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Back to (Bookish) Life

Time flies, as always. It’s been more than a year since the pandemic started and while people think that being on lockdown means that they can finally read more books, I find myself becoming less and less productive instead―very particularly this year. 2021 has seen me spend half of it working (and reworking, for several times) my translation in a desperate attempt to get some money―because, like everybody else, I lost my “steady” job―and the rest of it fangirling non-stop.

It’s already the end of September and I’ve only managed to finish ten books, including manhuas. I’ve always tried to open and read one book, but could never finish it and eventually jumped to another one. That’s what I’ve been doing these past few months, and it’s horrible. I even lowered my Reading Challenge goal on Goodreads from 20 to 12 books this year. I did still write some reviews here, but not that many, and not that good, either. I tried to send my reviews to competitions and online media but to no avail. Well, you know it when your writing was so bad that any judges or editors didn’t even have to tell you.

This reading slump is killing me, and the toxic book community on Twitter doesn’t help, either. What’s worse, I’ve been losing my interest in reading just exactly when I could fulfill my book wish list at lower prices and even for free. This is so embarrassing and disheartening. And now, when I finally get a little bit enthusiastic again about reading, I find myself having to do another translation to offer to publishers. Really no time to read now.

I don’t know if or when I can get back to my bookish life. I want to read as many books as I used to, I want write as many book reviews/articles as I used to, I want to focus my eyes and my mind on pages in front of me and not on Twitter or Weibo timeline. I really don’t know if I can go back to that phase again. But I wish to, I really do.

fiction, review

Bagaimana Kita (Seharusnya) Memandang Olenka

Dalam sebuah cerita, sudut pandang adalah yang mendorong jalannya narasi dari awal hingga akhir. Sudut pandang ini bukan semata-mata perkara dari “kacamata” siapa cerita tersebut dilihat dan dikisahkan, tetapi juga memengaruhi bagaimana kemudian pembaca menerima dan memahami cerita tersebut. Bukan hanya itu, sudut pandang jugalah yang “membentuk” karakter setiap tokoh yang kemudian tertanam di benak pembaca.

Novel Olenka diceritakan dari sudut pandang pertama, dari “kacamata” Fanton Drummond, sang tokoh utama. Namun ada yang terasa sedikit mengganggu pada sudut pandang bercerita ini. Gangguan ini datang dari bagaimana tokoh Olenka digambarkan sebagai seorang wanita, diperlakukan sebagai seorang wanita. Gambaran yang menggelisahkan akan tokoh Olenka ini juga datang dari Wayne Danton, suami sang tokoh dalam judul. Jadi bisa dibilang, bagaimana karakter Olenka “dibentuk”―dan bisa jadi “diterima mentah-mentah” oleh pembaca―adalah bagaimana kedua tokoh pria ini (secara dominan) memandang tokoh tersebut.

Pertama-tama mungkin kita mesti melihat bagaimanakah karakter Wayne Danton, seorang penulis menyedihkan yang tidak memandang Olenka sebagai istri melainkan sebagai wanita jalang dan budak belaka, dalam urusan seks pun dalam urusan rumah tangga. Wayne seorang pria yang egois, yang ia pikirkan hanyalah karier dan dirinya sendiri. Ia tidak mau bekerja karena baginya itu akan mengganggu pikirannya dan memakan waktunya sehingga ia tidak akan sempat menulis. Demi menopang keluarga, Olenka-lah yang harus bekerja. Wayne juga menganggap Olenka sebagai alat pemuas nafsu dan memaksa Olenka memiliki anak―dan melahirkan anak yang tidak diinginkannya membuat Olenka tak pernah menyayangi Steven, anak mereka, begitu pula sebaliknya. Masih ditambah lagi, Wayne terus-menerus berusaha (dan berhasil) membuktikan bahwa Olenka bukanlah seorang ibu yang pantas dicintai.

Sementara itu, Fanton Drummond, sang narator dan tokoh utama, bisa dikatakan terobsesi terhadap Olenka. Pemuda gelisah ini mungkin terlihat sebagai “pria yang lebih baik” daripada Wayne. Fanton mencintai Olenka dengan tulus dan tanpa usaha. Ia merasa memiliki ikatan batin dengan Olenka dan merasa terus dibayang-bayangi Olenka. Ia mengikuti semua keinginan Olenka dan ketika Olenka menghilang dari hidupnya, ia menelusuri jejak-jejak Olenka. Bahkan saat mengejar Mary Carson, Fanton tetap tidak bisa melupakan Olenka. Ia juga merasa bahwa dengan mengenal Olenka, ia dapat mengenal dirinya sendiri.

Tetapi bagaimanakah Fanton memandang Olenka? Apakah sebagai manusia, ataukah benda? Apakah sebagai subjek, ataukah objek? Ketika berhubungan intim dengan Olenka, Fanton selalu menganggap Olenka sebagai “peta dunia”, yang ia ketahui “lika-liku dan seluk-beluknya”. Dalam menggambarkan hubungan dan badan Olenka, Fanton selalu menggunakan kata “meletakkan” dan “menggarap”. Bagi Fanton, tubuh Olenka adalah alam yang dapat ia “garap”, ia “rombak”, ia “kuasai”, ia “miliki”, dan ia “rusak” kalau perlu. Bahkan, pada salah satu bab, Fanton pernah berkata, “Seorang laki-laki jantan yang baik mampu menguasai perempuan bagaikan pioner memperlakukan tanah dan hutan,” dan “saya yakin bahwa dia [Olenka] juga ingin saya perlakukan demikian.” Dari mana Fanton tahu? Apakah Olenka pernah berkata demikian? Setidaknya, dari sudut pandang Fanton sendiri, ia tidak pernah mengutip pernyataan dari Olenka bahwa Olenka memang ingin diperlakukan seperti “tanah dan hutan”.

Bukan hanya dalam hubungan seks, dalam hubungan cinta pun Fanton menganggap Olenka sebagai objek. Bagi Fanton, Olenka adalah “sasaran” dari rasa cinta dan gairahnya, tujuan dari segala obsesi dan keinginan-keinginannya. Sudut pandang Fanton dalam bercerita juga menjadikan Olenka objek pemikirannya. Olenka merupakan sosok yang jauh, sosok yang tertanam di benak Fanton yang kemudian ia gambarkan dengan kata-kata dalam narasinya. Sekalinya Olenka memiliki ruang untuk bicara sebagai subjek, sebagai dirinya sendiri, adalah ketika ia menulis surat panjang kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka bercerita tentang dirinya, tentang keluarganya, tentang pengalaman “main apinya” dengan seorang kawan perempuan beralias Winifred, dan bagaimana akhirnya ia menikah dengan Wayne dan menderita karenanya.

