fiction, review

Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul

33088007498_4b3ce12be2_oBisa jadi, tidak banyak cerita bertemakan identitas nasional ditulis oleh seseorang yang justru tidak memegang identitas tersebut. Mungkin ada banyak penulis yang lebih dari sekadar mampu menuliskan kisah dengan latar negeri-negeri nun jauh bermodalkan seberapa pun pengetahuan tertulis yang sanggup mereka raup, tetapi itu hanya akan seperti melihat kehidupan orang lain melalui lubang kunci pintu yang kecil: tidak mendalam, tidak menyeluruh, dan tidak sepenuhnya bisa dipercaya. Namun Bernando J. Sujibto bukan penulis yang hanya bermodalkan mengintip dari lubang kunci. Ketertarikannya yang kuat pada hal-hal berbau Turki, lamanya ia tinggal di tanah Eurasia, kemampuannya berkomunikasi dan intensitasnya berinteraksi dengan penduduk setempat menjadikannya mampu, dan berhak, untuk menghadirkan gambaran yang lebih luas mengenai sebuah negeri yang pada biasanya hanya kita kenal melalui media dan sastra.

Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul merupakan kumpulan lima belas cerita pendek karya Sujibto mengenai Turki—mengenai orang-orangnya, melankolinya, dinamikanya, juga keresahan dan masalah-masalahnya. Bagian pertama kumpulan cerpen ini, yang bertajuk Merayakan Cinta, dibuka dengan kisah berjudul Ela Gözlü yang langsung membuat pembaca cengang dengan keindahan dan kemuraman narasinya yang menusuk-nusuk. Jalinan cerita Ela Gözlü sangat padat, sangat ringkas, namun penuh misteri akan seorang perempuan muda yang menyimpan hasrat berjuang bersama PKK. Dengan mengadaptasi hüzün, yang terasa sangat kental pada karya-karya Orhan Pamuk, penulis menghadirkan pergulatan batin seorang Berivan yang sangat ingin ikut berjuang demi kemerdekaan dan berdirinya negeri Kurdistan. Atmosfer yang nyaris terasa romantis membuat isu sensitif separatisme yang menjadi tema cerpen ini lebih lunak untuk dikunyah, bahkan sedih dan melankolis sebagaimana yang mungkin diharapkan penulis.

Selain Ela Gözlü, ada enam cerita pendek lainnya pada bagian pertama, dan Beri Aku Kesempatan untuk Lebih Mengenalmu salah satu yang paling menarik. Penulis tidak bicara tentang Turki sama sekali, pun tidak menjadikan si bartender Turki sebagai tokoh utama. Ini sepotong kisah tentang seorang wanita bernama Jane yang memilih untuk tidak percaya pada cinta, dan justru lebih menggantungkan hidupnya pada hitung-hitungan. Jika penulis mana pun diperbolehkan bersandar pada klise, maka tak salah jika pada akhirnya Jane jatuh cinta tepat di saat ia harus menyesali sikapnya. Tetapi penulis tak membuat Jane larut dalam kesedihan dan penyesalan; Jane pergi ke Tibet untuk meresapi kehadiran cinta di hatinya.

Bagian Merayakan Cinta tidak melulu tentang cinta dua joli. Kaleköy untuk Muhammad Hasan Turki bercerita tentang persahabatan insan dua negara, sementara Senja di Osmangazi tentang rasa cinta pada bangsa dan identitas yang telah mati. Namun bisa dibilang Tokoh Fiksi yang Menjadi Orhan adalah yang paling menggelitik. Seberapa jauh, seberapa dalam, seberapa kuat rasa cinta kita pada idola? Apakah sampai menjadikannya sosok nyata di hadapan kita, bicara pada kita? Apakah sampai menjadikannya tokoh fiksi yang dikendalikan sesuka hati kita? Ini hanyalah satu contoh di mana rasa cinta bisa menjadi obsesi.

Kontras dengan bagian pertama, bagian kedua bertajuk dan berbicara tentang Merayakan Tragedi. Pada bagian inilah penulis membahas tentang gejolak, dinamika, pemberontakan dan masalah separatisme yang menyelimuti Turki. Dari delapan cerita yang disajikan, mungkin yang paling menarik adalah nomor-nomor yang bertemakan perdagangan ilegal di perbatasan, seperti Ada Dua Cara Mereka Mati, Ikuti Anjing Itu dan Kaçak Çay. Bagi orang-orang Turki bisa jadi apa yang diceritakan dalam ketiga cerpen tersebut sudah merupakan sesuatu yang “biasa”, rahasia umum yang semua orang tahu. Tetapi bagi orang-orang yang tidak tinggal di sana, bukan orang sana, atau tidak pernah melihat atau mendengar apa pun tentang dalamnya negeri sana, cerita-cerita ini bisa dibilang sungguh mengejutkan. Para pedagang barang-barang selundupan harus selalu siap mempertaruhkan nyawa di tangan para penjaga perbatasan. Ada yang demi penghidupan, ada pula yang demi membiayai gerakan pemberontakan.

Bicara tentang gerakan separatis, selain ceirta pertama pada bagian pertama, Sujibto kembali menghadirkan tema serupa di bagian kedua ini dalam dua nomor, Atas Nama Tanah dan Bangsa Kita Sendiri serta Lima Biji Zaitun Rontok. Meski memiliki tema serupa, tetapi dua cerita tersebut berbeda dengan cerpen Ela Gözlü—narasinya lebih tegas, atmosfernya lebih keras, dan akhirnya mengenas. Pada Atas Nama Tanah…, penulis bercerita tentang seorang warga suku Kurdi yang ditembak mati oleh polisi karena berani menurunkan bendera Turki di Diyarbakir. Orang ini berbuat demikian bukan tanpa alasan: ia tidak pernah merasa dirinya orang Turki; ia adalah orang “lain” dan ingin menjadi “lain”. Kaum separatis bukanlah sesuatu yang asing, dan tokoh ini adalah contohnya.

