Hotel 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.