Dalam surat tersebut, Fanton bukanlah objek bercerita Olenka sebagaimana Olenka dalam narasi yang dikisahkan Fanton pada keseluruhan novel. Fanton merupakan “teman bercerita” Olenka, Olenka bercerita kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka adalah subjek sekaligus objek narasinya sendiri, dan Olenka tidak memandang atau memperlakukan Fanton sebagai objek dalam hal apa pun, sebagaimana yang terlihat sebaliknya. Sesungguhnya, ini bukanlah sesuatu yang dapat dianggap aneh. Namun lantaran penggunaan sudut pandang pertama pada novel ini―juga “cara pandangnya”―ini menjadi terasa tidak (atau kurang?) adil. Adil memang bukan soal “sama” dalam segala hal, tetapi entah mengapa dalam kisah ini ketimpangan yang demikian terasa―sedikit banyak―mengganggu.

Lalu bagaimanakah kita (seharusnya) memandang Olenka dalam kisah ini? Apakah sebagai “wanita jalang” seperti yang digambarkan Wayne Danton lantaran ia gemar “melayani” pria-pria lain? Sebagai “bukan istri dan ibu yang baik”? Atau apakah seperti yang digambarkan oleh Fanton Drummond―objek cinta dan obsesi serta objek seks yang bisa diperlakukan sesuka hati?

Dalam novel Olenka, tidak ada satu pun tokoh yang sempurna, atau bahkan “cukup baik” menurut standar moral tertentu―entah itu Fanton, Wayne, ataupun Olenka sendiri. Maka apakah kita mesti bergantung (dan percaya) pada sudut pandang Wayne yang membuat ketidaksempurnaan Olenka tampak sebagai suatu “keburukan” alih-alih suatu “kewajaran” pada diri manusia biasa akibat kesulitan-kesulitan yang menimpanya? Apakah kita mesti menerima sudut pandang Fanton yang membuat Olenka tampak seperti benda tak bernyawa dan hanya diberi kesempatan bicara sepanjang beberapa lembar surat?

Olenka, jika dilihat dalam bingkai yang lebih luas, bukan semata-mata sebuah kisah nan kompleks tentang manusia-manusia yang gelisah dan bermasalah, manusia-manusia yang (tentu saja) tidak suci dan murni. Novel ini tidak hanya bercerita tentang orang-orang dengan ego masing-masing, yang berjalan di atas pilihan masing-masing dan menanggung akibat masing-masing. Novel ini, disadari atau tidak, juga merupakan contoh dari cara pandang umum terhadap wanita―bahwa wanita sering kali dipandang sebagai objek (dalam hal apa pun itu, dan sengaja atau tidak sengaja), serta bagaimana “wanita yang tidak baik” dipandang dari “luar” lantaran tak ada yang mengetahui masalah serta penderitaan-penderitaan yang menuntunnya pada hal-hal yang dilakukannya, mengingat ia tidak diberi panggung yang layak.

fiction, review

Fish Soup

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo is a pretty difficult book to stomach. It is not because it’s about women and their sexuality, but because the entire narrative is so unapologetically blatant in describing them. Or, rather, “cruelly” so. It’s like a slap in the face of everybody who believes that women should keep docile, modest and only follow the generational, social rules and patriarchal views in which they should not show their desire, should not be sexually active, or that they cannot be as sexually free as men are. This book wants to tell readers that women cannot be sexually repressed, should not be sexually repressed. And that they should not be punished for being a victim of sexual harassment and/or abuse.

The first part is a novella entitled Waiting for a Hurricane. The opening paragraph truly gives a punch, with the middle of it talking about being in the middle:

The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle. It was where the lost causes lived: there, nobody was poor enough to resign themselves to being poor forever, so they spent their lives trying to move up in the world and liberate themselves. When all attempts failed – as they usually did – their self-awareness disappeared and that’s when all was lost. – (page 7)


The unnamed female narrator is always where she has been since she was born, dreaming of getting out of the place where she is now. She doesn’t care if she’s very smart and could have a “bright future”, she only cares about running away, escaping the small city she lives in. She even dumps her boyfriend because she knows he will never (be able to) bring her out of their hole. And finally she decides to be an air hostess, that way she at least can leave her city even if only for a short time and be back again. She becomes more and more desperate to go away upon seeing her brother marrying a nurse from the US, hence gaining a green card. But after so many efforts she has done, she can only eventually find herself stuck in the middle, in the life that she knows with someone who is also never going anywhere.

The second part of the book, Worse Things, is a mini short-story collection consisting of seven stunningly disturbing pieces. Once again, they’re not disturbing because of the ideas, but rather for how merciless the narratives can be. Like A Pariah might only be a simple story about an old woman in the middle of her recovery after having a cancer, but later it is revealed that deep down she still has her desire and that it is somewhat satisfied by a man so much younger than she is. The question then might not be “what is wrong with her?”, but rather “is it wrong?”

Another “disturbing” piece in this part is the titular short story, Fish Soup. It’s disturbing in a way that Mr. Aldo Villafora always has bad imaginations of his wife while he is in delirium. In his mind, his wife is a “whore”, always having sexual relationships with many different men, always brutally shameless. There’s also a point in his dreams where his wife is already dead, and what is left is only bad memories. The whole narrative clearly shows that Mr. Villafora doesn’t have quite a good impression of his wife, thinking that his wife is a “bad woman”. But then the question is, why? And the next question is, does that impression match his wife’s real character? Seeing that, as it is, the real person of his wife is not presented until the end of the story, and only in a glimpse with an anxiety over Mr. Villafora’s condition.

Something We Never Were is an attempt to reverse the male-female point of view on men-women (sexual) relationship. It is very often that we see men having free sexual relationships with any woman they like without maintaining ties while women have to bear whatever consequences there are. But here we see Salvador yearns for a “normal” boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Eileen while the girl only wants sex and nothing more. The differences between them do not stop there. Eileen is too well-read and too broad-minded for Salvador that he cannot catch up with her train of thoughts, cannot understand her. And while he feels more and more in love with her, she doesn’t seem to have the same feeling at all. And when Salvador finally wants to break up with her, Eileen just cannot get, “what is there to break?”

The third and final part is another novella, Sexual Education. Well, it is, in part, about sexual education in which young girls in a school are encouraged to refrain from having (free) sexual relationships, seeing that so many have ruined their own future by having babies so early and being married off in such a young age. But, of course, some students do not just be quiet and comply with the teachings. Particularly Dalia, the narrator’s close friend, who has no qualms whatsoever about revealing her thoughts about women’s sexuality and doing sexual activities freely and openly with her boyfriend. But our narrator is so sick of her friend’s behavior and her way of (sex) life, though she herself doesn’t seem to agree with her teacher.