Setiap kisah pendek dalam buku Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul dinarasikan dengan bahasa yang sangat puitis hingga menciptakan atmosfer yang romantis, bahkan pada cerita-cerita bertemakan penyelundupan dan pemberontakan. Penulis juga sepertinya sangat berniat mengadopsi hüzün yang biasa terasa kuat pada novel-novel Orhan Pamuk, nada melankolis yang sudah barang tentu lekat dengan bayangan kita tentang Turki. Jika dilihat dari segi ide cerita, karya-karya Bernando J. Sujibto pada buku ini pun bisa dikatakan tidak biasa. Apa-apa yang selalu kita lihat diberitakan di televisi atau media lainnya, bahkan lebih, menjadi dasar beberapa cerita pada buku ini. Sujibto juga tidak hanya berkutat pada satu tema, dan itu menjadikan buku ini semakin memikat.

Gabungan ide cerita yang unik, narasi yang apik, serta atmosfer yang sangat melankolis membuat Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul sebuah kumpulan cerpen yang indah dan menggugah. Jika pun ada, satu kekurangannya adalah tata bahasa sang penulis. Sering kali penulis menggunakan kosa kata yang tidak tepat atau mubazir serta kalimat-kalimat yang tidak rapi sehingga terkesan agak tidak wajar. Narasi yang indah juga membutuhkan logika berbahasa, dan itu tidak selalu hadir di sini. Meski demikian, secara keseluruhan buku ini tetap dapat dinikmati.

Membaca Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul rasanya seperti pergi ke negeri dua benua dan melihat dengan mata kepala sendiri apa yang sebenarnya terjadi yang luput dari mata media, serta ikut merasakan perasaan orang-orang yang termarjinalkan di pemberitaan. Selain bacaan, buku ini juga merupakan pengalaman yang luar biasa.

Rating: 4/5

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fiction, review

The Namesake

32782023108_d92f86917dBeing different is always difficult. And there’s no better proof than The Namesake, a 2003 immigrant-themed novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. At a time when many people abandon their countries—either to escape war and persecution or to seek a better life—this book is something very much relevant. Putting aside the political aspect, it is always worthwhile to see what life of those newcomers is like and how they survive in the foreign land. Will they mingle well? Or will they distance themselves from others? Will they stay true to their motherland’s culture? Or will they blend all ideals together just so they can live a smooth life?

It all starts—despite the novel’s opening chapter—with Ashoke’s desire to travel the world upon the tragic accident that befalls him in his hometown in India, before which he meets and chats with a businessman suggesting him to go abroad at least once in a lifetime. Just before his leaving for the United States to do research and study further, his family arrange a marriage for him with Ashima, a young educated woman who, fortunately, is not disinclined to live abroad with him. But that cannot change the fact that living alone, just the two of them, in a foreign land is a difficult experience. Everything is alien to them, as they are to the nation they’re now part of. Everything is different from their inherited culture, from what they are used to, especially when it comes to naming their baby.

And here’s the unfortunate event where our main character gets his name, Gogol Ganguli. It has been a Bengali tradition that the grandmother of the mother will give her baby a name—a good, official name, to be precise—but alas! The letter containing this supposed name is lost between India and the US—it’s in the late 1960s so you can imagine the difficulties—and so when the hospital, as per usual in the country, asks Ashoke and Ashima to give their baby a name to fill the birth certificate, so they can take him home, they are forced to put a “pet name” on it instead, unwilling to breach the tradition by giving their baby a good name themselves. From then on, their son is Gogol, a name quickly picked up by Ashoke from his favorite author, the one who always inspires him and reminds him of  the near-death tragedy in his early life.

But Gogol is not happy with his name. It’s neither Bengali nor American, and its original owner had a tragic life Gogol cannot bear to know. He’s already a foreigner in a foreign land, and having a strange name is another burden to him. More than that, he hates his cultural background, his burdensome family tradition, his ties with his homeland. He spends almost his entire life defying all of that, including changing his name and make it a “good, official” one and dating Caucasian girls though he very well knows that his parents must want him to marry any Indian girl of their choice. However, he then meets, and falls in love with, Moushumi, a childhood Bengali friend of his. Their wedding later is quite predictable, though it’s not for the blessing their parents give them, but rather for their shared fate and will to escape their inherited identity and traditions. Unfortunately, this proves a mistake, because Moushumi’s character, and her sense of rebellion, make her realize that Gogol is not someone she wants to be with in her life.

It is easy to see how all main characters in The Namesake suffer from a sense of alienation. But while Ashoke and Ashima try so hard to hold on still to their culture and embrace that of Americans’ at the same time, Gogol wants none of that. He doesn’t like being who he is (a stranger with a strange name) and all he wants is to be assimilated totally and successfully into the American society. He only wants to be a “normal” person in the land he was born into, and to have a “normal” name which doesn’t make anyone around him stop and question him. At the same time, Moushumi, who is in the same generation as Gogol himself, shows the same strong will and determination. She even once pledged to not marry an Indian/Bengali man just so she can break her parents’ hopes and expectations as Bengali people living in America—a pledge which she accidentally breaks and brings her to her demise.

All this shows that assimilation is a tremendous feat that can be very much personal. There is no way Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t know it perfectly, and she succeeds in narrating the whole process. Her narrative is open and clear, her language is simple and direct. She doesn’t take on lavish, pretentious writing style to tell her tale so readers can really see through all the characters: what they think and feel, and their development toward the end of the story. What’s a little bit disturbing (I wouldn’t say disappointing) here is that some parts are pretty boring to follow, and some are even too much predictable. You can almost foresee what is going to happen even before opening the next page. It may be because you already know it, or perhaps it is just the way it should be. Putting all that aside, the plot development is still as good as that of the characters, and the atmosphere created by Lahiri’s diction can truly drag the reader down with subtle yet stormy emotions.

