fiction, review

Sepasang Sepatu Tua: Sepilihan Cerpen

Sapardi Djoko Damono’s Sepasang Sepatu Tua might have just been released last year, but the contents are surprisingly not new. Most of them are recognizably included in the short story collection Pada Suatu Hari, Malam Wabah; so Mr. Sapardi’s readers might get the feeling of reading the “same” book twice coming from different publishers. The reason behind this decision to republish many of the same contents over a short period of time was not known, unless one wants to speculate the later publisher merely intended to use the late senior writer’s popularity to boost their sell, for this was not the first time they―or any other publisher―did so with senior writers’ old works.

Of the nineteen pieces (short and rather long) included in this collection, only seven which are definitely outstanding, mostly for their unusual themes and styles of narratives, and some for the way Mr. Sapardi twists the plot. The first on the table of contents, the titular story, is such a one. Told in subtly hilarious tone, Sepasang Sepatu Tua narrates the close relationship between a university professor and his newly bought pair of shoes. He bought them (which were originally made in Germany) in a Chinese shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hence their ability to speak Chinese. Yes, the shoes speak, and the professor can hear them though is unable to understand what they say since it’s a foreign language to him. Over a period of time, however, he’s come to get their daily conversations and, inevitably so, started to feel annoyed at the same time.

Rumah-Rumah is also a giggle-triggering one. In quite the same style as Sepasang Sepatu Tua, it tells a story of “talking” houses in a complex bad-mouthing each other the way human neighbors usually do. They whisper about how the house number eleven is never in peace, the family living there are always in a row, not a single time do they ever keep quiet. Meanwhile, the house number thirteen is a mere uninhabited one being let by the owner but never gets rented. Worst of all, the house number fifteen is only half-built, because the owner doesn’t have any money any more to finish it. These “lonely, bitter” houses are just like the human dwellers: envying each other, whispering about each other, and yet never realizing that life is merely about seeing through the tinted glass.

Two short stories in a row are talking about mentally ill people. The first one, Seorang Rekan di Kampus Menyarankan Agar Aku Mengusut Apa Sebab Orang Memilih Menjadi Gila (or, in English, A Colleague at the University Suggests that I Ask What the Reason People Choose to be Crazy) literally tells of a university professor who asks a random wandering insane person why he chooses to be crazy. The crazy man, recalling his mother’s saying to him, feels annoyed by the constant questioning and thinks that the professor himself must be out of his mind. Meanwhile, the second one, Membunuh Orang Gila (literally translates Killing A Mad Man) talks about a driver accidentally hitting a wandering mad man on the street with his car. The mad man dies on the spot. Strangely (or not?), the driver feels sad about the mad man’s unexpected, sudden death―though he claims that it’s not him hitting the mad man, but the mad man who hit him―for he has already considered the mad man his own friend, seeing him everyday on his way to Bogor. And then a question pops into his mind: who is the crazy one in this world? How did they become crazy? Are they the victims of revolution who were never proclaimed a hero? Or are they the victims of reformation who were oppressed back in the day? One thing for sure: the sane person is the one who goes wherever the wind blows.

Just like the twist he does to the legend of Ken Arok and Ken Dedes in the quite long piece Hikayat Ken Arok, Mr. Sapardi reverses the entire premise of our famous fable about a cunning mouse deer in Dongeng Kancil (The Story of A Mouse Deer). Traditionally, the protagonist mouse deer could easily play tricks on other animals (the tiger, the crocodile and the snake) and get away with it. But here, the truth is the opposite. The Storyteller has decided that the mouse deer is the one being tricked by the other said animals and even by human beings. Having objections to his “new” fate, the mouse deer sets to find the Storyteller to find out what will happen to him next. On his way, however, he is trapped by humans and being caged and prepared for a wedding feast. He has no way to run.

Jemputan Lebaran is perhaps the most reflective short story of all in this collection. It reflects on how we (the Indonesian Muslims) see the Eid ul-Fitr celebration. It’s been our tradition upon the celebration day to go back to our hometowns and do the same things and meet the same people every year. So traditional it is that we just do it automatically without thinking and without knowing what the “rituals” mean. The protagonist wants to apologize to the Eid ul-Fitr for this, and to try to understand what that particular celebration day actually means.

And, the last of the most engaging stories in this collection I was appealed to, Suatu Hari di Bulan Desember (One Day in December) is my favorite both here and in the other book Pada Suatu Hari, Malam Wabah. It focuses on the main female protagonist Marsiyam who is sentenced years in prison for badly beating her husband. No, it’s not a hoax. It’s true. She indeed did that. But here the reason behind it is the main highlight: Marsiyam was always blamed for their childless marriage, and her husband accused her of having an affair with another man. There is only so much a woman can take, and this had been beyond Marsiyam’s emotional and mental capabilities. Strangely, after being years in prison, she gets pregnant, though she never had any physical relationship with anyone there.

Reading the entire collection, it won’t be wrong to say that Mr. Sapardi keeps true to his style and narrative twists. He never merely stands and lets himself be swayed either to the left or to the right, the way he never accepts the dominant narrative as it is―which is what he does here most of the time. He laughs at the world without showing off his sneer. His writing is as quiet as usual, but strong and profound. His ideas are never the common ones, and his reflections on life are always worth to be reckoning.

The fact that Sepasang Sepatu Tua might not be his best short story collection is perhaps because some pieces are delivered in pretty boring tone, like Ratapan Anak Tiri and Daun di Atas Pagar. Meanwhile, a thought-provoking piece like Ditunggu Dogot might be too difficult for some readers to stomach.

That’s said, Sapardi Djoko Damono is a truly great writer worth to watch, and Sepasang Sepatu Tua is still good enough for readers to spend their time reading it.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Diary of a Murderer

Indonesian edition’s cover

Kim Young-ha’s dementia-themed thriller Diary of a Murderer is sort of unusual in several ways: the way it’s written, the point of view it dares to take, the plot twist it presents at the end―they all, though do not give the reader a thrill this genre should, scream uniqueness and a certain level of darkness accompanying them through its pretty difficult labyrinth. A story of a serial killer is already everywhere in the crime/thriller area, but wait until you have to encounter what’s inside their mind.