The story doesn’t have any end, as it is opened and is not concluded in any way. It even ends up displaying “another story” where one of their schoolmates is being raped by several boys and that she cannot get justice, cannot even spread the news about her tragedy because the editor of the newspaper is a relative of one of the rapists. And the boys, of course, are spared from any punishment.

Generally speaking, all stories in this book do not have any specific end. They all do not have any conclusion. It is as if Robayo wants to show that women’s problems, whatever they are, never have any solution. Women keep being hit by patriarchal views and practices, and especially, sexually. Fish Soup may not be a breakthrough in itself, but it is definitely a statement, a harsh statement, that those patriarchal views and practices against women should stop right now, that women should get justice when they are being the victims of sexual misconduct done by men, that there should be an end to it.

Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time, in a way that it’s so true and blatant that readers might want to stop and take a breath and admit to themselves that this is what happens, what always happens, in our society, even up to this day. It wants to wake us up by pouring cold water right to our face, making us shocked and see the reality immediately. And it doesn’t feel sorry for it, because that’s the least that it can do.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Joyride to Jupiter

Quietly vibrant, or brimming with subtle emotions―perhaps that is the way to describe Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride to Jupiter. It may sound like a collection of nineteen dull short stories with flat tone at first, but once readers get deeper into each of them, striking characters with heart-wrenching stories and clever narrative-handling are there to be found. O’Connor indeed tell them matter-of-factly, no flowery words or anything―she doesn’t seem to feel the need for―but the result is some knocking effects and restlessness banging in our heads.

The banging is loudest in some, like in Consolata, where Helen brings her new boyfriend Matthew to see her mother at her old house. It has been a long time since she came back home, and distant, somewhat bitter memories slowly open up before the reader as she’s thinking of her past, her late father, and Sister Consolata. Helen knew her when she was still a child and they were friends. But as layers of secrets unfolded unexpectedly, that friendship unfortunately―painfully?―had to fall to pieces.

Family bitterness also appears in Tinnycross, though in a different form and on another level. Oliver and Bernard are trying to divide the estate they inherit from their mother. Olly wants a half of the estate value, but Bunny denies him that, still blaming their mother’s death on his brother for never coming home to see her. Though Olly finally gets the amount of money he needs from Bunny’s wife’s own share, but deep inside, there’s a pain he never shares―pain coming from the attachment he never ceases to have to their family estate, to his childhood home.

This family theme seems to keep repeating, more so in Mayo Oh Mayo and Storks. But Mayo Oh Mayo is not the type of family story people usually have in mind. It’s more of how the writer, or the characters she creates, see the family bond. Is it more than anything that a passionate, brief affair cannot throw it off the cliff any minute? Or is it something that you can crush under your feet so easily? Apparently, the male character here doesn’t only think that Dublin and everything in it do not suit him, but also that a fling is a fling, and nothing about that can disturb his family life―though Siobhán, our female protagonist he’s having an affair with, thinks the otherwise.

Meanwhile, Storks throws out all the jokes life has in store. Fergus and Caitríona are on vacation in Spain to relieve their pain after losing their baby (again). It’s so obvious that Caitríona has it worse than her husband, and she just doesn’t want to do anything or say a word or even meet anyone. But unfortunately, she, and her husband, meet Worms Gormley―or Will, as Caitríona remembers him. He is an old friend of Fergus, and an old lover of Caitríona, but nobody knows. It may not be the right time to see a man with his happy family and healthy kids when you have just lost yours, but it’s definitely not the right time to find out that your secret ex-lover was actually your husband’s roommate, or that he’s the one who can actually heal your deepest wound.

O’Connor sort of want to state, however, that there might be one thing which is more important than family, or marriage bond: the bond between women, sympathy and empathy between women. Shut Your Mouth, Hélène doesn’t say that women have to keep mum about everything, but to do it at the right time. Women, of course, are entitled to say anything they like, anything they want, anything they deem proper to talk about; but when a man has sexually abused you and his wife, who was witnessing it, strikes him to death, you probably do not want to tell anybody about it.

It’s not suprising when women write about women, about their feelings, suffering, points of view, unpleasant experiences, their want (and dreams) of freedom, their secret passion and various problems. But Nuala O’Connor has certainly written women’s stories in a thorough way, with a very quiet yet very loud voice. The theme is mostly around family, yes, but she doesn’t hesitate to get deeper into it and dig out the darkest part of it. O’Connor also doesn’t hesitate to claim that there are other kinds of family (in The Boy from Petrópolis and The Donor) and that a family is never okay (Futuretense). That being said, what O’Connor always emphasizes here in this collection is women’s feelings and experiences, and how they see and handle their problems―whether it is with hatred or bitterness, anger or sympathy, sadness or love. Seeing all the female characters in all of the short stories contained, we can see (and be convinced) that women can be different from one another, but rest assured that they have one thing in common: they are free people, they want freedom, they practice freedom, they can be and do anything they like.

The problem with this book is that not all the premises are interesting, and not all the narratives are told engrossingly. Some are just so-so that you might want to skip them, or read them without paying much attention. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though.

One thing for sure, Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor gives you a wide-range angle on women, various points of view we should ponder about―different ones we should use to look at them.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Subuh

Indonesian edition’s cover

When it comes to Turkish literature, we don’t seem to be able to separate it from its characteristic melancholy. And this melancholy seems to come from, very strangely, matters of bad politics, social injustice, clashes of ideologies and failed romance all at once. At least, Orhan Pamuk has proven so. We might not want to think that Turkish literature is only about the Nobel laureate, but Selahattin Demirtaş exudes apparently pretty much the same kind of atmosphere when writing stories. All of his twelve short pieces in this small and thin collection are dimly melancholic, be it about honor killing, a wrongly accused house cleaner, conflicts and suicide bombings in Aleppo, or a little girl running away from the war in her home country with her mother.

The first issue to be brought foward in the book Subuh (translated from Turkish into Indonesian by Mehmet Hassan) is, interestingly enough, masculinity. Or the way we see it. Laki-laki dalam Jiwa Kami (The Man Inside) looks like a semi-fable where the protagonist is a prisoner who watches everyday a female sparrow building a nest to lay down her eggs, while the male one doesn’t do anything more than staying in guard on the fence outside. One day comes a group of inspectors from the “Department of Nesting Code Enforcement”, charging them with a crime of building a nest without permission. Those inspectors give the pair of sparrows two options: destroy the nest, or give them their brood as compensation. The female, of course, refuses to do so and chooses to fight the inspectors, but the male seems so scared of them and tries to talk it over. At the end, it’s only the female sparrow that fights them alone and fiercely to defend the nest she builds and her offspring.

Looking at it from a distance, or closer, the piece shows the instinct of a mother and to what extent they would wield their power to protect their children. This is the nature of a woman. Males, quite the opposite, tend to use threats and physical strength to stomp on others, especially when they are part of the authority. On the other side, though, they can also be as lame as the male sparrow when it comes to facing the upper power while as weak as people in general see women, they can be strong enough to fight the injustice.