All things said, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a very satisfying book in many aspects, if not all. It might not provide readers with what immigration or assimilation is actually about, or with all the struggles immigrants have to go through in the foreign land. But it surely gives the reader some insights into how immigrants could or should blend in with their new society, and how “being different” is also a part/process of creating a melting pot.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Human Acts

46251748061_5aef710e63Humanity and repressive governments will always be interesting topics to discuss in literature, for in this realm all traumatic experiences of living under bad regimes can be perpetuated, forever stay on papers and in people’s mind, if not solved. Books are an effective medium to pass over to the next generation the painful history they should know, though they may not have the capability, or will, to make it right or give justice to those who had been wronged in the past. Human Acts, the wonderfully narrated novel by Han Kang, is clearly intended to do just that, so people will never forget there was a certain dark period in South Korean modern history.

The novel starts—in an atmosphere that’s more than merely depressing and in a somewhat vague manner—with a young boy looking for his missing friend, dead or alive. There has been some sort of a riot, as it is later gradually told, where the government-backed military fired bullets blindly to random citizens on the streets and killed many people, even those who weren’t actually part of it. Dong Ho, the young boy, keeps wandering through the Provincial Office to find Jeong Dae, this friend of his, but to no avail. He lingers there however, still in the hope of finding Jeong Dae, and helps sorting and dealing with corpses. Never does he know that Jeong Dae’s body, dead already, has been stacked somewhere behind bushes and slowly decaying. He only knows that he actually saw Jeong Dae when he was shot, and left him in the middle of the riot.

It needs a string of subtle guilty on Dong Ho’s side and slow paces of storyline to get to what truly happens to the two young boys, and what truly happens to the country. Throughout the next chapters, readers are told how the government becomes more and more tyrannical—tightly censoring books, imprisoning innocent people on false charges and treating them like worthless animals, causing incurable trauma across the nation—and how South Korean people at that dark period have to live their lives where committing suicide and insomnia are not something unusual.

The main event told in the book took place in the early 1980s and 1990, when an authoritarian ruler had been assassinated only for people to see another one coming up and making even bigger chaos. It was a horrible time South Korean people in the past had to experience—and hopefully won’t repeat itself in the future—when even a self-claimed democratic government used an excuse of banishing northern infiltration from their southern part of the peninsula to punish people without mercy and oppress them just to maintain the status quo. It was when university students held demonstrations on the streets and got arrested, when common people were dragged—voluntarily or not—and got shot. In fact, this particular period seems very common everywhere. Here in Human Acts, both innocent and guilty people are imprisoned and being questioned inhumanely, left hungry for days before being released after a very strange, without-any-evidences trial. Traumatized, some of them even commit suicide, or, worse, try to kill people.

Han Kang tells the depressing, goosebumps-giving story from the points of view of those who are involved in, or become victims of, the riot handled with cruelty by the military: from the young boys, the prisoners, the eyewitnesses, to the writer herself. And though Han does make an enough effort to introduce all those characters early in the first chapter (alongside with Dong Ho), but still the plot, and subplots, where they dwell are not easy to deal with. The narrative is so “thick” that readers need to peel it layer by layer in order to see crystal clear where the storyline goes. Han doesn’t make it easy for readers to enjoy her tale—as if she wants them to suffer together with the victims—and forces them to really follow each of the characters to know exactly what happens inside and what effects it has on them.

Han’s writing style in Human Acts is neither truly realistic nor the opposite. To describe all the hardships and violence, Han doesn’t shy away from taking the realistic approach to display horrible scenes as explicit as possible. On the other hand, Han uses an almost surrealistic style to tell about the trauma all the victims have to endure. It is perhaps to make it more dramatic, sharper that readers can’t help but feel uneasy and disturbed upon absorbing the fear, the restlessness, the insanity brought about by dictatorship prevailed in that era. It is really hurtful to see those things written blatantly on the paper, and Han Kang really pulls it off.

All in all, Human Acts by Han Kang is a book that is so depressing, so sad, so hurtful to read, not only for the dark period the reader has to experience through letters, but also for the way Han Kang wrote and presented it to her audience. If anything, it is a book that forces the reader to see inhumanity clearly through its heavy words.

Rating: 4/5

others

2018: The Year of Good Reads and Bad Habit

The year 2018 has already passed and I’d unbelievably read more than 40 books! This is a record breaking since I’d never read more than thirty books in a year before. But perhaps it’s more due to my determination to finish all volumes of The Smiling, Proud Wanderer manhua series (a.k.a comic books) so it’s not really a record after all. Be that as it may, I’m still pretty proud of myself and particularly happy because among those 40-something books there wasn’t a single disaster. Not once did I ever give a 2-star rating. All of them were marvelous, great reads.

    best-of-201830686385747_6bc2343305_o

There were of course some best books among others, some which were so outstanding that I cannot help but pick them as the best of the best for last year. And they were (not in any particular order):

  1. Raden Mandasia si Pencuri Daging Sapi (Yusi Avianto Pareanom)
  2. Gentayangan (Intan Paramaditha)
  3. Hotel Tua (Budi Darma)
  4. Surat Panjang Tentang Jarak Kita yang Jutaan Tahun Cahaya (Dewi Kharisma Michellia)
  5. Buku Latihan Tidur (Joko Pinurbo)

Yes, they’re all Indonesian books (4 fiction and 1 poetry books). If anyone wonders why my last year’s bests end up without any single foreign/translated book all I can say is that beside those 17 volumes of Chinese and Japanese comic books I finished, I mostly read Indonesian books in 2018. I did read, and like, Human Acts by Han Kang and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, but unfortunately those two fascinating novels couldn’t compete with my choices above. My best 5 last year were truly, truly somehing that were so great, so entertaining, so meaningful and so relatable to me in many ways. I’m currently reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and so far I like it so much, but for my “reading-like-a-snail” habit I might have only finished it in the middle of January.