Kim Byeong-su started killing at the age of 16 when he decided to end his own father’s life. Since then, he had been going on a killing spree until he was 45, and eventually stopped when he didn’t feel any excitement from it anymore. Now he is merely a 70-year-old retired veterinarian suffering from dementia and unable to remember the most recent things in his life. He only has his daughter Eun-hee at his side, and has to keep her picture in a locket so as to not forget her face. He even writes things down in a diary, especially what he had done in the past.

As the narrative reveals more and more, however, the most interesting thing about Kim Byeong-su’s past murderous activities is that he never got caught, not even once. This was simply because he did that right in the era when South and North Koreas were in an intense war, where the northern parts of the democratic one filled with the Communist spies lurking in forests. There were not enough evidences, there weren’t any eyewitnesses, and so every murder he committed would be right away blamed on the enemy’s people. But it is exactly what makes him regret his peaceful life for the last twenty five years. He finds it so boring and thinks that he should have been arrested. Unfortunately, that never happened.

And now that he is “enjoying” his retirement he becomes unexpectedly restless, not only for the dementia he has but also because of a seeming killer who appears to be targeting his daughter Eun-hee. As an ex-murderer himself, he knows his kind when he sees one, and there is no way he will let that suspicious man get any near Eun-hee. So he makes up his mind and starts tracking Park Ju-tae, the suspicious man he thinks is trying to murder Eun-hee yet in fact, much to his surprise, claiming to be her boyfriend. Things get confusing and unsettling between the three, and Kim Byeong-su, of course, warns his daughter against seeing her boyfriend again. But Eun-hee won’t take it, saying instead that he is being unreasonable and confused. He is sure he is not confused, though his dementia has been damaging his brain more and more. Now, with this state of mind, it becomes all the more unclear what’s real and what’s not, what’s merely his imagination and what’s not. So, how then will he save his daughter?

It doesn’t feel right to say Diary of a Murderer is an intense thriller novel. It doesn’t grip you, it doesn’t haunt you that you want to finish it in one sit. It does, though, make you wonder non-stop how it will turn out and if Kim Byeong-su will be able to save his daughter at the end. But the entire narrative is clearly about what happens inside his mind, not outside it in reality. The writer, Kim Young-ha, invites us to come and play with the protagonist’s suffering mind and memory, to see and guess if what he tells the reader is reliable or the otherwise, and to pity him sometimes. It’s tricky and yet laid-back at the same time. It doesn’t want you to restlessly ask questions and demand answers, it wants you to lazily play the game like an old person that he is.

Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer is a puzzle-heavy read with an unusual narrative about a serial killer. It’s neither a whodunit nor a whydunit, it’s more like a mind trap for the reader. That’s said, the writer is not so merciless that he doesn’t give any hints of where the story is going. He does, in a very subtle way, and that’s the strength of this so-called crime novel (if we cannot call it a “mind labyrinth” one). Readers who do not get the hints will probably be angry once they reach the end of the game, but those who are aware from the beginning of what the writer intends to reveal will almost definitely say, “Ah, that makes sense.”

In conclusion, Diary of a Murderer can be or cannot be called a crime/thriller story, but it is undoubtedly enganging and convincingly deceiving. It is highly recommended to anyone who is already bored with the conventional type in this entire serial killer universe.

Rating: 4/5

poetry, review

Perjamuan Khong Guan

Earlier this year, Joko Pinurbo, Indonesia’s much beloved poet, had just released his latest poem collection, Perjamuan Khong Guan. It is divided into four parts (or, cans, in this case), and some numbers may not sound new anymore after their previous appearances in newspapers last year. However, Pinurbo’s die-hard fans and loyal audience were sure excited about the release, because his works, newly or re-released, are always being looked forward to. Moreover, the title has in it the biscuit brand which is not only legendary but also has become everyone’s yearly joke at the Eid ul-Fitr day celebration in our country.

The first part (or, Can One) deals mostly with the growth of a place, a society, a country. But it’s not particularly in a good sense of the word. For example, in poem Dari Jendela Pesawat (From the Airplane Window), which talks about the growth of a city, Pinurbo says:

“Besi, beton, dan cahaya
tumbuh di mana-mana.” — page 12
(“Iron, concrete, lights
stuck out everywhere.” — my translation)

He seems to use a sarcastic tone more than readers can sense. And it sounds stronger when it comes to the growth of our country and politics, saying that this era is getting wilder and our politics is getting “louder”. He blatantly points out that our country and politics are not something we can rely on. In Pesta (Party), he even criticizes the last presidential election event where the officials were “forced” to work till midnight and died after being overworked without getting due compensation, all the while, of course, the candidates were fighting for the No. 1 position and the winner blissfully rejoiced in his victory.

However, the most regrettable growth that Pinurbo laments in Can One is the growth of technology, as readers can see clearly in several numbers such as Markipul (where the use of smartphones has driven people crazy), Doa Orang Sibuk yang 24 Jam Sehari Berkantor di Ponselnya — a very obvious title which literally translates A Prayer by Someone who is Busy Working in His Cell Phone for 24 Hours, talking about how someone is so absorbed in his gadget and unconsciously forgets about praying to God. In Fotoku Abadi (My Pic is Eternal) people really think that the photography technology can make them immortal (in pictures).

The second part, or Can Two, is more of a place where Joko Pinurbo flaunts his well-known linguistic sense of humor. The title of every single poem is actually a common idiom in Indonesian language, but when you read the entire poem you’ll get that these groups of words are used literally. For example, the poem entitled Kamar Kecil (which is an idiom for a restroom) turns out to be talking about a small room (its literal meaning); Catatan Kaki (or, footnote) talks about writing a note on a sleeping person’s foot. The funniest moment would probably be when we encounter the poem Mimpi Basah (wet dream) in which the character there is not having a sexually exciting dream but a nightmare of falling into a river instead. And while he is all wet, he feels so deeply sad as he sees his late father in the dream. The title Datang Bulan (menstruation) is also ironically funny, because the content of the poem is not, for it talks about an employee who has to work till midnight with the company of the moon (bulan) — which, as we dig deep into it, actually shows the distress of an overworked white-collar worker.