Speaking of masculinity, the second story Seher (the original book title and the Turkish word for Subuh/Dawn) displays blatantly and brutally how toxic it can be when added to pride and honor. They demand even the lives of women, in the name of the family’s good reputation, despite the women being innocent in any sexual crime or assault or even harassment they have suffered from. For the men of the family, their female relatives are guilty only for losing their virginity, whatever way they lose it, and whether or not they actually want to lose it.

Seher, the titular character, falls in love with Hayri and believes that the man returns her feeling as “he picks her out” from so many other women in their work place. He asks her to go out and meet up after the day of Eid celebration, and Seher feels both anxious and excited at the same time about the meeting that she doesn’t dare to look at anyone in the eye. And so they meet and talk, and when it’s time for Seher to go home Hayri offers her a ride to her house. At this very point, it would be pretty much unsurprising to see Hayri (and his friends) stir the vehicle to a different direction and then rape her in turn. This secret cannot be hidden, cannot be hushed, and cannot be solved in any civil way. Once her father and brothers know it, it’s over for her.

Injustice seems to be penned down everywhere in this book, Nazan Petugas Kebersihan (Nazan the Cleaning Lady) and Salam Untuk Si Mata Hitam (Greetings to Those Dark Eyes) being the most glaring examples. But while Nazan Petugas Kebersihan generally talks about the injustice we often see in legal system, Salam Untuk Si Mata Hitam is more about the huge gap between the rich and the poor, between people with low and high education, and between those living in the city and in the village. In Nazan, we see how demonstrations voicing any dissatisfaction with the government are deemed disruptive that everyone on the street should be arrested and tried for such “crime”, whether or not they’re truly involved in them. In the latter, two illegal child laborers are faced with difficulties when they are trying to get their payment after working on a construction site, building a type F jail in Edirne. This seems to be something which is, surprisingly, common in any unskilled, physical labor. People with money (or, in this case, the government) always want cheap labor to do these things, so they go and hire child, lowly educated laborers who have no insurance or official permission to work, hence no need to pay them high. If anything happens, they can also wash their hands easily.

Demirtaş’ narratives on wars are no less thought-provoking, matter-of-factly yet gloomily elaborating how people try to escape from them and still do not meet a good end. In Gadis Laut (The Mermaid), a five-year old girl named Mina and her mother are running away from their hometown Hama in Syria where war has taken her father’s life. When they don’t have much on them her mother has to bribe the boatmen so they can cross the Mediterranean Sea, but that doesn’t help them at all. The story of Hidangan Aleppo (Kebab Halabi) is certainly not less heart-breaking. Hamdullah is himself a refugee from Aleppo who ran away to Hatay and who has finally had a good life there, opening a kebab restaurant where everyone eager to taste the famous Arab kebab is going to. But he never forgets his friends in Aleppo and lets them stay in his two-story house, including the first love of his life, Rukiye, who was married to another man at 16. Sadly, though, his good life must end there when a suicide bombing ends Rukiye’s and her husband’s lives.

Besides those short stories, Subuh also presents others with different themes such as mundane life (Sesunyi Sejarah/As Lonely As History) minority (Akan Berakhir Istimewa/A Magnificent Ending) and even one with a surrealist style (Tak Seperti yang Anda Pikirkan/It’s Not What You Think), which is looking at imaginary love stories that never once end well. Despite the various themes and diverse styles, all stories in this collection have proven the melancholic tone the writer chooses to use most of the time, melancholy which doesn’t particularly bring tears but is there to make readers feel moved and think about the things depicted in each narrative. It is all because, presumably, Demirtaş wants to show us what is wrong with his country, what is wrong with his society, and that even if life seems so hopeless there in his land there is always hope, at least hope to escape from the misery.

Subuh by Selahattin Demirtaş is really a heart-wrenching collection, well written and pretty well translated. It’s small and condense, short yet with such knocking effect on the reader. It is one which people really should consider to read to know, even if not about Turkey, at least about how this world in general doesn’t really work well.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Semua Untuk Hindia

Dalam kumpulan cerpen Teh dan Pengkhianat, Iksaka Banu mengambil sudut pandang “lawan” dalam menceritakan masa-masa pendudukan Belanda di Nusantara, demikian pula dalam kumpulan cerpen Semua Untuk Hindia ini yang terbit lebih dulu pada tahun 2014. Di satu sisi, Iksaka mungkin ingin menunjukkan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda yang bersimpati terhadap kaum pribumi atau yang tidak setuju dengan pendudukan ini sejak awal, menunjukkan bahwa “tidak semua orang Belanda sama”. Tetapi di sisi lain, hak beliau dan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut juga patut dipertanyakan. Jika pun benar ada beberapa orang Belanda yang bersimpati dan menentang kolonisasi atas tanah Nusantara, maka (seharusnya) pihak mereka sendirilah yang berhak menyatakannya.

Meski demikian, tidak berarti cerita pendek-cerita pendek yang terdapat dalam buku ini tidak menarik atau tidak dapat mendorong pembaca untuk melihat “sudut pandang lain”. Selamat Tinggal Hindia, yang merupakan cerpen pembuka, menampilkan sudut pandang Maria Geertruida Welwillend atau Geertje, seorang perempuan muda yang lahir dan besar di Hindia Belanda. Ia sangat mencintai “tanah kelahirannya” dan bersimpati terhadap orang-orangnya. Ketika Jepang datang ia sadar bahwa era Hindia Belanda telah usai, dan ia mendukung penuh terbentuknya Repoeblik Indonesia serta menentang NICA.

Rasa simpati yang muncul dari keterikatan dengan tanah Hindia Belanda juga ditunjukkan tokoh Letnan Pieter Verdragen dalam kisah Keringat dan Susu. Tidak hanya lahir dan besar di tanah air, Letnan Pieter juga disusui oleh seorang wanita pribumi. Ikatan ini tak pernah pudar dari hati maupun pikirannya, meski kini ia telah menjadi tentara bagi Belanda. Ketika bersama pasukan yang terdiri atas tentara dari berbagai bangsa Eropa ia berpatroli pada tengah malam di Batavia―mengingat pada saat itu pasca pendudukan Jepang dan terjadi banyak kekacauan menyusul diumumkan berdirinya Republik Indonesia―ia melihat seorang anak muda yang tidak waras mengenakan ikat kepala merah-putih serta seragam, dan lantas dicurigai oleh anak-anak buahnya sebagai tentara laskar dan sengaja menghadang mereka di tengah jalan, sang Letnan melepaskan anak muda tersebut atas permintaan sang ibu―yang mengingatkannya kepada ibu susunya dulu.