And oh, for those who are curious, the English edition of Gentayangan by Intan Paramaditha will be released by the UK’s Harvill Secker in 2020. You might want to catch it up.

                   buku-kurang-berkenan

Of course, as much satisfied as I might be with my last year’s reading, there were still some books that didn’t live up to my expectations. They were not necessarily bad or so below my standard, it’s just I thought those books would really blow my mind and be worth my writing a review. But no, they were pretty good, but my slight disappointment made me too lazy to produce even a single word out of my brain. They were Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, Love Her Wild by Atticus, and Eva Luna by Isabel Allende. Yep, you read it right. A book by Isabel Allende, one of my favorite authors. While I loved the Tripartite so much, Eva Luna, in my opinion, was not up there at the same level. The narrative was a little bit boring, the main female character was like she’s going nowhere, and there was too much haste in building the romantic relationship between her and the second male character that I almost couldn’t believe they are truly in love. However, this doesn’t mean that I will not read any of Allende’s works anymore, but perhaps I need time to heal my disappointment and pick up another one.

The year 2018 also marked my new (and unwelcome) habit: polygamous reading. I’m a very focused person. I don’t like to, and cannot, do two or more things at the same time, and yet last year I suddenly jumped into this particular habit of reading two or more books at the same period. I felt like I was easily bored, easily distracted by something else. When I hadn’t done with this book, I would go to the library and borrow that book. When I knew I had to finish a certain book as soon as possible, I’d turn around and read some comics. It was very mentally exhausting but I kept doing it. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I have not done reading the book The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Jin Yong, because I ended up reading Gu Long’s Seven Killers instead (which I haven’t finished yet!). I hate this and I want to get out of it. Hopefully in 2019 I will not do the same “mistake” again.

Speaking of 2019, I also hope I can read more books (I mean, not comic books) and write more reviews this year. This blog had been a dark pit of almost emptiness as I felt too lazy to write a review for every book I’d read last year. I still kept it alive, yes, but it was not as active as in the past. Hope this year my spirit will kick in and I’ll be writing more book reviews and articles. But, well, that might be a bit difficult since I’ll have to get away from Twitter and watching C-Dramas then XD.

So what’s my reading plan for this year? Well, I’m thinking of reading some Orhan Pamuk again since I haven’t gotten my hands on any of his books for so long and I feel as if I’ve been betraying him. And perhaps I will read more books by women (something I never cared to do before) just because… Other than that, I maybe, maybe, will try and pick up The Smiling, Proud Wanderer again and finish at least one volume of the whole four. Last but not least, I intend to read more foreign/translated books to make up last year’s lack of the genre. Don’t get me wrong, I will still read Indonesian books (fiction or poetry) as it has been my “personal project” to explore my own country’s literary landscape, but this time I want to make some balance. So hopefully I can manage that.

That’s it my review of last year’s reading activity and some reading plan for 2019. I really, really hope there won’t be too many changes and most of everything will be as I have planned. What about you, readers?

-erdeaka-

poetry, review

Buku Latihan Tidur

45524246745_5d12bf6423Some (or most) people might think poetry is some kind of melodramatic literary product, with flowery, figurative language not everyone understand. And there might not be many people who would think that poetry can also be funny, comic even, triggering laughter of its readers. Buku Latihan Tidur by Joko Pinurbo, one of Indonesia’s senior contemporary poets, falls into that category. It is not only hilarious, it’s refreshing, and yes it is thought-provoking but it doesn’t try to take anything seriously. Many poems listed on its table of contents indeed address some serious issues—like religion—but still in a very light, entertaining manner.

Those who are already familiar with the poet (those who aren’t can try and pick up Selamat Menunaikan Ibadah Puisi, some sort of “summary” of his past works) must have known that Pinurbo loves to play with words like someone playing a Rubik’s Cube, the result of which is revealing colorful sides of Indonesian language and what’s funny about it. This tendency is clearly seen in almost every piece of his poems here, but new readers may catch it up directly in Kamus Kecil, the second on the list, where he flips some words, or put two words together with only one letter difference, to show that those words can make up meaningful senteces.

“…

bahwa sumber segala kisah adalah kasih;

bahwa ingin berawal dari angan;

bahwa ibu tak pernah kehilangan iba;

bahwa segala yang baik akan berbiak;

bahwa orang ramah tidak mudah marah;

bahwa seorang bintang harus tahan banting;

bahwa untuk menjadi gagah kau harus gigih;

bahwa terlampau paham bisa berakibat hampa;

bahwa orang lebih takut kepada hantu ketimbang kepada tuhan;

…” —(page 3)

The last line above is particularly funny because it’s mostly true that people are more afraid of ghost (hantu) than of God (tuhan).

In Tokoh Cerita, Pinurbo seems to try to point out how tricky it is to write a story and fill it with characters. He describes himself as an author who sits side by side with his fictional character, then suddenly he crosses out himself and so one character disappears and disturbs the plot. This attempt takes the reader back to the notion that writers often pour out themselves—either their alter ego, part of their personality, or their real-life experiences—into the stories they create. And once they decide to take back their character and let the others run wild, that’s when the storyline starts to get uncontrollable. Meanwhile, Perjamuan Malam is another amusing poem in which Pinurbo jokes about a meal where the dish on the plate (seemingly fish from the way the poet describes it) looks about to say “ouch” when it’s going to be eaten. Here he really makes the most out of his stock of metaphor.

There’s also an irony where Pinurbo thinks (or, seems to think) that people are actually insane in general, and that sanity is something as rare as holidays.

“Kepalaku rumah sakit jiwa yang kesepian

(my head is a lonely mental hospital)

ditinggal penghuninya mudik liburan.”