Can Three is a bunch of stories about the character Minnah: her birth, her family, her home, her school, etc. There are, however, three or four poems which are the most engrossing. Sekolah Minnah (Minnah’s School) insinuates the unpleasant truth that people in common never use their brains when talking, saying things without thinking. This is particularly interesting as there is the word “school” in the title, a place where people should be learning through thinking — again, the poet is secretly making fun of people. The second interesting one is Kepala Minnah (Minnah’s Head), in which Pinurbo mourns over the state of libraries, especially in our country, which often only have a very few visitors. This might be no surprise since our country is known to have a very low rate of reading interest. However, Uang Minnah (Minnah’s Money) is the one that punches readers in the face the hardest, especially those who are so stingy. It reminds us that we don’t need to wait to have fortune to be generous.

“Merasa kaya kadang lebih
berguna daripada kaya sungguhan.” ― page 91
(“Thinking that we’re rich is sometimes
more useful than being actually rich.” ― my translation)

The entire idea of the fourth part is to give the Khong Guan biscuit can its own narrative. The poems talk about the family portrayed on the can, especially the absent father whose presence is always questioned by the biscuit fans or the passer-by consumers. And his being absent is indeed explained in Keluarga Khong Guan (The Khong Guan Family), but it is in the form of criticism of Indonesian language, nationalism, and the printed media. Speaking of criticism, it’s as if Pinurbo cannot stop bemoaning the new era where everything seems to be in such a mess: the houses in villages not having yards anymore (Mudik Khong Guan); the biscuit can holding today’s newest gadgets (Bingkisan Khong Guan); and, once again, the overuse of smartphones by the younger generation that the grandma in Simbah Khong Guan feels neglected by her own family.

Some readers might be a bit tired of his always simple style and think that he only sells themes, not the beauty of the “poetic forms”. But we have to admit that he is linguistically apt and what he brings forward as themes are always thought-provoking. He is a word player and a keen observer of life and that’s what makes him a beloved poet. His collection this time is an undisputed proof of what he is capable of.

Joko Pinurbo’s works are always about twisting daily lives into linguistically hilarious, satirical musings. And now that our daily lives cannot be separated from gadgets, the gist can be seen in most of his poems here in Perjamuan Khong Guan: from the first part to the last, lamenting the craze over smartphones and how it affects our social lives and communication with real people in real life. The senior poet also bewails the “growth” of our country, which cannot be said to be “okay”.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Die, My Love

2020-05-29_10-39-06Being different is already difficult, much more being a different woman who doesn’t live up to everyone’s standards. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz is a blatant protest against these standards, and it never feels sorry about it. First published in 2017 by Charco Press (and co-translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), this short novel tries so hard to point out what is wrong with a marriage that obviously goes wrong in a patriarchal society which tends to see everything out of standards in a woman as wrong. You might want to prepare yourself, for this one is totally unapologetic.

The story begins with our (anonymous) protagonist imagining herself holding a knife in her hand, ready to kill her husband. Of course, it does not truly happen, but the desire to do so is there and never ceases to exist. What she never has a desire to do is having a baby, and yet there she is, with a six-month toddler to care for. Another problem wedged in her heart that surges immediately in her early narrative of stream of consciousness is the big question of why her husband picks and chooses her while there are so many other beautiful, attractive women out there. And readers might have their own big question in turn: if she doesn’t feel like it, why doesn’t she say no?

But, well, that probably is not the right question to ask, since the book is obviously not about the choices women could have, but what they have been trapped into. As the story progresses, readers can see that the protagonist is so out of place in her own world: she isn’t only unfit for marriage, but the entire household stuff, the neighborhood, the way the world “usually” works. She sees everything that is “normal” as imprisoning, a cage she’s yearning to get out of from. The only place she can feel free in is the forest next to her house, where she often sees a deer with a pair of warming eyes. It is the deer she considers her life partner instead of her demanding husband who always sees her as weird and unsettled and not the kind of wife he wants her to be. He even thinks her excessive sexual appetite annoying, not letting her get what she wants while he himself strays away and has sex with another woman.

And this is also where the problem lies. The protagonist’s husband never (or, never wants to) fulfill her huge, endless sexual needs that when she knows her married neighbor has his eyes on her, she directly jumps into an affair with him. Her husband flies into a rage, of course, but while you know unfaithfulness is never the right thing, you cannot blame her. You would demand faithfulness from the husband as well, and since he cannot give that, you would stand up for her.

But a secret affair is not the only problem wrecking their marriage. The protagonist’s unusual (if you want to call it “unusual”) sexual appetite has also created another one: the husband sends her to a mental facility. What then makes the reader feel unsettled is all the patients there are male, except her. This action by the husband can be interpreted by the reader as misogynistic, being based on an opinion that women with such sexual desire are “not normal”. Is that how the world sees them?

The entire narrative bottles up pressure and frustration, resulting in having unrestrained demons screaming for freedom inside oneself. This having demons doesn’t mean that women are evils, as misogynists might think, but that they are not liberated the way they want to be, or should be. If this book seems to be the total opposite of misogynistic, whatever you might call it, then it is. All male characters here do not seem to be a good man to the protagonist—not her husband, not her lover, and definitely not her father-in-law, who never loves his wife. It feels like the protagonist (or, the writer) wants to say that if “normal people” can be misogynistic, then why can’t we be the opposite? Die, My Love seems to want to demand justice for women, for “unusual women”, that is, in a very extreme way. And it just doesn’t care, it doesn’t want to pretend the other way around.

What might become a problem here is actually the protagonist herself. Not her demonic character, but her silence. Why does she keep silent in the entire story? Why, every time she and her husband have disagreements, she never argues or expresses her opinions? Why does she never say no? Because she never has a choice? Is that how the writer portrays all women in the world and the mentality that, sadly, get them fall under patriarchy: do as you’re told, keep quiet, don’t fight back. And if everything doesn’t go well or as you like it, turn to the backstreet, fight from the dark.

But perhaps that is just the case, and Die, My Love is the written proof of this sad situation, of all women’s frustration. And if this difficult premise is already hard enough to chew over, then readers might want to prepare themselves for the difficult writing style: no names, no quotation marks for conversations, no clear distinction between the past and the present. Everything is blended, everything is like in a daze, yet so strong and poignant and heart-tugging. And Harwicz doesn’t seem to want to give the reader a certain ending, only hope for freedom.