Namun bagaimanapun, bagi orang Belanda, atau sebagian besar dari mereka, orang-orang pribumi tetaplah orang-orang terbelakang yang lebih rendah. Pada cerpen Di Ujung Belati, sang protagonis beranggapan bahwa agar orang-orang pribumi hormat dan setia kepada orang-orang Eropa, mereka harus memberi contoh budaya Eropa yang tinggi, bukannya mengikuti budaya pribumi yang rendah atau menuruti tuntutan dan cara berpikir mereka. Tetapi di sinilah letak kesalahan mereka, karena ketika Hindia Belanda diserang oleh pasukan Inggris, sang protagonis diselamatkan oleh mantan mandor yang pernah ia tolong dan angkat derajatnya. Bagi orang pribumi, kesetiaan datang dari balas budi.

Bias pandangan orang Belanda terhadap orang-orang pribumi pada waktu itu tidak berhenti pada kaum bawahan lelaki, tetapi juga menyentuh kaum perempuan. Dalam cerita Racun Untuk Tuan, seorang nyai (wanita pribumi yang “disewa” pria-pria Belanda untuk melayani kebutuhan fisik dan rumah tangga mereka) dipandang rendah dan berbahaya. Nyai dianggap pencemburu dan menakutkan bila pada suatu saat mereka akhirnya menikah secara resmi dengan wanita Belanda dan “harus menyingkirkan” gundik mereka, karena bisa jadi mereka mati diracun. Tetapi tentu saja, sebagaimana karakter mandor pada Di Ujung Belati, karakter Imah di Racun Untuk Tuan tidaklah seperti pandangan umum orang-orang Belanda terhadap mereka.

Menariknya (dan untungnya) di sini, karakter seorang nyai tidak hanya digambarkan dari sudut pandang pria Belanda, tetapi Iksaka juga menyediakan ruang bagi perempuan pribumi untuk memperlihatkan sudut pandang mereka sendiri. Stambul Dua Pedang menceritakan tentang Sarni, yang berganti nama menjadi Cornelia van Rijk setelah menikah dengan orang Belanda yang merupakan petinggi di perkebunan teh Tanara. Karena tertular hobi suaminya, Sarni suka membaca dan menonton opera, dan dari situlah ia jatuh cinta pada bintang opera Stambul Tjahaja Boelan, Adang Kartawiria. Keduanya pun berselingkuh, lantaran Sarni tak pernah merasa cocok dan bahagia dengan suaminya, walau suaminya sangat mencintainya. Lagipula Sarni tidak pernah merasa dirinya merupakan bagian dari orang-orang Belanda, ia tetaplah orang pribumi yang dipaksa menikah dengan orang Belanda oleh ayahnya.

Meski sebagian besar (bisa dibilang hampir secara keseluruhan) buku ini menceritakan tentang kehidupan dan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda di tanah air, sebenarnya cukup menarik melihat sekilas sudut pandang orang pribumi menyusup di tengah-tengah dan “dipertentangkan” dengan sudut pandang tersebut. Stambul Dua Pedang merupakan cerita pendek paling menarik di antara cerita-cerita lainnya lantaran memperlihatkan situasi dari mata bukan hanya seorang pribumi yang “dijajah”, yang harus tunduk dengan “pernikahan paksa”, tetapi juga mata seorang wanita yang tidak bisa berbuat apa-apa sedangkan ia sangat membenci penjajah dan tidak bahagia dengan pernikahannya. Perselingkuhan Sarni dengan Adang di satu sisi bisa jadi salah, jika dilihat dari “kesucian ikatan pernikahan”, tetapi bisa juga tidak jika mempertimbangkan hati seorang wanita dan seseorang yang mendamba kemerdekaan.

Namun terlepas dari sudut pandang apa pun yang digunakan oleh Iksaka Banu, sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut dan apakah Iksaka sebagai penulis berhak mengambil sudut pandang yang demikian, pada akhirnya buku ini hanyalah sekumpulan cerita fiksi yang titik beratnya adalah keelokan narasi dan kekuatan karakter. Pada nomor-nomor di mana karakter-karakter Belanda digambarkan bersimpati kepada rakyat pribumi, Iksaka dengan tepat menunjukkan adanya alasan keterikatan karakter-karakter tersebut dengan tanah air, dan bagaimana keterikatan itu kemudian memengaruhi sudut pandang mereka. Ada pun tokoh-tokoh Belanda yang memiliki bias tertentu dalam memandang orang-orang pribumi, hal itu juga dapat dimaklumi lantaran jelas-jelas mereka merasa superior sebagai penjajah, sebagai bangsa yang menduduki tanah bangsa lain. Dua sudut pandang dalam satu kelompok bangsa ini saja sudah merupakan sebuah pertentangan, apalagi jika ditambah sudut pandang kaum pribumi seperti Sarni.

Semua Untuk Hindia merupakan kumpulan cerita pendek yang sesungguhnya menarik, jika pembaca dapat menafikan persoalan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang yang dipakai dalam menuliskan cerita-cerita di dalamnya. Ide-idenya juga menarik, walaupun gaya penulisan Iksaka Banu kurang dapat menjadikannya lebih menarik lagi.

Rating: 3.5/5

poetry, review

Sergius Mencari Bacchus

Some writings can truly have devastating effects on the reader, and Sergius Mencari Bacchus (officially translated into English as Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Tiffany Tsao) is one of those. Every word, every line, every verse Norman Erikson Pasaribu penned down on this poetry collection not only sound, but feel so painful. You might get your heart wrenched brutrally reading every piece of poem on the list, whether or not you feel related to the issues being discussed.

This book doesn’t only talk about being different, or how to deal with it and people’s general lack of approval. It talks mostly about the pain, the dilemma, the acceptance of oneself as a homosexual when the family―and the society―see it as a sin, a sickness to be cured, and thus expel them to the lonely corner where they are forced to feel weird about themselves and try to figure out what they should be.

Puisi is the first poem to highlight this pain one has to endure―of pretending, of living two kinds of life, of being “two persons” at the same time. While people see them as a “normal” person, inside they are merely a “dying tree”―as stated in the second verse:

Selama ini kesepian adalah daun-daunmu

hijau, acak, dan lebat, orang-orang mengira kau

pohon yang sehat, sebentar lagi berlebah dan berbuah.

Meskipun sebetulnya kau sekarat; batang, rantingmu

digerogoti benalu yang telah lama kau harus pelihara

This pain, and the dilemma, sound through almost the entire book; in Erratum, one has to face his own family’s rejection after coming out and frankly telling them that he cannot be with any women; Aubade also sees the same rejection, with a group of friends can only laugh at themselves and cry at the same time watching a movie reflecting their own situation, but finally accepting that situation without any fear, without any wish to end their lives, because the protagonist of the movie has done it for them.