(all its inhabitants going out on vacation)—(page 18)

It is very intriguing that the poet would really think that way. Or perhaps, he means to refer to himself, what with his “abnormal” tone of poetry and crazy ideas. Whatever it is, this one poem can truly knock the reader’s mind as it points out the contradiction between what’s people generally believe (that sanity is a normal condition) and what’s real (that it is insanity the normal one).

“Apa agamamu?

(what’s your religion?)

Agamaku air yang membersihkan pertanyaanmu.”

(it’s water that cleans your question)—(page 6)

As naturally funny and linguistically comic as it is, Buku Latihan Tidur still can’t help but fall into the dangerous area of religion, which is a very sensitive topic if you see the condition these days. But Pinurbo doesn’t try to set up some doctrine for people to follow. In fact, he tries to show that religion should be relieving, calming, freeing belief and not something that makes people so angry, so intolerant, so snobbish, so hateful and vengeful toward others. Like in the poem Sajak Balsem untuk Gus Mus, where he highly criticizes “religious people” who do their prayers everyday but then chiding, bullying, fighting others and get mad when they’re at the losing side. This subtly harsh criticism can also be found in Kolom Agama. It basically criticizes the national ID card in which we have to fill what our religious belief is for all people to see. What’s the use of it, anyway?  Does it make you a good person? What if the religion stated on the ID card is not the religion the ID card owner holds? There are too many a case like this. Moreover, as the poet implies in this poem, what’s important is not religion, but love.

Buku Latihan Tidur by Joko Pinurbo has not only so much fun, but also so many themes and tricks of how to handle them. It consists only of 80-something pages yet it is so rich: either in its contents or its metaphorical language. Pinurbo doesn’t only entertain us, but he provokes our thoughts. He invites us to come and see many things from a comical angle, from a humorous point of view. He seems to want us not to take anything seriously, but if we think about it, we’ll find things truly funny but most of the time in an ironic way. Joko Pinurbo really has a gift to do that.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Surat Panjang Tentang Jarak Kita yang Jutaan Tahun Cahaya

30686385747_6bc2343305_oDespite its super long title, Surat Panjang Tentang Jarak Kita yang Jutaan Tahun Cahaya  by Dewi Kharisma Michellia is actually a pretty short novel with a tight plot and practically not so many characters. First published in 2013, the book indeed consists of several long (and short) letters written by the narrator for the childhood friend she is in love with, and through those letters she asks not only her long-lost buddy but also the reader to see her lonely life wrapped up in strangely-engaging, melancholic atmosphere.

The story starts with someone sending a bunch of letters to a man complete with a CD, its record transcript and a note. It turns out that those letters were written by his childhood friend he’s not seen in such a long time. This friend, or, our narrator to be precise, sort of recall—or, retell for the reader—their childhood when they were still very young and thought that they were aliens, two people who did not belong to the Earth, who were not like any other human being. They pledged to be married one day, but that never happened. They ended up going separate ways, and became two people who were poles apart. For her love for him, she never had any relationship with any man but one, and that even ended right before they’re about to get married. She then continued living on her own in solitude, only with her demanding job, messy life style and cancer till the end of her day.

If you think the story is so sad, it’s nothing compared to the melancholy you’ll find in every page and each sentence. The narrator describes herself as a lonely person, an alien who is not like everyone else around her—not following their way of thinking, their customs, not even listening to them. At first she thinks her beloved childhood friend will remain the same, remain like her and they can be together forever—them against the world. But reality has knocked him hard and he’s changed, turning into someone who doesn’t even care about idealism anymore. And so she stays the same alone, experiencing one disappointment after another, witnessing his love for her decaying and vanishing ever rapidly. However, strong or not, she has to go on with her life, forgetting her anger and broken heart when he eventually marries another woman.

But describing loneliness and broken heart is just one thing of so many elements shaping this book. Michellia doesn’t forget to fill it with other disappointments: toward the New Order regime, toward patriarchy and its so-called root in religion, toward her own family. There seems to be so many disappointments in one person that the narrative deserves what melancholy readers feel when they read it. It looks like the writer is purposely exploring and elaborating what loneliness is in the form of someone’s pathetic life.

Hence the need for poetic language, for it is the only tool that can deliver sadness and dramatic atmosphere very well. Readers, however, do not have to worry it will be too much to fathom. Michellia keeps it down and “literal” enough for them to digest so it’s still beautiful and yet bearable. The plot is also enjoyable, with some flashbacks explaining what truly happened in the past and therefore giving the narrator reasons to feel the way she does. The ending is only expected, because there is no other way around, no matter how sad it is.

If there is anything unbearable about Surat Panjang it is the narrator’s—or, rather, the writer’s—tendency to give a bad name to the New Order and religion. It is indeed undeniable that the New Order was not a nice regime where people could live easily and comfortably, but this topic has been discussed in almost every Indonesian literary fiction book that it’s now getting old and boring. In addition, just like everybody else, the writer has no qualms about showing where she stands and blaming religion for the patriarchy that suffocates our society. To me, it is so old and so wrong. If everyone is truly entitled to their own opinion, then I’m going to say this: what’s to blame for patriarchal culture is the culture itself and men’s ego, not any religion.

However far my stand from the writer’s might be, Michellia’s Surat Panjang Tentang Jarak Kita yang Jutaan Tahun Cahaya is still a very great novel. It’s so melancholic yet so beautiful, and with its tone it manages to drown the reader into its sadness and loneliness, to make them feel what the narrator feels and helpless over her situation. It’s a dramatic book, but not an overly emotional one.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

fiction, review

Kritikus Adinan

30776032578_9fd8f484bdKritikus Adinan is one of several books by Budi Darma that recently got republished. Previously released under the title Laki-Laki dalam Secarik Surat in 2008, last year it had a chance to see the light again with a new one, referring to one of the short stories on its table of contents. Here the senior writer holds his very view on morality—which doesn’t sound preachy, but is not unclear, either—and his surrealistic style as he does in Hotel Tua, with characters mostly unnamed and showing the reader the clear line between what’s right and what’s wrong within the somehow unclear narratives not easily understood.

