Joko Pinurbo is not the first poet to suddenly shift gear and write prose, but this is definitely his first time ever. Srimenanti, published earlier this year, is a very short novel guaranteed to give fans satisfaction, linguistically if not thematically. The sure thing is we can still have a laugh reading it, as we always did with his other works.
Subtly looking back to the past history, here Pinurbo presents a story told from two alternate points of view: one of a young, mournful girl whose father was mysteriously kidnapped (supposedly by the authority) and who is a painter, and one of a poet-cum-employee who is a huge fan of Sapardi Djoko Damono and strangely seems to have seen her in the description of a girl in one of Mr. Sapardi’s poems, Pada Suatu Pagi Hari. Having the same interests in arts and literature, both Srimenanti, the titular name of said girl, and the so-called poet are inevitably in the same circle of friends and so interact with each other as often as he can wish to. But that is not the only thing connecting them, for they seem to have had the same encounter with a buck naked man with bleeding genitalia strutting out in front of them. He frequently hunts them, stopping them everywhere they go and shouting, “It hurts, General!” as if he is in a terrible pain. One day he vanishes without trace and Srimenanti inexplicably gets anxious about it, waiting for him right under the lamp post where he is last seen.
The presence of this naked man might strike readers as odd in the middle of Pinurbo’s blatant attempt to quote, revamp and/or retell Mr. Sapardi’s poems in his own narrative prose and style. Some might even find it entirely unnecessary, and not funny at all, while Pinurbo is throwing jokes and amusing (though still meaningful) lines here and there. But let’s not forget that the senior poet is most probably talking about, or discreetly criticizing, the New Order. The mysterious man might actually denote the ghost of our past, hunting us still with repression, dictatorship and all kinds of bad memories. His shouting, “It hurts, General!” is not only a joke we usually hear or say casually (Indonesian people will surely understand this), because we know who the general is. And if all those symbols are not enough to make readers see clearly what Pinurbo intends to say, then the line, “Piye kabare? Ngeri zamanku to?” (“How are you? It’s scarier in my time, wasn’t it?”) might do the deed. Again, it’s another joke symbolizing something that is not funny at all.
Joko Pinurbo is widely known for his wit and amusing lines, and both are very much displayed here in the book. The name Srimenanti itself is a clear proof of his ability to think of something which is highly unlikely to cross others’ minds. What woman in Indonesia, particularly of Javanese tribe, named Srimenanti? I mean, I can’t even start to try to translate or explain what that name means. Sri is a typical name of Javanese women, and menanti is an Indonesian word for waiting. So what does that mean, then? The woman who waits? Well, it may refer to her waiting for the comeback of the mysterious naked man at the end of the story. But that is just my ridiculous thought.
And you cannot read any of Joko Pinurbo’s works without laughing or smiling at the very least. The joke is everywhere, like when a bank account says to our protagonist, “Aku merasa terhormat bisa menjadi bagian dari ketidakpastian rezekimu” (“I am honored to be part of the uncertainty of your finances.”) Or when at some point Pinurbo parodies one of Mr. Sapardi’s famous lines into, “Kopi dan saya tidak bertengkar tentang siapa di antara kami yang lebih pahit” (“Coffee and I do not quarrel over who among us is bitter.”) And they are not at all without meaning. They are more often than not sort of a slap in our face, knocking our conscience, stating hurtful facts, a little bit philosophical sometimes, especially when he says, “Kita adalah cinta yang berjihad melawan trauma” (“We are all love fighting against trauma.”) However, there is this one line that truly punches us so strongly about what happened in 1998:
“Saat itu sedang berlangsung demonstrasi menentang kenaikan harga BBM yang diikuti dengan merosotnya harga manusia.”
(“There was at that time a demonstration against gasoline price-hiking, which was followed by a plunge in the human value.”)
But his lines can be Pinurbo’s undoing as well, seeing how they are formulated here in the book. He seems trapped in his own style, “unable” to differentiate between prose and poem. (I put the word unable under the quotation marks because of course I know he is very able to do that). If you ever read even only one of his poems-collection books then you’ll know that he often writes poems in an almost prose style, and here in Srimenanti he appears to write paragraphs in rhyme that sound just like poems. This might seem revolutionary, or merely nothing-to-fuss-about, but for Pinurbo’s readers it can be outright boring. I mean, when you do two different things in one same style then what’s so new about it? He might just as well not write any novels at all, for his poems have already delivered stories to us.
Be that as it may, Srimenanti is still an enjoyable read. Anyone can read it merely for witty entertainment without having any literary expectation. And let’s not forget that it still has the ability to shake our conscience and emotions, and remind us that some pasts are still lurking behind our back and if we’re not careful they might come out and strike again.
NB: all translations were unofficially done by myself.