fiction, review

The God of Small Things: Memilih Kasih

Indonesian edition’s cover

Siapa yang patut kita kasihi? Seberapa besar dan bagaimana kita harus mengasihi mereka? Pertanyaan ini terdengar sepele, mudah saja untuk dijawab. Rasa-rasanya tidaklah sulit untuk menentukan siapa saja yang pantas memperoleh rasa kasih kita, pun dengan seberapa besar rasa kasih yang mesti kita berikan kepada mereka. Tetapi, benarkah demikian? Novel The God of Small Things karya Arundhati Roy menunjukkan bahwa mengasihi seseorang sejatinya melibatkan naluri yang lebih rumit, pelik, dan kerap kali, keji.

Berlatarkan Ayemenem di negara bagian Kerala, India, karya fiksi pemenang penghargaan Booker Prize 1997 ini menggambarkan―secara mendetail dan memilukan―kebobrokan diri manusia melalui kebobrokan keluarga mereka secara perlahan-lahan dan takterhindarkan. Dari luar, tampak bahwa kebobrokan keluarga ini diakibatkan oleh “perbuatan buruk” serta “kesalahan” orang-orang di keluarga tersebut; tetapi jauh lebih dalam dari itu, kebobrokan ini nyatanya telah datang menghampiri pada saat mereka mulai memilih siapa-siapa saja yang patut mereka kasihi, berdasarkan apa yang disebut Hukum Kasih.

Akibat dari “perbuatan buruk dan kesalahan” yang diperbuat anggota keluarga Kochamma telah tertampang jelas sejak awal cerita―ketika kematian Sophie Mol, sepupu Rahel dan saudara kembar laki-lakinya Estha, tidak hanya membuat mereka berdua dipisahkan (Estha “dipulangkan” ke ayahnya di Calcutta, sedangkan Rahel tetap di Ayemenem bersama paman dan neneknya) tetapi juga membuat mereka dipisahkan dari ibu mereka, Ammu. Sementara Rahel dan Estha mesti menderita trauma hingga dewasa, Ammu terkatung-katung dalam kemiskinan dan mati dalam kesepian setelah diusir dari rumah keluarga mereka―selain karena dianggap bertanggung jawab atas “kesalahan” anak-anaknya, ia juga dianggap telah mencoreng nama baik keluarga dengan menjalin hubungan dengan tukang kayu mereka, Velutha.

Hubungan cinta rahasia antara Ammu dan Velutha tidak hanya berujung pada kematian Sophie Mol, namun juga sendirinya merupakan perbuatan yang (dianggap) sangat salah menurut Hukum Kasih. Velutha berasal dari kasta paria, dari kelas buruh, berpendidikan rendah, dan seorang anggota partai komunis―yang tentunya bertentangan dengan status konglomerat keluarga Kochamma.

Menjalin cinta dengan seorang tukang kayu dari kasta terendah bukanlah satu-satunya “kesalahan” Ammu; di mata keluarganya ia tak lain seorang pembawa masalah: menikah tanpa izin dengan pria dari agama lain, bercerai, lalu membawa sepasang anak kembarnya kembali ke rumah orangtua. Anak-anaknya pun dianggap beban dan anak nakal oleh bibinya, Baby Kochamma. Sementara itu, “kesalahan-kesalahan” yang dilakukan oleh Chacko, kakak laki-lakinya, tidak pernah dihitung―mulai dari menghamburkan uang ibunya sewaktu masih kuliah di Oxford, menikah tanpa memberi tahu keluarga dengan gadis asing, bercerai, lalu kembali ke rumah orangtua dengan tangan hampa, sampai meniduri buruh-buruh perempuan di pabrik makanan awetan mereka―tidak satu pun yang dihitung dan dipermasalahkan oleh ibu maupun bibinya. Semuanya dimaafkan dan bagai angin lalu saja.

Apa yang dianggap salah dan tidak salah dapat dirunut ke apakah orang yang melakukannya adalah mereka yang memperoleh rasa kasih atau bukan; dan siapa yang berhak memperoleh kasih dan siapa yang tidak ditentukan―secara sadar tidak sadar, dan ini sudah mendarah daging―oleh banyak faktor diskriminatif: gender, kasta, agama, status, kelas, seksualitas. Dalam kasus Ammu, lantaran ia seorang perempuan, ayahnya melarangnya kuliah (untuk apa sekolah tinggi-tinggi?) dan inilah alasan mengapa kemudian Ammu memberontak dengan menikahi pria pertama yang mendekatinya. Lantas, setelah menyadari ia menikah dengan orang yang salah, Ammu menuntut cerai. Status cerainya pun dianggap aib sebab ia (lagi-lagi) seorang perempuan, tidak seperti status cerai kakak laki-lakinya yang dianggap biasa saja. Apa yang dilakukan Ammu dianggap salah, sedangkan apa yang dilakukan Chacko tidak.

Kasta dan kelas juga secara mendasar menentukan apakah seseorang pantas dikasihi atau tidak. Dikasihani, mungkin―jika dilihat dari perbuatan ayah Mammachi yang memberikan tanah kepada ayah Velutha dan menyekolahkan Velutha semasa dia masih kecil―tetapi dikasihi? Ini sama sekali tidak terlihat ketika hubungan gelap Velutha dan Ammu terbongkar: Velutha dan ayahnya diperlakukan dengan begitu hina sebelum akhirnya Velutha dipecat. Dan penderitaan Velutha menjadi berlipat ganda lantaran kelasnya―faktor yang berkelindan erat dengan status kastanya dan menjadikannya makhluk terendah di antara yang terendah. Sayangnya, paham komunisme yang dipegang masyarakat Kerala tidak membuat semua manusia “sama rata”, dan agama Kristen Syria anutan mereka yang mengajarkan cinta kasih kepada sesama tidak serta-merta menghapuskan sistem kasta. Bagi mereka, Velutha adalah seseorang yang “tidak pantas dikasihi”, tetapi hanya “pantas dianiaya sampai mati”.