The collection has fifteen short stories mostly written in the 1970s while the rest without any time stamp. Just as in Hotel Tua, Budi Darma starts the book with a shocking, unbelievable tale where readers, at some point, have to question their sanity in order to get into and understand it. Krematorium Itu Untukku is a story of a sick man who has promised his friend to attend her father’s funeral. He comes earlier, but no one’s there. He keeps waiting and asking people—who, for some unknown reason, keep looking at him in a weird way and secretly laughing at him—if anyone has come and whether the funeral has actually started and he is late. But no one knows, and so he keeps waiting there, until he finally finds his way to the right crematorium. There, he doesn’t get a warm welcome and is attacked by the doorman instead. And that is not the weirdest thing he finds at the crematorium. His friend Corrie, and Tien, look so much older than they should be, or at least than he thinks they should be. And, in the middle of his confusion, he’s sweating and crying blood. More unexpectedly, all people present lift him up then put him into one of the burning booths and burn him like a dead body.

Sahabat Saya Bruce is also one of the first pieces here. Those who already know Budi Darma and frequently enjoy his works must have known that he often writes stories with foreign backgrounds and characters, all thanks to his long stay in the United States back then. This piece of story is one of them, so it should not be surprising to see the name Bruce on the title. It is unusually not surrealistic, but it is still strange in many ways and so hard to chew.

Through Burhan, the narrator whom we see everything from, the reader knows that Bruce is not there when he comes to visit him in his rented house. It looks like a house which has not been inhabited for a long time: dirty, everything is in disorder. Burhan thinks it’s weird, because they’ve been close friends for quite long and the fact that Bruce is suddenly gone without telling him sort of bewilders him. However, when you see it from one side, it’s not really weird for Bruce is basically indeed a weird person. One day he asks Burhan to marry Milann, saying that Milann likes him and all. But while Milann is not Bruce’s girlfriend, the request is not something Burhan can wrap aroud his mind because, in fact, Milann often spends her time with Bruce. And then, both Bruce and Milann are gone, just leaving without telling Burhan a word. He is as much in the dark as everyone else, but he is the one who is being suspected.

This book, in its entirety, is very thought-provoking and very funny in a cynical way. Some stories might hit the reader in the cruelest way possible yet they won’t probably realize it until one or two sentences punch them in their head. The story Laki-Laki Lain for instance, which basically talks about a husband-wife relationship. It is only natural that husbands and wives know each other very well, but here, Budi Darma gives somekind of a hint that that’s actually when they start to hate each other. If we just think about it, then there must be something about our spouse that we hate after years and years living together. Though, on the other hand, this shortcoming is also what sticks them perhaps forever. However, ironically, the more we know our spouse, the more we feel we don’t know them.

“Laki-laki sudah ditakdirkan untuk tidak mampu mengalahkan nafsunya sendiri, dan perempuan telanjur sudah diciptakan untuk memperbudak nafsu laki-laki.” – page 228.

There is also Dua Laki-Laki, a pretty long tale telling us how people, in general, always try to prove that they’re right and others are wrong. Even to their death they won’t let others’ opinions win. Bambang Subali Budiman is interesting, too. In the afternote, Budi Darma states that what brought him to write this short story was a particular discussion on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, which is related to one aspect of Puritan life in New England back in the 19th century where people were so afraid of devils and their bad influence that people tried so hard to prevent it. But they didn’t realize the more they tried to purify themselves, the more rooms existed for devils to enter and control them. This idea then develops within the story, displaying implicitly that people are basically hypocrites, doing good deeds not because they are good people, or for the sake of others, but only for their own benefit, if only to get good karma in return.

There are layers and layers in each and every narrative presented in Kritikus Adinan and all of them are down to three recurring themes: humanity, morality and conscience. It has the same tone as Hotel Tua: not preachy, but hammering over and over again into the reader’s mind what is right and what is wrong, subtly yet strongly. The writer clearly wants readers to see through those layers of smoke their own conscience. Is it good, or bad? Are you good people, or not? Have you done something wrong? And even if you’re doing good deeds, is it for real? And the best of all, Budi Darma does it in his surrealistic style, which is clouding his intention even more, making this book something to ponder about and not some kind of tool to judge. If there is any shortcoming, it’s just that several stories read longer than they should, dragging a bit too much before finally getting the reader to the point. But still, its significance doesn’t miss the target.

All in all, Kritikus Adinan is a short-story collection anyone would expect from Budi Darma. The beauty of his surrealism alone is an enough reason for readers to plunge into his typical narrative of morality and conscience, even if they would like to do nothing but dismiss it. All the mostly-unnamed characters are also beautifully drawn: very flawed, with a good side that can only be seen from one narrow angle. This book is truly a masterpiece.

Rating: 4/5

comic books, review

Xiao Ao Jiang Hu: The Manhua

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As we know, or at least as all wuxia junkies know, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels have inspired so many television series, movies, games, and even comic books—either the faithful ones or the I-don’t-care-I-just-want-to-make-money ones. But there are a few which stray a little from the original storylines but were done wholeheartedly and with so much enthusiasm that they manage to keep the spirit of the works being adapted. The manhua version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (or, in English widely known as The Smiling, Proud Wanderer) is one of those few. Created by Lee Chi Ching and first published in Hong Kong in 2002, this set of 26 volumes succeeds in delivering the heart of the story in its own style, but still with its unfortunate shortcoming.

First thing first, here I must confess that I’m still nowhere near done reading the whole four volumes of the book. However, from the first volume’s five chapters I’ve slowly read I gather that Lee Chi Ching has his own way of introducing the story to the reader. Instead of starting it with Lin Pingzhi’s incident when he is out hunting, just as in the book, in volume one Lee opens the story with some kind of reflection on what jiang hu is, on repaying kindness and taking revenge, on who belong to the orthodox sect and who members of the demon cult are and the clear line between them, and lastly, who will be the last to laugh.

