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

others

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!

-erdeaka-

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

Srimenanti

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.

poetry, review

Raksasa Bermata Biru

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Indonesian edition’s cover

Sepertinya masih sangat jarang kita temui, atau bahkan mungkin belum ada sama sekali, karya sastra Turki dalam bentuk puisi diterjemahkan dan diterbitkan dalam bahasa Indonesia. Raksasa Bermata Biru karya Nazim Hikmet yang diterjemahkan oleh Bernando J. Sujibto ini bisa jadi yang pertama. Sebagai sebuah perkenalan kepada pembaca Indonesia, kumpulan puisi ini berisikan sejumlah tulisan yang memang tepat untuk memberitahukan tentang siapa seorang Nazim Hikmet.

Perkenalan dengan Hikmet ini dibuka dengan puisi berjudul Otobiografi, yang menceritakan tentang Nazim Hikmet secara keseluruhan: kapan ia lahir, di mana ia menimba ilmu, kejadian apa saja yang pernah dialaminya, kisah cintanya, sifat-sifatnya, kecenderungannya yang tidak tertarik pada kekuasaan maupun jabatan, juga kerendahan hatinya. Namun dari sekian banyak hal yang diceritakan melalui bait demi bait dalam Otobiografi, yang paling menarik adalah sifat-sifat sang penyair. Salah satu contohnya sebagaimana yang tersirat pada bait pertama:

“aku tidak akan kembali lagi ke kota kelahiran

aku tidak suka kembali ke belakang”

Dari dua baris ini tampak jelas bagaimana seorang Nazim Hikmet memandang masa lalu. Ia sama sekali tidak tertarik untuk menengok ke belakang, mengenang-ngenang kembali yang sudah lalu terutama asal-usulnya. Mungkin baginya tidaklah penting ia terlahir di mana dan bagaimana masa kecilnya. Mungkin yang penting baginya adalah apa yang saat ini dijalaninya.

Sifat Hikmet lain yang menarik adalah kemandiriannya, yang sedikit banyak memperlihatkan betapa tinggi harga dirinya, seperti yang dapat dilihat pada dua baris yang berbunyi:

“aku berbohong karena malu mengendalikan orang lain

aku berbohong demi tidak menyusahkan orang lain…”

Hikmet tak mengelak bahwa ia telah berbohong pada orang lain, tetapi itu dilakukannya agar ia tak perlu menyusahkan atau merepotkan orang lain, agar ia tak perlu meminta orang lain melakukan ini dan itu (maka mengendalikan). Jika membaca jalan hidup Hikmet sendiri yang dijabarkan pada bagian pembuka oleh Bernando J. Sujibto, maka ini tidaklah mengherankan. Jalan kesendirian yang ditempuh Hikmet ini juga terang ketika ia berkata di salah satu bait bahwa ia “tidak pergi ke mana orang pergi.” Hikmet bukanlah seseorang yang suka menggerombol dan mengikuti arus, ia lebih suka berjalan sendiri.

Bisa jadi, jalan kesendirian inilah yang membawa Nazim Hikmet pada pilihan ideologinya. Dengan memilih untuk menjadi seorang komunis, ia melawan arus di negerinya sendiri dan harus menanggung julukan pembelot. Hal tersebut disinggung dalam puisinya yang keenam di buku ini, yang diberi judul sesuai dengan pandangan pemerintah Turki pada saat itu terhadap dirinya, Pengkhianat Negara. Puisi ini menyajikan ironi, karena ketika di satu sisi pemerintah menganggapnya pengkhianat negara, di sisi lain mereka telah “menjual” negeri mereka sendiri kepada Amerika Serikat dan menyediakan tempat bagi pangkalan militer negeri Paman Sam. Hikmet secara terang-terangan menunjukkan siapa sebenarnya yang telah mengkhianati negara, dan siapa yang tidak.

Hikmet juga menyindir Amerika Serikat lewat puisinya Nelayan Jepang, sebuah puisi pilu yang ditujukan untuk mengingat tragedi uji coba bom hidrogen di tahun 1954. Pada puisi tersebut, Hikmet mengandaikan kapal di laut sebuah keranda berwarna hitam, siapa pun yang berada di sana pasti mati, dagingnya pasti membusuk, yang tertular pasti tak akan selamat. Uji coba semacam ini tentu sangatlah keji karena melibatkan dan mengorbankan banyak manusia tanpa pikir panjang dan tanpa pandang bulu. Ketika dalam satu baris Hikmet bertanya, “wahai manusia, di manakah kalian?”, sesungguhnya yang ia pertanyakan bukanlah di mana keberadaan manusia, tetapi keberadaan “akal sehat” dan “belas kasihan” mereka yang menciptakan senjata demikian.