Inferno seems like a very calm, “dim” poem, having no shocking or blazing effects on the reader. But it is one which particularly makes the reader ponder about self-acceptance and how the older you get, the longer you live, you will no longer think about whether others love you or not, understand you or not. You don’t even care if there’s a place for you in Heaven, for that Heaven is not for you in the first place.

Tiba di usia di mana dunia tak lagi misterius:

(1) tak lagi perlu seseorang memahamimu

Karena kau telah memahami dirimu sendiri

(2) tak lagi mendamba dicintai

Karena kau telah mencintai dirimu sendiri

………………………………………………………….

Dan surga yang dibicarakan itu, Ada

di puisi lain yang tak membicarakanmu

Meanwhile, Sebelum Aeschylus and Serial TV Komedi talk about the same thing in a row: how this life is a mere play and you are the director of your own. You can have a script in your hand, a “director” behind, but life is not about doing what is written in your script or what the director wants you to. It’s about living it as it is, with all its interruptions and unexpected changes of course and all that―and you have to, ready or not, improvise accordingly.

Tentang Sepasang Lelaki Muda di Basemen P3 fx Sudirman is obviously about how self-acceptance is not enough when we are different from others, for sometimes we still need to hide from them―in the corner of a basement car park, far from anyone’s sight and watching out for any security or cleaning staff who might be passing by and witnessing our secret love and passion. We are hiding not because we are afraid of being ourselves, we are hiding because we are afraid of being unfairly judged. People are so easy judging that our love is not true and that our passion is out of place, and it is so useless to tell them what we think because “dunia belum siap dengan kita” (the world is not ready for us―my translation).

In Curriculum Vitae 2015 Pasaribu seems to summarize all memories he still has of his life: all that pain, rejection, dilemma and, finally, self-acceptance, and the love he found in a writing class. It’s not in any poetic forms or verses, it’s stated in points without any use of figurative nor flowery language. It’s so blatant and he wants all readers to see it clearly: this is my life, this is my pain, this is all the trials and tribulations I’ve been having to go through all this time.

All in all, Sergius Mencari Bacchus is a very painful book to read. Each story behind each poem, each verse and each line sound and feel so devastating. Pasaribu’s personal experiences might not be your experiences, but you will defenitely feel what he has been going through his life.

Rating: 3.5/5

others

Belajar Menerima Kehilangan-Kehilangan

Adaptasi pada biasanya dilakukan ketika kita mesti berhadapan dengan situasi atau kondisi baru. Situasi atau kondisi baru ini dapat terjadi pada lingkup kecil maupun besar, mencakup sedikit atau banyak hal, termasuk hal-hal yang sepele maupun luar biasa. Adaptasi kerap kali sulit untuk dijalankan, lebih-lebih bila kondisi atau situasi berubah dengan sangat cepat dan takterduga, sedangkan orang-orang tidak siap, atau enggan, untuk ikut berubah. Meskipun begitu, mau tidak mau, orang-orang tetap harus belajar untuk menyesuaikan diri.

Saat ini tidak dapat dibantah lagi bahwa orang-orang mesti menyesuaikan diri dengan situasi dan kondisi di kala pandemi. Wabah menyebar di mana-mana, semua orang dapat tertular, belum ada obat yang bisa menyembuhkan, kematian yang takterhitung jumlahnya merupakan situasi yang mesti kita hadapi setahun belakangan ini. Satu akibat yang pasti adalah semua orang mengalami kehilangan: kehilangan pekerjaan, kehilangan penghasilan, kehilangan kesempatan untuk melakukan atau meraih apa pun yang seharusnya bisa andai tidak terdapat wabah, kehilangan hiburan dan kesenangan yang biasanya dapat dilakukan bersama-sama di luar rumah, kehilangan “ruang” karena tempat kita terbatas hanya di dalam kediaman, dan bahkan kehilangan kewarasan lantaran terlalu lama berada dalam batasan tersebut. Ini baru beberapa, karena masih ada banyak kehilangan-kehilangan lainnya yang menimpa semua orang.

Tentu saja, di saat seperti ini, kita harus menghadapi dan menyesuaikan diri dengan kehilangan-kehilangan ini. Akan tetapi, untuk dapat menghadapinya, pertama-tama kita harus (mau) menerimanya. Menerima kehilangan tidaklah mudah, apalagi jika kehilangan itu terjadi tidak disangka-sangka. Namun menerima kehilangan sangatlah penting, jika kita tidak ingin kemudian benar-benar kehilangan kewarasan―dalam artian yang sesungguhnya.

Kehilangan baru bisa diterima ketika kita sudah terbiasa, ketika kita sudah “tidak merasakan apa-apa lagi” di saat kehilangan menimpa kita kembali. Ini mungkin saja bila kehilangan terus berulang, atau bila kehilangan itu berlangsung untuk waktu yang lama. Kehilangan-kehilangan yang terjadi selama pandemi ini bisa merupakan salah satu atau keduanya. Maka tak pelak lagi, kita mau tidak mau (dan lama-kelamaan) terbiasa kehilangan satu, dua, atau banyak hal. Tanpa sadar, kita sudah terbiasa kehilangan “ruang” akibat batasan-batasan yang diterapkan pada lingkup kerja, belajar, hiburan, dan hidup kita secara luas. Kita sudah terbiasa kehilangan kesempatan, dan hanya bisa berusaha mencari kesempatan yang lainnya. Kita sudah terbiasa tak punya (karena kehilangan) pekerjaan, lantas melakukan berbagai cara agar bisa tetap makan. Bahkan, kita sudah terbiasa melihat orang-orang kehilangan nyawa, karena memang takterhitung jumlah mereka yang terkena wabah dan tak dapat diselamatkan.

Yoko Ogawa mengisahkan tentang kehilangan-kehilangan dengan begitu miris pada salah satu karyanya, Polisi Kenangan. Di suatu pulau tak bernama, kehilangan telah menjadi sesuatu yang lazim, sesuatu yang pasti, sedangkan para penghuninya hidup normal tanpa wabah yang merajalela. Begitu lazimnya, para penghuni pulau bahkan tahu kapan dan apa yang akan hilang berikutnya. Begitu terbiasanya, mereka dapat menerima begitu saja kehilangan-kehilangan yang terjadi, lantas mencari atau menjalani hal lain sebagai ganti. Lupa akan apa yang hilang adalah wajib. Kejam memang, ketika manusia dipaksa untuk melupakan apa yang telah lenyap dari hidup mereka, tanpa dapat menyisakan satu kenangan saja. Akan tetapi, (seringnya) hanya dengan melupakan apa yang pernah kita punya dan apa yang pernah ada di sekitar kitalah kita dapat menerima, dan kemudian menghadapi, kehilangan yang terjadi.

