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 He bought them (which were originally made in Germany) in a Chinese shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hence their ability to speak Chinese.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.