Puisi-puisi Hikmet dalam buku ini yang menyindir pemerintahnya sendiri pun tidak sedikit. Ambillah contoh Rezim dan puisi berjudul 5 Oktober 1945. Dalam Rezim, ia berkisah tentang Presiden Adnan Menderes yang mengirimkan tentara panggilan untuk ikut bertempur di Perang Korea. Melalui pilihan kosakatanya (atau setidaknya yang digunakan oleh sang penerjemah, Bernando J. Sujibto) terasa jeritan pilu para prajurit yang dikirim bukan untuk membela negeri sendiri, melainkan ikut campur perkara negara lain demi aliansi politik. Di sisi lain, ironisnya, sang presiden bersenang-senang dan menikmati kekuasaannya, tubuhnya sehat, benaknya tak memikirkan mayat-mayat prajurit yang diutusnya.

Sementara itu, pada puisi 5 Oktober 1945, Hikmet mencurahkan kekesalannya kepada pemerintah lantaran abai terhadap rakyat. Negara membiarkan mereka kelaparan, kedinginan, kelelahan sampai mati (akibat kerja membanting tulang) dan berpisah (dengan keluarga dan orang-orang tercinta). Untungnya, kata Hikmat, rakyat belum sampai pada tahap saling membunuh. Untungnya lagi, rakyat biasa bukan tak mungkin punya kuasa atau daya untuk menunjukkan kepada pemerintah cara-cara kemanusiaan dan mencintai.

Bicara soal cinta, Nazim Hikmet tidak melulu berbicara tentang dirinya, perjuangan, maupun mengkritik ini-itu. Dalam kumpulan puisi Raksasa Bermata Biru ini, sang penyair juga berbicara soal cinta—suatu hal universal yang dirasakan oleh setiap insan—pada puisi berjudul Salju Membelai Jalanan misalnya. Selain cinta, sang penyair juga berbicara tentang kehidupan dan kematian. Pada puisi Tentang Kematian, Hikmet berkata kepada istrinya Hadijah Pirayende bahwa ia tidak tahu siapa di antara mereka yang akan lebih dulu mati dan kapan, di mana, serta bagaimana kelak mereka akan mati. Sedangkan dalam puisi berjudul Laut Malam Itu, Hikmet mengingatkan bahwa nafas (atau kehidupan) kita adalah pemberian Ilahi, maka dari itu jangan sampai kita lupa kepada sang Pencipta dan lupa bahwa yang abadi justru adalah kematian: kehidupan setelah kita mati.

Raksasa Bermata Biru secara langsung maupun tidak langsung merupakan otobiografi Nazim Hikmet sendiri, yang bercerita tentang riwayatnya, kisah cintanya, pilihan politiknya, kritik-kritiknya, juga apa yang diperjuangkannya. Setiap puisi tersaji dalam pilihan kata yang mengundang dan mengandung pilu, ironi, serta sendu. Hasil terjemahan Bernando J. Sujibto mampu menyalurkan ketiga rasa tersebut kepada pembaca, sehingga pembaca juga dapat mengenal nada dan gaya berbicara Hikmet pada bait-bait ciptaannya.

Selain dengan Nazim Hikmet sendiri, buku kumpulan puisi ini juga merupakan perkenalan pembaca Indonesia dengan perpuisian Turki. Pembaca Indonesia tentu sudah tidak asing lagi dengan karya-karya fiksi karangan Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, atau O.Z. Livaneli, tetapi mungkin kita belum mengenal pujangga-pujangga Turki secara luas. Buku ini bisa menjadi jalan pembuka bagi diterbitkannya lebih banyak lagi karya-karya puisi dari negeri dua benua.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat: Sepilihan Cerpen Amerika Latin

48123172453_e03a49bc90I’ve been wanting to join the Spanish Lit Month since a long time ago but this is my very first time ever truly making it true. And for this first edition I chose Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat, which has been on my TBR pile for almost an eternity, to read and review. You might be familiar with the English title, and it’s true that it is taken from the short story by Augusto Roa Bastos, but it is an anthology curated and released by Indonesian publisher Diva Press, consisting of fourteen short stories and one lecture.

