From Jail to Jail, Volume II & III: The Political Autobiography of Tan Malaka is translated and introduced by Helen Jarvis, from the original text entitled Dari Penjara ke Penjara in the Indonesian language. Tan Malaka is a name tied to the Indonesian revolution; though recognized as a “hero of national independence,” he is officially acknowledged only with embarrassment. His story spans two generations of Indonesian nationalists, from the formative pre-1926 era to the military struggle for independence that followed World War II. It also spans two continents, from Western Europe, through the Soviet Union and China, to almost every country in Southeast Asia.
His countless escapes and his ability to survive while being pursued by all the imperialist powers in Southeast Asia have fired the imagination of many who have written about him. The very title of his autobiography, From Jail to Jail, conveys the spirit of adventure that surrounds him.
The text of From Jail to Jail is on the whole an honest account. Tan Malaka indicates where he is holding back (for instance Volume I, pp. 88 and 99, and Volume II, pp. 77 and 108) and cannot fairly be accused of deceiving or misleading the reader. The translator investigations in archives, newspapers, and other contemporary accounts, and the interviews with Tan Malaka’s family, friends, comrades, and political opponents, have thrown up few factual inaccuracies in the manuscript. This reliability is remarkable considering the circumstances under which it was written, when Tan Malaka was in jail, without access to books or files.
From Jail to Jail is itself a product of jails. The text was written entirely in various jails of the republic (with the exception of the introduction to Volume III, written in Yogyakarta, October 1948). Tan Malaka commenced the work in Magelang jail, where he was detained from March to July 1947, and continued working on it after his moves to Ponorogo and Madiun.
From what the translator has been able to ascertain, the text was written by hand: Tan Malaka himself refers to obtaining a pencil and paper for the work. Section by section, it was collected by visitors and taken to Yogyakarta for safekeeping and transcription. The irregularity in the flow of the narrative, omissions, and overlapping of sequences can be explained principally by this fragmented approach, which was occasioned by changing political and physical conditions. Moved to different jails, sometimes held alone, sometimes with his comrades, sometimes under threat of physical attack, sometimes suffering extreme cold and recurring bouts of illness, Tan Malaka produced a text that retains a surprising coherence. The less coherent nature of Volume III may well stem from the fact that he had no chance to develop the manuscript after the initial theoretical chapters beyond merely assembling existing articles intended for further elaboration.
Writing a book of this magnitude in jail without access to a library or to personal tiles created its own problems. Although the text is scattered with references to a wealth of sources, particularly in the fields of history and Marxism, few are in the form of exact quotations. Visitors were able to bring him some books and maps, and the quotations reveal the nature of these publications: the Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indië, John Gunther’s Inside Asia, Hallet Abend’s The Pacific Charter, and Stalin’s History of the CPSU. Other references such as those to Hegel, Marx, Engels, and Lenin are quoted from memory, an ability for which Tan Malaka was well known during his days in Holland.