Lee subsequently goes on to tell the backstory where the Huashan Sword School’s disciples are on their way to Hengshan to attend Liu Zhengfeng’s hand-washing ceremony, and how Linghu Chong strays away alone drinking then accidentally meets Yi Lin. This, and the fight between him and Tian Boguang in the darkened cave, are not told by Yi Lin herself in a flashback, as they are in the novel, but rather stand on their own to usher the reader to the point where we’ll finally see Lin Pingzhi—battered, angry, hopeless and restless under the pouring rain—on his journey to save his parents.

Narrativewise, I found it a better way to begin the story: it’s more enjoyable, less boring, and quite exciting. Not that I dare to question Jin Yong’s intelligence and ability in storytelling, it’s just so much better this way. This lack-of-excitement in the original book’s opening was the reason why I needed weeks just to finish the first chapter while I wasted no time in devouring the entire volumes of the manhua in succession. The manhua version really is a page-turner, with fighting-while-sitting between Linghu Chong and Tian Boguang and Lin family’s unfortunate demise being displayed in turn. It’s easy to catch up and the reader can easily get the idea of the fate that will later get the main characters finally meet.

And Lee goes on using the same style, but mostly he keeps his work faithful to, or at least in line with, the original storyline. But even though Lee seems to mix his own way of story introduction with the narrative Jin Yong has already set up, the entire plot doesn’t fail. It is so engaging and nice to follow and makes sense. I think Lee knows that this way, his manhua will be more effective in delivering the story yet at the same time doesn’t lose its charm as comic books.

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However, the enjoyable narrative is not accompanied by enjoyable pictures. It’s such a shame because it is a manhua, a.k.a comic books, where what readers enjoy most are the pictures. For one thing, the characters’ depictions here are not consistent. At times they look just as they should be, but at other times they look older, too much older to be in line with how they are portrayed in the book. Especially, much to my disappointment, the character images of Ren Yingying, our female lead. Lee actually has drawn her very well and beautifully, but in some parts she often looks much, much older. She’s supposed to be 17 or 18, isn’t she? And she is known to have a very long hair, so why so short? This is also the case with Linghu Chong’s portrayal, but the inconsistency is pretty less in number.

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In general, frankly speaking, the characters’ pictures are quite good and pretty well done. They look so “classic”, unlike those drawings Tony Wong did. I can say I like Lee’s style of manhua. But, once again, the drawing here seems to be the biggest shortcoming of the entire 26 volumes. Besides the inconsistency, it also has a problem with how Lee represents the fighting scenes. Some look nice, some look just okay, and some look very confusing. Sometimes I couldn’t catch up with the sword movements and where they are pointed to, and that’s a very big problem to me. What’s the point of reading a martial arts manhua when you cannot enjoy the martial arts?

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So overall, this manhua version of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu is more appealing in terms of narrative, but not quite in terms of drawing. It just didn’t really live up to my expectation. Not completely disappointing, but I think it should have been better artistically.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Yang Fana Adalah Waktu

45672761421_bdea8c9e40While in Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel Sapardi Djoko Damono dares question identities, and later unfolding the disturbing restlessness of divided feelings in Pingkan Melipat Jarak, here in Yang Fana Adalah Waktu the acclaimed senior writer doesn’t seem to show the slightest inclination to give his loyal readers an answer to the big question marks formed back-to-back in the two previous books. Instead, he poses another one, “Is it necessary to question love?” And, to make it even more complicated, is there really any line between existence and non-existence? What does exist and what does not exist?

The last of the trilogy starts with Sarwono’s surreal pondering over his feelings for Pingkan: not a question, it’s more of an affirmation that there is only them, and nothing beyond that. There is only their love, and anything else doesn’t exist. Their relationship, so it seems, is on a very straight path, no twists, no turns, not even a station to stop by. Their love is so true and unquestionable there is no need to make it otherwise.

However, what gets in their way is another’s doubt about another’s relationship. Katsuo, as we know from the two previous books is another man in love with Pingkan, asks her to come and see his fiancée Noriko, the girl personally chosen by his mother. At first Pingkan doesn’t get as to why she should meet the young woman she doesn’t even know who is engaged to the man that loves her in secret. Even if she is the reason why Katsuo feels reluctant to marry Noriko, and she’s aware of it, she doesn’t think she has anything to do with their relationship. But then she sees that Noriko rightly suspects her to be the hindrance to her engagement with Katsuo, and so demands to see her in person. Temporarily uncertain, Pingkan eventually goes to see Noriko, and, unexpectedly, Noriko likes her. So much for jealousy.

Now, the question this book seems to ask, “Is it necessary to question love?” In Pingkan’s and Sarwono’s case, the answer is definitely no. They know they love each other, they know they’re walking on the same path and that anything outside it just doesn’t exist. But they’re also aware that there is another man between them, and, in turn, that Pingkan becomes another woman getting in the way of Katsuo’s and Noriko’s already complicated relationship. And Pingkan is pretty much aware, too, of her role in that brittle engagement so she, eventually, agrees to meet Noriko and solve all the uncertainties there are. Although, in the end, she doesn’t quite solve anything because things get more and more complicated instead, as Noriko puts her engagement on hold and runs away to pursue what she wants to be.

If a question about love is not enough, then Mr. Sapardi gives you another one. In line with Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel and Pingkan Melipat Jarak, Yang Fana Adalah Waktu has also “otherness” as its issue, though not quite in the center of it all like in the first book. Being a liyan, or, that is to say, an alien, is something that Pingkan and Noriko share, as a Javanese-Manadonese and American-Japanese respectively, something that makes it hard for them to be accepted the way they are. But it is what happens most of the time to people like them—people of mixed blood, people who seem to have their feet at two places at the same time and can’t even decide who/what they are, much less getting people’s recognition. This, and its complexity in marriage, is actually a very interesting issue which I don’t think will get old anytime soon and that the writer addressed so well and so thoroughly in Hujan Bulan Juni. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the same here in the last installment. What Noriko has to face as an American-Japanese is merely sort of put on there as an adornment and never gets more attention.