I wouldn’t say that Harwicz’s Die, My Love is a super marvelous work of feminist literature, and reading it might give you a headache (literally), but it’s a screaming voice that we should consider for it’s own sake. It’s something different about someone different, and not a few people might be able to relate to it.

“It’s not that I’m assuming I want to slit his throat. I’m only saying that submission pisses me off.”

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Teh dan Pengkhianat

2020-05-29_10-38-57Never or rarely do we have histories written by the opposite side of a war or, to be precise, by the enemies. There might be some, but they do not see the entire event from the opposite point of view. Historians tend to write them from their own. But that’s not what Iksaka Banu dares to do. He writes short stories about the hundreds of years of Dutch colonization of Indonesia entirely from the viewpoint of the Dutch themselves. Teh dan Pengkhianat is one of his collections that gives affirmation to this. First published in 2019, it has thirteen short pieces on what the Dutch might have thought about the colonization, the land they had been occupying, the people they had been living with, and should they have just gone away when the time had finally come.

Among those thirteen short stories, some seem to have similar specific themes. Tegak Dunia and Variola are the first pair to talk about the same thing: science versus religion. For those who endlessly witness the tiring debates about whether the earth is a globe or flat, Tegak Dunia might be an interesting narrative piece. Jan van de Vlek is an orphan of Dutch origin raised in an orphanage in the East Indies. His late father wanted him to be a sailor and his uncle spares no effort to realize it. But Jan is reluctant, being told by his priest that sailors are liars, that it is impossible for people to sail because the world is, according to the Bible, flat, not a globe as they confidently state. Meanwhile, Variola is a story very relevant to today’s society everywhere which is mostly skeptical about vaccines. To stop the spread of smallpox in Bali, Dr. Jan Veldart suggests doing vaccination as quick as possible. But it is 1871 and vaccination is not a process as easy as clicking one’s fingers. He needs ten healthy children (with willing parents) to become the media, and Mr. Adriaan Geest tries his best to acquire them, difficult as it might be. He manages to obtain six, and goes to an orphanage to see if he can get another four. But here lies the obstacle: a priest named Van Kijkscharp, who condemns vaccination like it is a grave sin. To him, vaccination means stopping the destiny from actually happen, namely the death determined by God. In short, doing vaccination is against God’s will.

The second to deliver a common idea are Di Atas Kereta Angin and Belenggu Emas. Both imply the unavoidable, unbearable white supremacy in the time of colonization, where the Dutch really think that they are way superior to the natives and therefore not to be “too kind” to or get in touch “too much” with them. But Belenggu Emas generally talks more about women’s emancipation, in which Cornelia, our protagonist, is put in a “cage” by her husband Theo, not only because she is a woman, but also because she is a European, someone who’s supposed to give examples to the “uneducated” natives, and not imitate them instead.

The third and the last pair, Tawanan and Indonesia Memanggil, show the reader what it is like when the Dutch is on the opposite end in this entire colonization. The narrative doesn’t tell readers about what they had been through in the second World War, but it points out blatantly that what they’ve been doing to Indonesian people is nothing different, if not worse. The Dutch protagonists in both stories seem to try to make their fellows see that if they do not like what the Germans did to them, they should’ve not done the same to Indonesians.

Those pairs of common-themed pieces might appear pretty engrossing, but the titular story is not less appealing. Teh dan Pengkhianat (or, in English it would be Tea and the Traitor) will grab the reader’s attention not only for its interesting premise, but also its thought-provoking quality. Back then, there were a lot of Chinese labor from Macau working in tea plantations of Wanayasa and Sindangkasih. They were going out on a rebellion for the unfair payment they got from the Dutch. Captain Simon Vastebonden was being tasked with quelling them, something that he found very hard not for the task itself, but for the partner chosen to work with him. Alibasah Sentot Prawirodirjo was a native who had once fought against the Dutch alongside Diponegoro, but then he had switched side and was now working for the colonists. This had made Vastebonden raise a doubt in himself: could he trust him? The man who betrayed his own motherland for money? And now given a chance to prove his loyalty to the Dutch by quelling the Chinese labor rebellion? What kind of man doing that?

But basically this short story collection in its entirety is talking about traitors, if we see the native-supporting Dutch people as traitors to their own nation. Except that from the native point of view, they are the kind-hearted, considerate persons who take pity on the people of East Indies and disagree with their own. In fact, the way we see it, the traitorous Dutch in each of the story does not agree with colonization and does not see Indonesians as inferior to them. This quality is, of course, considered good in the eyes of the colonized, but what about their fellowmen?

Every piece in Teh dan Pengkhianat is an insight into what colonization is, what it means to the land and the nation being colonized. But they mainly, as I have mentioned above, try to depict what the colonists think or feel about what they have been doing for hundreds of years. Some might say this is too ambitious, because, as part of the nation being colonized back then by the Dutch, how could Iksaka Banu be sure that what he describes here is exactly what some of the Dutch did think and feel about their nation occupying the East Indies? What right does he have?

It’s not that the entire collection is a bad idea, it’s merely highly questionable. And what becomes more of a problem is actually how Mr. Banu tells the stories. His writing style is, sadly, not engaging enough to make the reader stay awake till midnight and stomach what he’s trying to say. All the premises are pretty interesting, but how they are executed is quite far away from impressive. It lacks the soul, the grippingness of a powerful narrative. It’s as if it’s merely telling you something, and not exactly describing to you something.

Overall, Teh dan Pengkhianat by Iksaka Banu is a pretty good collection. It tries to push the “national” boundary and depict the run of the history from the “enemy’s” point of view. Whether it fails or succeeds, it’s up to the reader. Whether he’s right or wrong to do so, it’s also up to the reader.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Mr. President

Indonesian edition cover

Totalitarianism seems to be an always relevant topic to discuss, for there is still one or two countries applying the said system and having the world amazed and scared at the same time. It cannot be helped since total freedom seems what people want most, and democracy has become some sort of a god. People worship it, people idolize it. And people do not want any regime to control any part of their lives. And so any contrast to it will be talked about forever, especially in literature where people are sharing and spreading what they are thinking.

Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is only one example of this kind of medium. First published in 1946, it depicts how bad life under a dictatorial regime is, how turbulent times affect people living under such regime, and how politics works in such country.

It opens with an unintentional killing of one colonel José Parrales Sonriente by a deeply traumatized, mentally ill beggar in front of a public church. The witnesses are there, so it should not be difficult to investigate and close the case as such. The problem is, however, Colonel Sonriente is one of Mr. President’s close friends and his murder is deemed an act of treachery. In short, it is considered impossible for a higher official with such connection to be murdered by a crazy beggar who doesn’t even know whose life he has taken. Therefore, quite intentionally (I would say so), the blame is laid on the president’s enemies: General Canales and the lawyer Carvajal. They in fact are not even his true enemies, they merely have a different opinion from his.

And so, as is predicted, the hunting begins. Both Canales and Carvajal are charged with murder and treachery, and given the death sentence. The president then asks his another close friend, Miguel Cara de Ángel, to pretend to help Canales run away (so he will definitely look “guilty”) and sets to catch him in the act. Unfortunately, the general really manages to escape while Miguel gets his hands on the general’s beautiful daughter, Camila, making him unable to hold his ground and change sides. But it might not seem strange in the middle of political turmoil to switch sides and betray each other, for General Canales, innocently charged with betrayal himself, eventually sees why he should take actions against the president.

Rulers of this kind of regime can be very paranoid and manipulative. And that’s not a very good combination. The president of the fictional republic described in the book is obviously so afraid of losing his power and position that he must suspect everyone and anyone even those who innocently (or, unconsciously) express an opposing opinion to his. He deems everything against him as a thread, not only to him but to the entire country. Hence the law is literally blind before everything and everyone. One can be punished for saying the truth, and another can be rewarded for telling lies. It’s all for the sake of maintaining power and sovereignty, as is described by Asturias.

For all his unfair treatment of the people, Mr. President here is the central and interesting character to look at. People are not being bad or cruel without any particular reason. Though this is not what the writer intends to convey, it’s coming out through his words nonetheless. Mr. President, both the protagonist and antagonist of the book trying to control and silence everyone under his regime through any possible, imaginable means, is actually a mere weak person who is deeply hurt by his horrible past. Basically from a poor family with no privilege whatsoever, he has to survive and fight his way to the top—where he eventually has power to make the unfair society pay for what they have done to him. On the one hand, it could be (I say it could be) understandable that he becomes the dictator that he is. On the other hand, however, we will perhaps question his mentality and sanity and ask, “Do people become a leader just so they can seek revenge for their past? Is becoming a tyrant is a way to prove yourself?” Most of us will surely say no, but a leader with Mr. President’s mentality will likely say yes, it is.

Mr. President has a very powerful narrative and the president himself, though rarely seen and mostly described through his enemies’ or friends’ words, is a very strong character. The reader should not be worried about the so many side characters (those enemies and friends) because Asturias tells about their entanglement pretty clearly, despite their changing sides and whatnot. The realistic and surrealistic parts of the story are also nicely woven, so seamlessly, however, that readers might not be able to recognize which is which—which then becomes a hardship rather than pleasure. It also ends rather openly, but instead of giving hope (after all the characters have gone through), it only affirms that authoritarianism might not see its end very soon.

Overall, Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is undoubtedly a great novel, almost technically perfect and engaging. It’s just exhausting at times, for its surrealistic parts and for the military tortures done by the president’s cronies which seem to never stop.

Rating: 4/5


2019 in Reading: Not Bad, but…

I know I’m always super late in posting this kind of thing: a looking back to the past year of my reading activities and making some plans for the next. But no matter, since I don’t think anyone would be waiting for it. This is what everyone does every year, anyway, and I always feel I should do it, too. So here it is.

Upon making my pledge in the 2018 reading wrap-up post to read more books and fewer comics in 2019, I did and managed it. I only read 6 comic books (manga and manhua) among the 23 books I finished last year. I originally planned to read the entire volumes of Inuyasha, but then I got distracted by The Legend of the Condor Heroes, and then I was distracted, again, by something else. It resulted in my not finishing any series and only got around to read them up to volume 5 and 4 respectively. So it’s not actually about time, it’s rather about the lack of interest.

The year 2019 also marked my first time, my very first time, reading and finishing wuxia novels. I don’t mean comic books or manhua, but actually wuxia novels. This might sound weird because I’ve been a big fan of wuxia movies/TV series since I was a kid and this truly was the first time I started to read wuxia novels. Earlier in the year I finished Seven Killers by Gu Long (which I read online and was fan-translated by Deathblade). I liked the translation and the idea of the story, but I don’t know why I found the entire narrative a bit trivial. Not that I intend to compare it to any grand story by Jin Yong, but every time I picked it up and read it I was thinking, “Are you seriously writing it that way?” And don’t get me wrong, I had watched quite many of Gu Long’s adaptations in the past like The Legend of Chu Liuxiang and The Legendary Siblings but this book really put me off a little bit.

And that was not it. In mid-year I started to read Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber by none other than Jin Yong, the master of classic wuxia stories. To be honest, if we’re talking about the adaptations of the Condor Trilogy, HSDS was the one that I always liked the least. I don’t know why but I never really liked the storyline (though I loved the 1984 adaptation led by Tony Leung). There’s something I can’t explain about it that puts me off (Zhang Wuji’s fickleness, maybe? The so many girls around him? The Golden Flower Granny? Yin Li’s character?) Anyway, I decided to read the book because I was hooked by the newest adaptation coming out last year and starring Zeng Shunxi and Chen Yuqi (though the true reason I watched it was actually Lin Yushen’s Yang Xiao ;p). I’ve already finished two of the four volumes and I found them surprisingly exciting. This was really unexpected and inexplicable that I even asked myself, “How could I think this is a nice story?” Not even the Golden Flower Granny bothered me so.

           48076837062_57cd3fe011 48123715498_5e39c308fc 32782023108_d92f86917d

The middle of the year also saw me finding other unexpected gems and they were all included in my favorites of 2019: Circe by Madeline Miller and Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa by Faisal Oddang (The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, which I finished in January, was also my last year’s favorite). I was so happy to get the chance to read them, it was the best time and the best reading experience I had last year because after that, it was quite dull. There was nothing interesting, nothing exciting. Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat was a disappointment, and And Then There Were None was even more so (I know some people might want to kill me but sorry, I prefer the 2015 BBC adaptation to the book).