Pada novel Polisi Kenangan ada satu bagian yang sangat menarik, yang sedikit banyak bisa dikatakan relevan dengan kondisi hampir semua orang di tengah pandemi ini: ketika tokoh R harus menghindar dari pelacakan para Polisi Kenangan dan bersembunyi di rumah tokoh utama, tinggal di dalam ruangan yang sangat sempit tanpa bisa keluar barang sejenak. R kehilangan ruang sekaligus kebebasan, terkungkung di satu tempat dan juga tidak dapat bekerja. Meski ia satu-satunya penghuni pulau yang tidak kehilangan ingatan akan hal-hal yang sudah tak ada, ia telah “kehilangan rasa” lantaran terlalu lama berada di satu ruangan kecil yang terbatas untuknya. Ia mulai terbiasa dengan batasan-batasan ruang geraknya, mulai dapat menerima situasi yang menimpanya tanpa merasa terluka, seperti warga pulau lainnya. Pada akhirnya, toh ia juga “lupa” bahwa ia “terpenjara” karena harus menghindari sesuatu yang berbahaya. Sama halnya ketika sebagian besar orang (jika tidak bisa dikatakan semua) harus “terpenjara” di dalam rumah demi menghindari wabah yang mengancam.

Tidak bisa dikatakan bahwa baru sekarang saya mengalami kehilangan-kehilangan, tetapi kehilangan-kehilangan yang terjadi pada saya di kala pandemi ini terbilang lebih berat daripada sebelum-sebelumnya. Kehilangan pekerjaan dan kesempatan membuat saya harus berpikir keras bagaimana caranya agar dapat bertahan. Saya dan terus mencoba mencari peluang lain, dan terus-menerus gagal, hingga pada akhirnya saya terbiasa dengan kehilangan kesempatan. Kehilangan-kehilangan itu saya terima dengan tekad untuk mencari kesempatan lain, walau saya tahu peluang yang saya lihat belum tentu membuahkan hasil. Mungkin saya tidak akan melupakan kehilangan kesempatan yang masih terus saja saya alami, sebagaimana orang-orang dalam novel Polisi Kenangan, tetapi setidak-tidaknya saya sudah kebal karena terbiasa, sama seperti para penghuni pulau tak bernama yang telah terbiasa dengan kehilangan-kehilangan mereka.

Novel Polisi Kenangan terbit pertama kali pada bulan April 2020, tepat satu bulan setelah kita “resmi” memasuki masa pandemi. Selain relevansi yang saya rasakan dengan kisahnya (yang membantu saya melihat kehilangan saya sendiri dari sudut pandang yang lebih positif dan menerimanya tanpa merasa terluka), proses membacanya pun sesungguhnya merupakan bagian dari adaptasi atau penyesuaian diri. Saya tidak banyak membaca buku dalam bentuk digital dan biasanya lebih memilih membaca buku fisik. Jika tidak punya cukup uang untuk membeli, saya akan meminjam dari teman atau dari perpustakaan yang tidak jauh dari rumah saya. Tetapi situasi di saat pandemi membuat penerbit Gramedia Pustaka Utama memutuskan untuk tidak menerbitkannya dalam bentuk fisik kala itu, dan hanya mengeluarkannya dalam bentuk ebook yang bisa dibaca di aplikasi Gramedia Digital.

Di sisi penerbit, ini merupakan suatu bentuk adaptasi karena mereka harus kehilangan pasar buku fisik, mengingat toko buku-toko buku tutup dan banyak orang yang penghasilannya hilang atau berkurang sehingga tidak sanggup membeli buku fisik yang mahal. Melihat situasi mereka sendiri, para pembaca tentu akan beralih ke aplikasi tersebut lantaran biaya berlangganan yang dipungut lebih murah daripada harga satu eksemplar buku fisik. Di sisi saya sendiri, ini juga merupakan suatu bentuk adaptasi. Saya “terpaksa” membaca dalam format ebook di aplikasi Gramedia Digital karena biaya berlangganan yang lebih terjangkau dan buku tersebut hanya tersedia di sana.

Kehilangan, dalam situasi atau kondisi apa pun, sejatinya bukanlah sesuatu yang “luar biasa”. Kehilangan adalah sesuatu yang sangat biasa terjadi, entah kemudian kita dapat melupakannya atau tidak. Dan setelah mengalami kehilangan, kita akan―perlahan tapi pasti―berusaha menyesuaikan diri. Akan tetapi, di tengah pandemi yang kita alami sekarang ini, kehilangan terjadi begitu cepat dan tiba-tiba, dan mencakup hal-hal yang mendasar bagi kita, yang terlalu sulit untuk kita lepaskan apalagi lupakan begitu saja. Sayangnya, kita harus mau menerima kehilangan-kehilangan yang sulit ini, harus terbiasa dan menghadapinya dengan tenang serta pikiran terbuka, dan harus segera melupakan agar kita dapat cepat-cepat melangkah maju dan menyesuaikan diri dengan situasi atau kondisi yang baru.

Bagi saya, Polisi Kenangan bukan hanya sebuah karya distopia tentang orang-orang yang dipaksa untuk kehilangan kenangan, tetapi juga bagaimana orang-orang itu telah terbiasa dan akhirnya mau menerima kehilangan-kehilangan yang terjadi pada mereka. “Kehilangan kenangan”, dipaksa atau tidak, pada akhirnya membuat orang-orang dapat dengan mudah melangkah maju dan tidak diam di satu tempat kala suatu kehilangan menimpa. “Kehilangan kenangan”, mau tidak mau, membuat orang-orang terbiasa dengan tiadanya sesuatu yang biasanya ada dan mereka miliki, kemudian mencari cara untuk menyesuaikan diri.

fiction, review

Convenience Store Woman

Not a few novels tell about how it feels to be different and how people are dealing with that feeling, or with “being different” itself, in the middle of society that demands conformity. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is perhaps just another one, but the short book translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori definitely shows a pretty unusual way to tackle general people’s expectations of both men and women. It’s brow-rising and highly questionable, at first, but the twist is just as expected―well, it does make this book sound conforming to the readers’ expectation, though.

Keiko Furukura is more than just different since she was a child. She didn’t cry over and bury a dead bird, she thought she should eat it with her father. She didn’t stop boys from fighting by calling their teacher or even shouting at them, she hit one of them in the head with a spade. She never has a boyfriend, she is not married, has no kids and has been working in the same convenience store for eighteen years. She is not what people see as normal. To the society, and even to her family, she is weird, sick, not merely unable to live up to everyone’s standards. But she is happy with her life, with herself, until one day comes a new worker in the convenience store who turns her path to another direction.

