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.