizing the seven-volume Majapahit saga, which he has committed to a publisher in Yogyakarta. After Majapahit, he will carry on the Menak Jinggo serials.
“I wish to make the younger generation attracted to history. Historical novels attempt to render facts in a dynamic way, making them, I hope, more enjoyable to read,” he said.