poetry, review

Sergius Mencari Bacchus

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

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

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

Selama ini kesepian adalah daun-daunmu

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

pohon yang sehat, sebentar lagi berlebah dan berbuah.

Meskipun sebetulnya kau sekarat; batang, rantingmu

digerogoti benalu yang telah lama kau harus pelihara

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

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

Tiba di usia di mana dunia tak lagi misterius:

(1) tak lagi perlu seseorang memahamimu

Karena kau telah memahami dirimu sendiri

(2) tak lagi mendamba dicintai

Karena kau telah mencintai dirimu sendiri

………………………………………………………….

Dan surga yang dibicarakan itu, Ada

di puisi lain yang tak membicarakanmu

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

others

Belajar Menerima Kehilangan-Kehilangan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fiction, review

Convenience Store Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Rahasia Salinem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Uncommon Type

Tak mungkin tak mengenal negeri Paman Sam beserta segala gagasannya mengenai kebebasan, kesetaraan, dan kesempatan. Paling mudah gagasan-gagasan ini dapat dilihat dalam film-film Hollywood di mana Tom Hanks telah lama menjadi bagiannya. Namun, kini sang aktor peraih Piala Oscar memilih untuk menampilkan itu semua dalam sekumpulan cerita singkat bertajuk Uncommon Type. Berisi tujuh belas cerpen, yang beberapa di antaranya berbentuk kolom surat kabar, Hanks memperlihatkan makna impian Amerika serta rasa cinta terhadap negara dari sudut pandang warganya dalam sebuah pengabadian.

Impian Amerika bukanlah sekadar cita-cita. Setidaknya di buku ini impian Amerika direpresentasikan sebagai suatu “kenyataan”, suatu tujuan yang pasti tercapai apa pun rintangannya, siapa pun dan bagaimana pun latar belakangnya, serta sekecil apa pun kemungkinannya. Amerika Serikat yang (tampak) berjaya itu digambarkan menolak untuk berkata “tidak mungkin”. Sebagaimana dalam kisah berjudul Who’s Who?, sebuah narasi klise tentang seorang aktris muda berbakat dari kota kecil yang mengejar impiannya menjadi seorang aktris panggung besar di New York. Tak kurang-kurang kesialan yang harus ditanggungnya, tak kurang-kurang usaha yang harus dilakukannya, dan akhirnya Dewi Fortuna pun tersenyum padanya.

Pun dalam cerita yang cukup panjang, Pergilah Temui Costas, yang berkisah tentang seorang imigran gelap yang lari ke Amerika demi terbebas dari kekejaman rezim komunis di negara asalnya. Assan, serta temannya Ibrahim, melarikan diri dari kejaran polisi Bulgaria seusai kabur dari penjara dan diam-diam menyeberangi perbatasan menuju Yunani. Di Yunani, Assan mendapat pekerjaan sebagai juru api di Kapal Berengaria yang akan berlayar membawa kargo ke Amerika. Sembari menyelundupkan Ibrahim, menyeberanglah ia ke negeri kebebasan. Dengan bantuan sang mualim kapal, ia berhasil mendarat di New York tanpa dokumen dan tanpa ketahuan pihak yang berwenang. Namun tentu hidup di Amerika bukannya tanpa kesulitan. Meski telah diberi “uang saku” oleh sang mualim dan diberi tahu di mana ia dapat menemukan orang Yunani, tetap tidaklah mudah bagi Assan untuk mendapatkan pekerjaan dan tempat berteduh. Akan tetapi, lagi-lagi, Amerika adalah negeri sejuta kesempatan dan kemungkinan bagi siapa saja. Walau telah ditolak berkali-kali oleh Costas, seorang pemilik restoran Yunani, Assan akhirnya memperoleh pekerjaan untuk bertahan hidup di negeri barunya.

“Kesempatan dan kesetaraan bagi semua orang” di sini tidak hanya berlaku bagi kaum pria. Hanks menegaskan bahwa wanita juga memiliki kesetaraan yang sama. Dan bukan melulu kesetaraan dalam hal pekerjaan, tetapi juga dalam hal bagaimana wanita dipandang sebagai manusia. Ini terutama dapat dilihat pada sosok Anna yang muncul dalam tiga cerita pendek yang berbeda. Dalam ketiga cerita tersebut ― Tiga Minggu yang Melelahkan, Alan Bean Plus Empat, dan Steve Wong Memang Sempurna ― Anna memang bukanlah tokoh utama dan merupakan satu-satunya perempuan di antara empat sekawan, tetapi ia digambarkan sebagai wanita yang mandiri, cerdas, aktif, dan tangguh; tak kalah dan bahkan dapat mengalahkan ketiga teman laki-lakinya dalam banyak hal.