And that is precisely the shortcoming of this novel: that barely anything getting explored properly—not Pingkan’s and Sarwono’s quirky but sweet relationship (they too much talk about somebody else’s), not Katsuo’s and Noriko’s planned, conflicted engagement, not even the “otherness” issue that deserves more room here. Everything appears to run halfway and then stop without further explanation. Well, Mr. Sapardi said that he had promised this series would be a trilogy, so a trilogy it is. But even so, there should be something completed, one or two things concluded. I won’t blame him for leaving the story hanging, but at the very least he could just talk about the sense of alienation more the way he did in Hujan Bulan Juni and so made the narrative strong enough to read. This book, in my honest opinion, is not the end of a trilogy. It’s a goodbye without saying why.

That’s said, Yang Fana Adalah Waktu is still a nice romance novel. The interaction between Pingkan and Sarwono is always loveable, while his with his parents is forever funny (if you understand Javanese language and culture). And Mr. Sapardi is ever poetic, though he didn’t apply that style to the dialogues, which, otherwise, would make them sound weird and unnatural. This book undoubtedly has everything I love about Mr. Sapardi’s fiction works: the jokes, the smooth and poetic narrative, the social issue and criticism (though not thoroughly elaborated), and the impartial characters (Sarwono, from the very beginning, has more or less reminded me of Soekram).

So, in conclusion, Yang Fana Adalah Waktu is basically a lovely book about love. It just lacks the thing that can make it more powerful, especially when it ends with a bit unpleasant cliffhanger. It looks like intentionally designed to be so, and yes, that’s where it hurts. So frankly speaking, among the three installments of this so-called Hujan Bulan Juni trilogy, the first book is still the best one.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Hotel Tua

hotel tuaHotel Tua comprises 18 Budi Darma’s short stories dating from the 70s to the first decade of 2000s. It perhaps deserves to get dubbed the modern classic of the genre, although Orang-Orang Bloomington obviously gets the more fame and critical acclaim. This new collection is not to be underrated, though, what with all its twisted narratives and quiet but sharp criticisms on several issues.

The book starts with a short piece entitled Pistol, the best, the most deceitfully constructed, and undoubtedly the most feminist story of all which is not actually talking about a gun. If men have their pride and dignity, it is in their sex and sexuality. What perpetual ideas do most men have in their mind but that they’re sexually superior to women, and that they will and can sexually conquer them? The main male character of Pistol finds it hard to bear embarrassment knowing that his impotance has been widespread among the women he’s ever been with, thanks to the widow who has been his lover for some time. This alone has caused him feeling resentful and vengeful, and seeing the widow mocking him out-and-out spurs his hatred even more. There is just no other way but to take his revenge on her.

Equally talking about equality, Distrik Rodham comes second to Pistol. Its theme is broader, however, encompassing interclass problems in a society and questions whether or not all human beings are truly created equal and thus must be treated equal. Set in Rodham, New England, this longer story describes in simple detail how the society there was first formed, and how they live their lives and change through the years and generations. Class differentiation—hence discrimination—is inevitable, since it’s only natural for people to live in “diversity”, in every sense of the word. But is this then an enough reason to bury people in different places and build fences to affirm the socio-class differences? Is it just or unjust to put human beings in burial grounds based on their social status, when they’re already dead and all they had in life does not matter anymore?

When it comes to criticism, Budi Darma does try to make it as subtle yet piercing as possible at times. And who doesn’t want to criticize the way of our dirty politics and deep-rooted corruption when you have a pen and a piece of paper at hand? In stories like Tangan-Tangan Buntung and Dua Sahabat the senior writer definitely shows his forte at this. I could almost imagine a smirk on his face as he was writing Tangan-Tangan Buntung especially, a surreal story about a made-up country reigned by a certain dynasty whose corrupt character seems incurable. And this trait never leaves said country even when it has changed into a democratic one where a ruler is elected. In Dua Sahabat Budi Darma is even more cynical through his narrative, implying (if what he does is truly implying) that our evil politicians have made corruptors and villains our parliamentary representatives. Where is the shame?

As well as equality and dirty politics, Hotel Tua also keeps religious matters and human-God relationship up its sleeve for readers. Before you even realize it some numbers spring up with narratives pointing out defects in our morality, like Mata yang Indah, Kisah Pilot Bejo, and Derabat. Those stories do not try to be preachy, though, they merely reveal what humans are like, and what they should be like with a touch of religious teaching that I believe readers won’t really mind. Gauhati is starker in showcasing this value, with a clear moral teaching on being honest, kind-hearted, and doing good deeds. It’s just Budi Darma doesn’t appear to force the reader to accept his ideas, nor does he look like he thinks he is the most righteous person in the world trying to make things right. No, it does not show in his writing style.

The old writer is very astute in consctructing exquisite tales, wielding sentences that appear to be so-so but then lure the reader into his inescapable trap: moral values, spirituality, criticisms of the high-ranking officials. He is a “good writer” without trying to state that he is. What’s more, he’s so full of surprise. His writing is like the embodiment of “saying this but actually meaning that”, a tricky road that readers won’t feel suspicious of until they arrive at the real destination. And he is often economical in what he’s saying, no dragging plot whatsoever. Though readers may find some stories quite long, they’re not boring or anything.

Hotel Tua is a collection of mostly surreal short stories which in fact speaks reality. It feels heavy with ideas and thoughts yet is written in a fairly light style. It is luring, it is beguiling, and it teaches you something without burdening you with pretentious teachings. It’s definitely one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read.

Rating: 4.5/5