And not even Mr. Sapardi’s newest short-story collection, Menghardik Gerimis, could cheer me up. It wasn’t bad but I expected something more from him. He is Sapardi Djoko Damono, and he is one of my favorite writers. So I guess it’s only natural for me to expect something WOW every time he releases a book (either fiction or poetry). But Menghardik Gerimis was not something to boast about, and I didn’t even care to make a review of it.

For now, I’m still juggling my newest translation gig and my attempt to finish The President by Miguel Ángel Asturias. I’m even still trying so hard to continue reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Stangeness in My Mind. It’s not a hard read, it’s just long — longer even than any Pamuk’s book I’d ever read. And again, I got distracted by this and that (Twitter and Chinese dramas mostly ;p). I do hope, however, to finish both books soon this year, because I’ve got a new (long) list to get around to.

Plan? Now we’re talking about my 2020 reading resolution. Besides finishing the two books above (and the rest of HSDS volumes, of course), I’ve been thinking to read other than my favorite writers. I mean, I usually read their books at least one a year, and I intend to break the rule in 2020. Plus, I might read more poetry books, and some books that are not of my favorite genre. Let’s just see what I’ll decide to get my hands on.

And before I forget, my blogger friends at BBI Joglosemar have just set up our own reading challenge with quite unusual categories, and since the list accords in some ways with my TBR pile I’ve been meaning to cut down, I decided to join in. Hope I’ll just have the time and mood to get through it.

So, let’s 2020 begin!


fiction, review

Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa

48123715498_5e39c308fc“Kenyataan adalah hal yang paling mudah dicurigai kebenarannya.” Apalagi jika kenyataan tersebut berlapis-lapis. Apalagi jika kenyataan kita dipegang dan dikendalikan oleh orang lain, sebagaimana kita memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan orang lain. Apalagi jika kenyataan saling bersengkarut dengan khayalan.

Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa, karya terbaru Faisal Oddang, dibuka dengan adegan di mana kamu (pemegang kenyataan pertama) sedang sibuk berusaha merampungkan novelmu lantaran sudah dikejar-kejar editor. Di tengah-tengah usahamu itu kamu didatangi oleh seseorang, pria tua berbadan gempal yang berdiri menghadapmu sambil menenggak vodka. Kamu mengenalinya: Raymond Carver, seorang penulis cerpen dan puisi yang (seharusnya) sudah meninggal tiga puluh tahun silam akibat kanker paru-paru. Tetapi orang itu ada di hadapanmu, dan meminta tolong padamu agar mencabut nyawanya. Sampai di sini kamu mempertanyakan apakah ini nyata atau tidak.

Nyata tidak nyata, demi iming-iming sejumlah uang, kamu lantas mengiakan dan menandatangani surat perjanjian. Yang menjadi masalah kemudian adalah, di saat kamu harus segera menyelesaikan novelmu, kamu juga harus mencari cara untuk membunuh Ray Carver tanpa ketahuan orang lain.

Ini tidak mudah. Novelmu saja sudah menguras pikiranmu. Plot yang kamu ciptakan buntu, terutama ketika kamu justru membuat kekasih si tokoh utama mati di tengah jalan. Lantas bagaimana kelanjutannya? Apakah Clevie, tokoh utama dalam novelmu—sang pemegang kenyataan kedua—harus kaujadikan kambing hitam dalam kasus pembunuhan yang kaukarang? Namun, mengingat kau masih harus mengurus kematian Ray, pertanyaan tersebut belum bisa kaujawab.

Sebelum membunuh Ray, kamu sempat memberinya makan mi instan yang kamu bawa dari Indonesia, dan ternyata Ray sangat suka. Dia berkata pernah menikmati mi instan bersama mantan istrinya, Maryann, tapi menurutnya yang kamu beri adalah yang paling enak, maka ia kemudian membeli sekotak untuk dimakan sendiri sebelum mati. Setelah Ray puas, kamu segera melaksanakan rencanamu. Sayang, percobaan pertama pembunuhanmu gagal. Ray nyata-nyata masih hidup. Kamu pun harus memutar otak dan mencari cara lain untuk melakukannya lagi. Tetapi anehnya, sebelum kamu sempat melakukan percobaan pembunuhan yang kedua, Ray telah ditemukan mati di bak mandi di kamar hotelnya dalam keadaan telanjang, berdarah, dan terkubur di bawah tumpukan mi instan dengan hanya kepalanya yang terlihat.

Kamu tahu bukan kamu pelakunya, melainkan orang lain: Tuan Monaghan, suami dari Nyonya Monaghan yang diketahui berselingkuh dengan Ray. Tetapi Nyonya Monaghan sendiri merupakan salah satu tokoh dalam novel yang tengah kamu garap, yang kamu jadikan kekasih gelap Clevie dalam narasimu. Bagaimana mungkin ia tiba-tiba keluar dari khayalanmu dan suaminya membunuh seseorang yang “nyata” dalam hidupmu?

Tapi apakah hidupmu memang benar-benar nyata? Bukankah kamu juga hanyalah tokoh dalam buku karangan Clevie? Secuil khayalan dalam kenyataan hidup Clevie? Bukankah kehidupanmu, kenyataan yang ketiga, juga hanya merupakan fiksi di tangan Clevie?

“Orang-orang hanya ingin mengerti apa yang mereka alami.”

Faisal Oddang (dalam kenyataannya sendiri, tentu saja) memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan semua tokoh utama dalam khayalan masing-masing. Meski teknik penulisannya terkesan tidak istimewa (dan bahasanya terkesan seperti hasil terjemahan mentah), caranya menghadirkan kenyataan yang bertumpuk-tumpuk mampu membuat pembaca bertanya-tanya manakah sebenarnya kisah yang “nyata.” Keingintahuan ini sebagian juga didorong oleh keinginan pembaca untuk benar-benar meresapi dan mendapatkan “jawaban” dari pengalaman membacanya, oleh keinginan untuk mengendalikan sendiri mana yang nyata baginya dan mana yang tidak. Singkat kata, pembaca (sebagian besar) tentu tidak ingin dan tidak suka dibuat bingung oleh sesuatu yang “tidak nyata”.