Ketangguhan dan kemandirian ini dimiliki pula oleh sosok ibu Kenny Stahl dalam kisah Akhir Pekan Istimewa. Sosok ini menarik bukan lantaran ia menawan secara fisik, tetapi lebih karena cara Hanks menarasikan cerita dan menggambarkan tokohnya. Ibu dan ayah Kenny dikisahkan telah lama bercerai, dan ayahnya telah memberinya keluarga baru. Sementara itu, ibunya masih belum (atau memilih untuk tidak?) menikah lagi meski memiliki kekasih, dan menjadi seorang wanita karier yang sukses. Dari cerita akhir pekan bersama sang ibu, pembaca dapat mengetahui mengapa orangtuanya bercerai. Andai ditulis dari sudut pandang sang ayah, cerita ini akan terasa penuh penghakiman; sedangkan jika dikisahkan dari sudut pandang sang ibu, ia akan terlihat sangat egois. Untungnya, Hanks memutuskan untuk bercerita dari sudut pandang si kecil Kenny, yang masih polos dan dapat menerima keadaan apa adanya. Dengan demikian, pembaca dapat bersimpati terhadap ayah Kenny sekaligus memahami perasaan dan keputusan ibu Kenny.

Akhir Pekan Istimewa hanyalah salah satu contoh bagaimana keluarga di Amerika “berjalan”. Kisah pendek Selamat Datang di Mars juga mempertontonkan hal yang sama, meski dengan konflik berbeda. Keluarga Ullen tak bisa disebut sebagai keluarga harmonis. Dengan seorang ibu pemarah, seorang saudara perempuan memilih tinggal dengan pacarnya dan yang seorang lagi bertekad untuk datang dan pergi sesuka hati, serta Kirk yang selalu tenggelam dalam buku-bukunya, sosok Frank sang ayah yang selalu sabar dan menengahi pertengkaran demi pertengkaran menjadi satu-satunya orang yang masih punya akal sehat di antara mereka. Hanya bersama sang ayah pulalah Kirk merayakan ulang tahunnya yang kesembilan belas di pantai Mars, tempat ia pertama kali belajar dan kemudian menjadi raja ombak. Tetapi kejutan terbesar di hari itu bukanlah hadiah jam tangan anti-air pemberian Frank, melainkan rahasia keluarga yang selama ini tak pernah diketahuinya. Atau, mungkin, yang paling mengejutkan adalah sikap Kirk sendiri setelah mengetahuinya.

Yang terakhir, dan mungkin yang paling menonjol, dari buku kumpulan cerpen ini adalah rasa cinta terhadap negara yang tanpa cela. Aroma nasionalisme tercium begitu kuat di lima dari tujuh belas cerita, kendati beberapa di antaranya bukanlah secara langsung mengenai cinta negeri. Nasionalisme ini kerap muncul dalam bentuk olok-olok terhadap lawan di masa-masa Perang Dunia II dan Perang Dingin. Ini sebagaimana yang disiratkan dalam cerpen kedua, Malam Natal 1953, di mana para tentara sekutu Amerika Serikat digambarkan begitu hebat di medan perang, sedangkan para tentara Jerman digambarkan sebagai pecundang. Pada Alan Bean Plus Empat ― yang menghadirkan tokoh Anna beserta ketiga kawan lelakinya ― sang narator seakan mengejek Rusia yang gagal dalam misi ke bulan mereka sementara empat sekawan Amerika ini berhasil memutari bulan bahkan tanpa bermodalkan pelatihan dan dukungan dari NASA. Jelas-jelas sang narator hendak berkata, “Kami orang Amerika biasa saja bisa melakukannya, sedangkan kalian astronot Rusia tidak.”

Satu hal lagi yang kentara dari tulisan-tulisan Tom Hanks dalam Uncommon Type adalah kecenderungannya untuk “mengabadikan” masa lalu. Ini tampak jelas dari hadirnya mesin tik kuno bukan hanya dalam bentuk gambar tetapi juga di hampir semua cerita pendek yang disajikan. Hanks bahkan mendedikasikan tiga cerpen khusus untuk menghadirkan mesin tik kuno sebagai “tokoh” yang tidak hanya numpang lewat: Inilah Meditasi Hatiku, Kembali ke Masa Lalu, dan Penginjil Perempuanmu, Esperanza.

Secara umum, menulis memanglah suatu bentuk pengabadian. Dalam tulisan, pemikiran-pemikiran seseorang serta peristiwa-peristiwa yang pernah terjadi tak akan lenyap oleh waktu; karena terus dibaca dan disampaikan oleh satu orang ke orang lain, dari suatu waktu ke waktu berikutnya. Dan Uncommon Type adalah salah satu contoh dari pengabadian tersebut.

Rating: 4.5/5

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