Encounter with the Traitor is of course one of the pieces listed on the table of contents, and it’s also one of my few favorites. It is about an ex-prisoner who was years ago convicted of leaking information on rebels and once again encounters one of the victims of his deed. As the slow-but-sure storyline progresses, however, we will see that the so-called traitor was not actually the one who brought all the rebels at the time of war to their total demise. It was his brother, who then died and has been since then remembered as the hero. This short yet dense story clearly and cleverly shows us readers that wars, a particular period where everything is so tricky, deceiving and victory is the ultimate goal, can make a false hero out of the true culprit. We never know who our true enemy is behind the foggy lines.

Concerning Señor de la Peña by Eliseo Diego is the second on the list of both the contents and my favorites. Like the previous one, this is a story of deceitful reality. What you see is not always what is real, that’s pretty much the idea. Or maybe what you see is not what other people see. A new owner has come to live in a huge mansion at the border of a village, and since his arrival there all the servants try to figure out who he actually is, or rather what he really is like. Each of them sees their new master from a different point of view and therefore has a different opinion. It causes an endless debate among them and pushes them to go and take a look at him together, to see who is right and who is wrong about his person. But still, no agreement has reached, until finally the master’s brother-in-law comes and says, “What are you all looking at? There is nothing there.”

Why Reeds are Hollow by Gabriela Mistral is my most favorite of all stories that already left deep impression on me. People always dream of equality and ceaselessly, fearlessly fight for it. But at what cost? And to what extent do we need it? The reeds are throwing certain propaganda for the entire vegetation to have equal height. However, once this is realized, everything is in total chaos: clover as high as cathedrals, bushes grow dozens of feet, flowers get dried, lilies divided in two. And that’s not all. Animals are also badly affected by the so-called equality: get lost, cattle losing their fodder and finally human beings are starving. In short, the effect of equality campaigned by the reeds on the lives of all living creatures is not the good one. It ruins them, and not the other way around. You might wonder why but the answer is actually very simple: because everything and everyone is unique, they have their own characteristics, duties, functions and benefits. Everything and everyone do not need to be the same in every sense of the word, in every aspect. The world needs balance and that’s what differences are for.

My last favorite piece in this anthology is One Sunday Afternoon by Roberto Arlt. It might not be one with the newest or the most shocking premise, but its twisted, unpredictable plot will surely make readers feel tricked. When there is a lonely, bored wife – who is frequently being left at home by her busy, indifferent husband – inviting her husband’s friend for tea it wouldn’t pass the reader’s mind that she actually tries to seduce him while her husband is not around. What a perfect timing for unleashing her pent-up desire, and what a perfect person to do it with, too. But while you think that this woman is unfaithful, you’ll see that Eugene Karl, our male protagonist here, is having another idea. He might look so reluctant for a black-and-white reason, but then he’ll show you that he is not that good of a person. Later, after a very long, deep conversasion between the two, Eugene points out that the desire to get into bed with someone who is not your spouse is something normal in an empty marriage, and that any marriage will go through this particular phase, too.

It is such a shame that of the fourteen short stories contained in this rather thin book only four I could consider great and became my favorites. The rest just passed by without leaving any particular impression on me, not even those written by the greats such as Gabriel Gárcia Márquez (The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship), Isabel Allende (Toad’s Mouth), or Jorge Luis Borges (Parable of the Palace). This might sound so odd, but I probably couldn’t see their premises as interesting. Or perhaps it’s their narratives, or the translation. And the worsts are those with very, very unacceptable ideas like Axolotl by Julio Cortázar and Yzur by Leopoldo Lugones. I cannot say anything but that they are not my kind of stories.

Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat is not actually a bad anthology, but the short stories it consists of just didn’t interest me. I initially had high hopes for it, as it has many famous, great Latin American writers stamped on its front cover. Unfortunately I didn’t feel connected when I read most of their works here, hence my conclusion it’s merely so-so.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Circe

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Indonesian edition’s cover

What is power? This might not be the right question to ask for it’s more than likely that everyone knows the answer already. And it might not be wrong to conclude that everybody agrees it’s about controlling others, domination, making decisions on what others should or should not do. Madeline Miller pretty much (if not completely) shows this through her 2019-Women’s-Prize-for-Fiction-nominated novel, Circe. She shows how the gods have total control over humans (or, any creature below them), how men dominate women (also the undercurrent counter-attack they never realize), and how those with strength can do whatever they want to those who are less powerful.

The book, founded on and centered around the Greek mythology, tells about a nymph (a lower-class, powerless deity) named Circe who was born to a Titan father, Helios, and a naiad mother, Perse. She’s so physically imperfect, with unpretty appearance and bad voice, that even her own mother despises her. But she has a heart of compassion and determination that one day, when she knows she shouldn’t, she comes near Prometheus and asks, “What is human like?” while giving him some nectar to survive after his punishment. That might be a simple question asked out of curiosity, but it looks like a particular one the writer wants us readers to ponder about while scrutinizing her characters not as deities nor Titans, but as human beings.

And while you’re at it, Circe falls in love with a human herself, a charming fisherman named Glaucos. Helplessly head over heels and willing to do anything in order for them to be together forever, she ventures into Knossos and picks the flowers known for their ability to change somebody into somebody else (or, rather, into their real selves). She uses them on Glaucos and changes him into a sea god, but the result is not what she has expected. He becomes as arrogant as any deity or Titan you might encounter, and he falls in love with another nymph, the pretty and mean Scylla. Jealous and desperate, Circe uses the same flowers to change Scylla into a monster, which brings her to her demise: imprisoned for the rest of her life on a remote island.

But that’s her turning point. There on that secluded place, she starts to see things clearly, understand more the way of the world and herself, exploring her true power and using it. She meets sailors (men, to be precise) and comes to know how the opposite gender thinks that a woman living on her own is a weak creature easily intimidated and made a target of their animal desire and abusive behavior. Without her willing to, she has to help her sister Pasiphaë give birth to a monster and learns that if you don’t use your every power and trick to control men, men will control you. She meets Daedalus and finally feels what true love is. She meets Odysseus and knows that she can’t make the same mistake again and so secretly bears him a son, a descendant, walking steadfastly  into the realm of motherhood. Through her centuries of experience, she can finally see that she is the master of her own destiny and can do whatever she deems right, or necessary.

Circe’s transformation is perhaps that which people see as ideal these days. Initially innocent and letting herself be bullied for what she is, she then fights back with all she has. She is still a compassionate person at heart, but she no longer takes anybody’s nonsense thrown her way. However, the most interesting thing most readers will never probably miss out is how Miller, through the story of Circe’s ups and downs she has constructed, lays out blatantly the bitterness so many women have to endure. She bewails the notion that unpretty women (here being symbolized by ugly nymphs) are considered useless and unvalued, having no possibility of marriage, a huge burden to their family, dirt staining the world. She cries out loudly that women can actually totally independent: living on her own, fighting on her own, making her own decisions and being held responsible for them. With this lone wolf that is Circe, Miller wants to push into our face the fact that women can rely on their own capability and on themselves. And one more thing that we have to praise Miller for is her audacity to criticize the divinity—how the gods want humans and every creature beneath them to always worship them, pray to them, and sacrifice anything for them to the point that they will do just anything: manipulating, threatening, creating troubles and giving ordeals. This is not a mere criticism. This is how the world truly works.

Circe is, on the whole, a story about women. It’s about how all women on this planet can have their own power and the right to wield it. And Madeline Miller makes it clear through her engrossing narrative. It’s like pieces of cards being piled up neatly into a pyramyd the top of which readers will finally see, where Circe eventually decides her own final destiny and goes through what she has to. Miller also describes every character very well, displaying their seeming personality traits and then gradually revealing their true colors, making them so complex and natural and “human.” With this way of characterization you cannot even hate Pasiphaë, though Circe has time and again fallen victim to her cruelty. And you cannot also love Odysseus whole-heartedly, though he is one of those men who can understand and cherish her. Miller shows you people as they truly are.

Last thing to say, Circe is a fantastic read, fast-paced and enjoyable. And though there is nothing new in its idea or structure, its being “realistic” and powerful is enough to move you.

Rating: 4/5