“Kamu tak perlu memberinya identitas,” Allisa memotong Clevie, “biarkan itu jadi olok-olok pada kehidupan dan juga kenyataan.”

Karya fiksi memang merupakan ranah khayalan di mana kita dapat bermain-main dengan dan “menciptakan” sebuah kenyataan. Ketika menulis cerita rekaan, kita—sebagai pemegang kenyataan kita sendiri—mengendalikan kenyataan orang lain dalam khayalan kita. Namun belum tentu kehidupan kita lebih nyata daripada khayalan kita. Pun diri kita, identitas kita, bisa jadi merupakan hasil pengandaian semata. Identitas kita, jangan-jangan, juga bukan merupakan sesuatu yang “nyata.” Setidaknya bagi orang lain yang tidak memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan kita.

“Jika kamu berjalan mengelilingi dunia lalu mendengar setiap orang dari setiap tempat berbicara mengenai kehidupan, maka segala yang bisa kamu pahami semata-mata omong kosong. Jika kamu berjalan mengelilingi dunia lalu mendengar setiap orang dari setiap tempat berbicara mengenai kenyataan, maka segala yang bisa kamu pahami semata-mata omong kosong.” — Robert Barry, pemenang Nobel Sastra 2018*

*) Kutipan ini, tentu saja, tidak berlaku bagi pembaca yang menganggap pemenang Nobel Sastra 2018 tersebut benar-benar nyata.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Cinta Tak Ada Mati

48956873901_70691273c6Cinta Tak Ada Mati (or, Undying Love in English) is not a short-story collection where Eka Kurniawan tries to be romantic. As we know of him, lovey-dovey narrative is never his way, and love stories, even if he ever made one, have never any intention other than to display people’s characters, actions and reactions which then lead to, or exist in, something bigger and mostly shocking. Consisting of thirteen of his old pieces, this book takes the reader to a journey of history, politics, religion, women empowerment, horror, sex, and, to my surprise, martial arts world (or what we usually call jianghu in Chinese).

It should have been clear that Kurniawan has always stood for women, what with his implied “protests” in Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is A Wound) and Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash). And here, in the first short story on the list he once again stages a protest and this time against the underrated role of a domestic woman in history. Yes, a domestic woman. What can such a woman do in the middle of the fights against colonialism? What can she do to help free her country of the profit-driven tyranny? Most people must have difficulties imagining her able to do anything. But Diah Ayu can do something.

In Kutukan Dapur (Kitchen Curse), Diah Ayu uses secrets of local ingredients and seasoning to poison her Dutch superiors and successfully kill them all. And, as she also teaches her fellow local cooks, she manages to get rid of not only one or two, but so many Dutch people unrightfully invading her motherland. It’s a massive killing and success, but does the history appreciate that? No, obviously. Not a single word told about her fight, not a single truth said about her person. Instead, people make and spread false rumors about her which only give her a bad name. Why? Is it because she is a woman? Or is it because she is fighting from the depth of her kitchen which is deemed too domestic to put into the masculine historical record?

As if it’s not enough yet, Kurniawan’s second piece Lesung Pipit (Dimples) also forces readers to put themselves in women’s shoes. Our unlucky protagonist here is a very beautiful girl whom her father sacrifices as an offering to a powerful shaman in order to save his own life after being beaten by a poisonous snake. Lesung Pipit (the titular name of the girl) is understandably unwilling. Who would want to marry a smelly shaman who has already had wives everywhere? So she sees no other way to fight for her freedom but to sacrifice her own body, inviting four unknown men to have a one-night stand with her. By the wedding night the wicked shaman knows it, inevitably, and divorces her at once.

Now if we talk about repression, we cannot help but have a tyrannical regime crosses our minds. This kind of regime is obviously, and undoubtedly, driven by fear: fear of losing its power, fear of having to face justice for the heavy-handed methods it uses to retain order, fear of challenges and upheavals. But what people in power fear most is that someone knows about their brutal actions and spread the word. And this is the basic idea of Mata Gelap (Dark Eyes). A man has been a witness to a mass killing of one million people in the midst of political upheavals, and the authority is frightened of the idea that he might have visually recorded the entire bloodshed. And so seven people are sent to him and demand that he removes both of his eyes. Not blind them, but remove them, and making him eat them to boot. Unfortunately for the authority, his being unable to see leads to his sharper hearing, and of course it is afraid that the man who is now called the Dark Eyes might hear some dangerous political rumors and demand him to cut his ears, too.

It is not enough, however, for a regime with such a paranoia. Next, the seven men order him to cut his nose, for there is a possibility that he smells something fishy and scandalous. And seeing that the Dark Eyes can still talk and tell (mostly funny) stories, they come again and cut his tongue. After that, it’s like they can’t get enough of their brutality: they cut his penis (for the sole reason that he can still make love to his wife) and all of his limbs so he cannot move at all. Lastly, they behead him and disembowel him. These horrendous actions might seem exaggerated, but it looks like Kurniawan wants to warn us readers that a regime that is so afraid of losing its grip on power can and will do much worse things than what he has described.

As always intriguing as the themes of brutal regimes and women’s problems might be, religion is perhaps what gets our attention more. It is undeniably so in a society where people wield their belief to show, and affirm, their superiority over “the others”. But Eka Kurniawan here doesn’t tell readers about how people in our society do that, for Surau (Mosque) is rather talking about rituals. Muslims who say their prayers five times a day might wonder, or complain, why they should do so but keep doing it anyway. This compulsory ritual has been an integral part of a muslim’s life everywhere, but what if some do not feel the need, or the urge, to do that? This seemingly simple yet profound short story tickles us readers to ask ourselves: when we do religiously compulsory rituals such as praying five times a day, are we truly sincere in doing it, or is it only for a show? And if we’re not whole-heartedly doing it for the sake of God, why bother?

The most interesting piece in Cinta Tak Ada Mati, however, is Ajal Sang Bayangan (The Death of the Shadow), where we can finally see Kurniawan gather all of his writing skills to pen something wuxia. Wuxia stories are not unfamiliar to Indonesian audience, and we have our own version of them. Seeing Kurniawan himself is a fan of the genre, it is only naturally exciting to see how he would craft his own jianghu adventure. It is not disappointing, fortunately, and surprisingly a bit philosophical in its idea.

