Despite 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.