Add a poetic style to surrealism and you’ll get beautiful narratives contained in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku. First published in 2002, and then later in a new edition in 2016, this book by senior Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma brings to the reader a whole new reading experience like nothing else. It’s not only a collection of short stories meant to read as one composition, and it’s not only a pack of gorgeous writings with deep meanings, but as a whole it’s a vibrant literary work with an almost perfect quality in every aspect. By the time you finish it, you will want nothing more than enjoying your reading hangover.
The collection is divided into three parts, each of them contains several loosely interlinked stories with various themes. The first part is Trilogi Alina, of which opener is the already well-known Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku (has been translated into English with the title A Slice of Sunset for My Sweetheart by Michael H. Bodden). It tells the story of a man who is so crazily in love with a woman that he will do anything for her, and in this case it’s slicing sunset above the seashore. Literally. He then sends the slice in an envelope to said woman as a proof of his love for her. The short story is written in the form of a love letter, and some people may read it as one, but deep inside it lies a criticism of the emptiness of life where beauty is something rare to see and to find that someone has to snatch it up from nature. The second number in this first set of short stories, Jawaban Alina (translated into English as Alina’s Reply by Michael H. Bodden) is a letter the woman referred to in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku writes in reply to it. However, opposed to what readers might expect, the woman doesn’t reply in a loving manner. With angry tone, she firmly states that she doesn’t love him and doesn’t expect him to do such a stupid thing as cropping sunset for her. She even condemns him for damaging nature that later ends up in environmental disaster. The last installment of the trilogy, Tukang Pos dalam Amplop (or The Postman in the Envelope in English, translated by Michael H. Bodden), is quite straying from the main path but still in the same theme. It’s about the postman who delivers the love letter from Sukab (the crazily-in-love man sending a slice of sunset) to the woman living at the top of Himalaya. In accord with the woman, the postman laments the destruction of nature at the hands of people. His rather strange experience as a fish shows the reader an awakening view on knowledge and the destructive behavior it provokes in humans.
While in the first part Ajidarma implicitly talks about the destruction of the earth, in the second one he focuses more on humans and humanity. In the story entitled Jezebel, for instance, he describes the slaughter of people in a large number which, ironically, becomes something of an art: beautiful and invoking a sense of drama. Another example that supports this theme of severely damaged humanity is Kunang-kunang Mandarin (The Mandarin Fireflies in English, translated by Wawan Eko Yulianto) which is an account of the dark days of modern Indonesian history where many Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent were massacred in the 1965’s communist hunt. Ajidarma doesn’t give an explicit description of the historically known tragedy, but conceals it in a story of a man who breeds fireflies born of the nails of the slaughtered Chinese people. Ironically, it is on this firefly breeding business that the natives of the setting town build their economy. Now you must have guessed what Ajidarma tries to imply.
Some other short stories in the second part, like Rumah Panggung di Tepi Pantai and Senja Hitam Putih, particularly examines how most of people view the world. The former tells of a man who refuses the traditional way and builds his house facing the seashore (so that he can enjoy the sunset), hence being called crazy. While in the later, which has been translated into English with the title Twilight in Black and White by John MacDougall, Ajidarma criticizes how most people often see the world they’re living in as something black and white, when everything has different colors. The rest of the second part, along with the third, Atas Nama Senja, explore the theme of reality. What is reality? Perhaps that’s what stories like Senja di Pulau Tanpa Nama, Perahu Nelayan Melintas Cakrawala, and Senja di Kaca Spion want to ask us as readers. When something real is unreal, and vice versa, nothing is certain about our existence, about anything in the world. And then we will ask ourselves: is something there? Or not? One of my favorite quotes from the book is the question posed by the narrator of Perahu Nelayan Melintas Cakrawala, “Apalah yang kita ketahui tentang dunia ini?” (What do we know about this world? —my translation). To my thinking, the entire third part is not only surreal but also very thought-provoking.
The elegant prose of each number, rendered so by the poetic, surrealistic style, is the key point of the book’s grandness. And the main theme of every part only strengthens the already profound effect the book has on the reader. The only weakness, and it won’t appear until you scrutinize the whole text, is the spelling system. To be honest, I have doubt about the spelling of some words because it’s not the standard one I know. Nevertheless, in general, Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku by Seno Gumira Ajidarma is a big work of literary fiction. It’s a rare gem, and it’s really, really shining bright from its pages.