Ajal Sang Bayangan tells the story of a pair of martial arts brothers who have been ordered by their master, Ajisaka, not to leave Majeti and to guard the treasure kept there until the master says the otherwise. But both disciples, Dora and Sembada, cannot sit still and do what they should. They are restless, thinking always that they are merely each other’s shadow and keeping a desire to banish it. So they abandon their duty and set to have a fight. But it is doomed from the start, looking at how alike they are in everything, just like, as it is already narrated, each other’s shadow.

Though stories like Penjaga Malam (Night Watch) and Jimat Sero give the feeling that Kurniawan doesn’t really fit into horror writing, Persekot and Caronang have quite shocking premises and twists, and are horribly satisfying at the end. Meanwhile, the titular piece, Cinta Tak Ada Mati, offers the reader another way of looking at undying love: how frustrating and exhausting it can be.

All in all, Cinta Tak Ada Mati displays not only thought-provoking themes and how unusually the ideas are crafted into narratives, but it also shows Eka Kurniawan’s talent and unquestionable ability in doing so. His prose is undeniably beguiling and his style is so beautiful without necessarily being dramatic. All of his short stories here are an embodiment of completeness in writing, and he seems very capable of that. No wonder he is one of our best writers today.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review


48076836522_f7ba53d209Joko Pinurbo is not the first poet to suddenly shift gear and write prose, but this is definitely his first time ever. Srimenanti, published earlier this year, is a very short novel guaranteed to give fans satisfaction, linguistically if not thematically. The sure thing is we can still have a laugh reading it, as we always did with his other works.

Subtly looking back to the past history, here Pinurbo presents a story told from two alternate points of view: one of a young, mournful girl whose father was mysteriously kidnapped (supposedly by the authority) and who is a painter, and one of a poet-cum-employee who is a huge fan of Sapardi Djoko Damono and strangely seems to have seen her in the description of a girl in one of Mr. Sapardi’s poems, Pada Suatu Pagi Hari. Having the same interests in arts and literature, both Srimenanti, the titular name of said girl, and the so-called poet are inevitably in the same circle of friends and so interact with each other as often as he can wish to. But that is not the only thing connecting them, for they seem to have had the same encounter with a buck naked man with bleeding genitalia strutting out in front of them. He frequently hunts them, stopping them everywhere they go and shouting, “It hurts, General!” as if he is in a terrible pain. One day he vanishes without trace and Srimenanti inexplicably gets anxious about it, waiting for him right under the lamp post where he is last seen.

The presence of this naked man might strike readers as odd in the middle of Pinurbo’s blatant attempt to quote, revamp and/or retell Mr. Sapardi’s poems in his own narrative prose and style. Some might even find it entirely unnecessary, and not funny at all, while Pinurbo is throwing jokes and amusing (though still meaningful) lines here and there. But let’s not forget that the senior poet is most probably talking about, or discreetly criticizing, the New Order. The mysterious man might actually denote the ghost of our past, hunting us still with repression, dictatorship and all kinds of bad memories. His shouting, “It hurts, General!” is not only a joke we usually hear or say casually (Indonesian people will surely understand this), because we know who the general is. And if all those symbols are not enough to make readers see clearly what Pinurbo intends to say, then the line, “Piye kabare? Ngeri zamanku to?” (“How are you? It’s scarier in my time, wasn’t it?”) might do the deed. Again, it’s another joke symbolizing something that is not funny at all.

Joko Pinurbo is widely known for his wit and amusing lines, and both are very much displayed here in the book. The name Srimenanti itself is a clear proof of his ability to think of something which is highly unlikely to cross others’ minds. What woman in Indonesia, particularly of Javanese tribe, named Srimenanti? I mean, I can’t even start to try to translate or explain what that name means. Sri is a typical name of Javanese women, and menanti is an Indonesian word for waiting. So what does that mean, then? The woman who waits? Well, it may refer to her waiting for the comeback of the mysterious naked man at the end of the story. But that is just my ridiculous thought.

And you cannot read any of Joko Pinurbo’s works without laughing or smiling at the very least. The joke is everywhere, like when a bank account says to our protagonist, “Aku merasa terhormat bisa menjadi bagian dari ketidakpastian rezekimu” (“I am honored to be part of the uncertainty of your finances.) Or when at some point Pinurbo parodies one of Mr. Sapardi’s famous lines into, “Kopi dan saya tidak bertengkar tentang siapa di antara kami yang lebih pahit” (“Coffee and I do not quarrel over who among us is bitter.) And they are not at all without meaning. They are more often than not sort of a slap in our face, knocking our conscience, stating hurtful facts, a little bit philosophical sometimes, especially when he says, “Kita adalah cinta yang berjihad melawan trauma” (“We are all love fighting against trauma.”) However, there is this one line that truly punches us so strongly about what happened in 1998:

“Saat itu sedang berlangsung demonstrasi menentang kenaikan harga BBM yang diikuti dengan merosotnya harga manusia.”

(“There was at that time a demonstration against gasoline price-hiking, which was followed by a plunge in the human value.”)

But his lines can be Pinurbo’s undoing as well, seeing how they are formulated here in the book. He seems trapped in his own style, “unable” to differentiate between prose and poem. (I put the word unable under the quotation marks because of course I know he is very able to do that). If you ever read even only one of his poems-collection books then you’ll know that he often writes poems in an almost prose style, and here in Srimenanti he appears to write paragraphs in rhyme that sound just like poems. This might seem revolutionary, or merely nothing-to-fuss-about, but for Pinurbo’s readers it can be outright boring. I mean, when you do two different things in one same style then what’s so new about it? He might just as well not write any novels at all, for his poems have already delivered stories to us.

Be that as it may, Srimenanti is still an enjoyable read. Anyone can read it merely for witty entertainment without having any literary expectation. And let’s not forget that it still has the ability to shake our conscience and emotions, and remind us that some pasts are still lurking behind our back and if we’re not careful they might come out and strike again.

Rating: 3.5/5

NB: all translations were unofficially done by myself.