The new worker is named Shiraha, a pathetic man with a pathetic view and pathetic self-pity, taking his rage toward the unfair world and their petty standards on clueless Keiko. They have one thing in common, though: they don’t live up to those standards. Just like Keiko, Shiraha is single and has no kids; but unlike her, he is such a lazy person who doesn’t like working and doesn’t have a certain path of career. All he wants is to stay at home doing what he likes and have someone else earn money for him. This is certainly not what a “normal” man looks like. But this is the point where Shiraha finds some kind of solution for him and Keiko―a solution in which Keiko doesn’t have to be seen as an old spinster anymore, while Shiraha doesn’t have to be criticized by the society again for being jobless.

The character of Keiko and Shiraha and each of their background story clearly show how society put their expectations on both males and females. Single women who are still not married in their thirties is not the only “problem”, single men who have no job and earn no money is, too. They are deemed useless, being laughed at, looked down on as much as unmarried women are. And though his claim that “men have it much harder than women” is very much debatable, he is right when he says that they are (that we are) still living in the Stone Age―where men go hunting and women give birth, and those who don’t fit into the “village” are expelled.

Society is a bunch of people with like mind, like manner of speech, like behavior that anyone with even slightly different qualities will be seen as sick, abnormal, so they need to be cured of this sickness and abnormality. And the only cure for these is to do what (normal) people do. Keiko and Shiraha almost take this cure―this is the both “unexpected” and “disappointing” point of the book―before she realizes what actually makes her happy, meeting the common standards or not.

Convenience Store Woman obviously poses cliche questions we still often don’t know how to answer: should we conform to the society, with all their customs and traditions and thoughts and way of life that have never actually changed since it first existed? Or should we do everything our own way, sacrificing social acceptance, recognition and love and warmth that we need as human beings? What truly makes us happy? Being ourselves and left alone, alienated? Or being someone that the society want us to be, accepted but damaged? Are we sure we know what to choose? Those who dare to pick one over the other must have known the consequences. And Keiko surely knows that.

At last, Sayaka Murata has presented to us something to ponder about. Luckily, the (translated) narrative’s hilarious tone helps us do that without being too stressful in thinking about our existence and its meaning. This book is truly a gem. When will we ever get a chance of laughing at our own predicament?

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Rahasia Salinem

It’s honestly not an easy book to make a review of, not because I’ve never heard of the writers before, nor is it because I wasn’t aware of its existence (I blame it on my lack of exposure to publishers other than the major ones). It’s simply because Rahasia Salinem is just too good to start to write about. Yes, this might have something to do with subjectivity (the cultural background being Javanese and the setting being in Sukoharjo, exactly where I live in), but on the other hand, and despite whatever identity the reader has and wherever they live, this book has one of the best stories I’ve ever read with one of the best (female) characters I’ve ever encountered. It’s not about choosing love over the other, it’s about choosing “what kind of love” you want to keep for the rest of your life.

Spanning three generations, the story starts in the present time when Salinem has just passed away and her children finally tell the third generation that she is not actually their grandmother. This early revelation is surely shocking to readers as much as to the main protagonist himself, but that’s not the point. Nor is it to find the background of the titular character, because, of course, her “children” have known it all along. The entire narrative basically seeks to tell her story and why she chose that life she had been living.

Throwing back to early 1920s, the two writers (Brilliant Yotenega and Wisnu Suryaning Adji) begin with how Salinem was born into a low labor family in Klaten and how she had to lose her mother at once. As a child, Salinem had been taken care of by different people―for her father had to make a living and couldn’t take her with him―and mainly stayed with her aunt, Daliyem, her mother’s younger sister. But her childhood had never been gloomy, because she was a lovely child and easy to get along with. She particularly got along very well with Sugiyo (who later became her first love) and Soeratmi, the youngest sister-in-law of the head of the district of Sukoharjo. She then moved with Soeratmi and her family to Surakarta and met Kartinah, and there the friendship of the three young girls was destined.

It was inevitable, however, that Sugiyo and Salinem had to be parted and couldn’t see each other often. They met once in a while, when Kartinah was married to Soekatmo and Salinem followed her as her servant and Sugiyo worked for Soeratmi. Sugiyo even learned how to read and write just to send her letters (which was a hilariously unsuccessful communication between them), and that’s just how they kept their heart aflame. Sadly, right after Sugiyo revealed his intention to marry her, he got shot in the middle of KNIL – Japan war in March 1942. And that’s when Salinem started to think carefully about what love she wanted to choose.

Meanwhile, in the present time, Tiyo, our main protagonist and Salinem’s “grandson”, seeks to reclaim his family’s old house in Prawit, something which he deems important in Salinem’s previous life. He also intends to open a restaurant selling pecel with Salinem’s secret recipe, but both do not seem to see any easy way out. His uncle is against his idea of buying the old house from their former neighbor, and getting Salinem’s original recipe for her famous pecel is just as difficult. But Tiyo persists, because Salinem―his blood-related grandmother or not―is an important figure in his life, in his family’s life, someone who had stuck them together so as not to break away and fall apart.

Rahasia Salinem has an engaging narrative structure, though not unusual, revealing the past up to the point where the present characters pick up the story and tell their own memories and restlessness. They are surprisingly (or not?) not overlapping one another, so it won’t be difficult for anyone to catch up with all the figures, storylines and historical facts being scattered here and there. And since Salinem is the main character this book wants to tell the reader about, it is just right that her love story is the main line to follow, despite all other characters’ own problems and predicaments, making hers stand out and most heart-wrenching with all the emotions, tears and difficult choices she has to make. However, those other characters (especially her best friends) help “shaping” her path into what she is taking then, into what we readers see at the end. And that’s not even the final.

And Salinem does not merely stand out in her storyline, but also in her characterization. Hers is truly one of the best (female) characters I’ve ever encountered in any fiction I’ve read. She’s not trying to defy Fate but following it with a clear mind and resolute heart; she knows her place and doesn’t try to be someone more, but she knows that she can do more; and she chooses devotion and loyalty over romantic love and never regrets it. She knows what she’s doing and doesn’t try to blame anything or anyone for everything that happens in her life. She stands up straight and strong for her beloved ones, people whom she calls “family”. If anyone should be called a strong woman, it’s her.

I have read quite a number of Indonesian literary works, but only a few of them can really touch my heart, and Rahasia Salinem is one of those. Perhaps it is because of its cultural aspect, subjectively speaking (as some of Sapardi Djoko Damono’s fiction did to me), or perhaps Yotenega and Suryaning Adji were genius enough to depict Salinem’s character that I could truly feel her, that every time I read her it was as if I read myself. As for the background setting, Suryaning Adji didn’t even claim that it’s historically accurate, but somehow it made me feel like home. I didn’t live in 1940s’ Sukoharjo, of course, but when I read the book, I felt that I was there, speaking in own language with my own people. This book really, really felt close to me.

At the end, Rahasia Salinem is one of the best books I’ve ever read for all the subjective reasons there are. But the story itself is very engrossing, and the main character will definitely leave a very deep impression on any reader.

Rating: 4.5/5