Di luar itu semua, ras dan kebangsaan merupakan faktor penentu yang paling kejam apakah seseorang pantas atau tidak untuk kita kasihi. Sudah menjadi hal yang umum (dan, sialnya, dimaklumi) bahwa kita selalu memandang bangsa kulit putih lebih tinggi: budaya mereka, bahasa mereka, warna kulit mereka. Sophie Mol, perwujudan dari bangsa kulit putih yang dijunjung tinggi di sini, memperoleh rasa kasih yang berlebih dari neneknya (Mammachi) dan adik kakeknya (Baby Kochamma); jauh melebihi rasa kasih yang diterima Rahel dan Estha, walaupun mereka sama-sama anak hasil perceraian dan pernikahan yang tidak direstui orangtua. Rahel dan Estha bahkan diperintahkan agar bersandiwara dan bernyanyi dalam bahasa Inggris dengan baik demi menyambut kedatangan Sophie Mol, sebelum gadis cilik itu meninggal dunia gara-gara mengikuti mereka.

Tindakan pilih kasih ini juga bisa dilakukan oleh korban sendiri, yang karakternya juga mengalami “kebobrokan” (lantaran pernah diperlakukan demikian, kemudian mungkin tanpa sadar juga memperlakukan orang lain demikian): Ammu dan Mammachi adalah yang secara mencolok dicontohkan dalam novel ini. Mammachi, sebagai korban kekerasan dalam rumah tangga oleh suaminya sendiri (Pappachi) memilih dan memilah siapa yang berhak memperoleh kasih berlebih darinya: dalam hal ini adalah anak laki-lakinya, Chacko. Selain karena Chacko adalah anak laki-laki, pemilihan yang terkasih ini dilandasi oleh tindakan Chacko yang seharusnya dianggap wajar sebagai seorang anak: membela dan melindungi ibunya dari kekerasan yang dilakukan sang ayah. Tetapi Mammachi menganggap tindakan Chacko ini “istimewa” sehingga mengasihi (dan memanjakan) Chacko melebihi terhadap Ammu. Mammachi bahkan menoleransi, membiarkan, dan “mengatur” kebiasaan Chacko yang gemar meniduri buruh-buruh perempuan di pabrik awetan mereka.

Ammu juga tak luput dari kebobrokan ini, walau faktor yang mendasari tindakannya lebih “sepele”: Estha lebih pendiam dan penurut, sedangkan Rahel lebih keras kepala dan pemberontak. Estha, tentu saja, mendapat rasa kasih ibu lebih dari yang didapatkan Rahel (walaupun mereka saudara kembar).

Sadar atau tidak sadar, berdasarkan faktor apa pun, besar atau kecil faktor tersebut, kita akan selalu memilih kasih dan mengecilkan mereka yang “tidak pantas” menerimanya. Pilih kasih ini pun bertingkat-tingkat sifatnya, bak piramida. Orang yang paling tidak pantas menerima kasih kita akan duduk di tingkat paling bawah, menjadi yang “mahakecil”―yang dalam novel ini direpresentasikan oleh Velutha: ia memang seorang lelaki, tetapi ia “hanyalah” seorang tukang kayu berpendidikan rendah dari golongan kasta paling rendah yang tidak akan pernah beranjak dari tempatnya yang terendah.

Ammu berada sedikit di atas Velutha. Perlakuan diskriminatif yang diterima Ammu pada dasarnya lantaran ia seorang perempuan, dan semakin buruk lantaran ia seorang perempuan yang ingin lepas dari batasan-batasan tradisi keluarga, agama, kasta, dan aturan masyarakat. Ammu seorang perempuan yang nekat, pemberontak, yang akhirnya menyerah pada gairah hatinya sebab ia tidak tahan lagi dengan keterkungkungan hidupnya, sebab ia ingin bahagia, sebelum tutup usia―yang ia tidak tahu kapan.

Mengapa posisi Ammu masih bisa berada di atas Velutha? Sebab ada kaum perempuan yang nasibnya jauh lebih mengenaskan: para buruh pabrik awetan. Buruh-buruh perempuan ini duduk di tingkat terbawah bersama Velutha: kasta dan kelas mereka memperburuk keadaan mereka sebagai perempuan. Sebagai buruh―dan dengan jenjang kasta lebih rendah―mereka harus “terima-terima saja” ketika Chacko melecehkan mereka satu per satu, lalu diberi bayaran seperti wanita penghibur. Mereka juga tidak dapat berbuat apa-apa, angkat bicara pun tidak, jika tidak mereka pasti akan kehilangan pekerjaan yang sangat mereka butuhkan.

The God of Small Things menggambarkan segala naluri pelik dan keji serta perlakuan-perlakuan diskriminatif ini dengan amat rumit namun apik. Arundhati Roy, dengan gaya berceritanya yang penuh lika-liku, sarat metafor dan humor (yang lucu tapi menyakitkan, menyakitkan tapi lucu), tidak menutup-nutupi inti cerita sedari awal; namun seiring majunya narasi, semakin banyak detail yang terlihat, semakin terkuak setiap karakter yang tampak (apa yang melandasi kebobrokan mereka, apa yang menjadi masa lalu mereka). Roy tidak menuliskan mereka sebagai orang-orang yang sepenuhnya baik atau buruk, sepenuhnya benar atau salah; ia menggambarkan mereka sebagai manusia apa adanya, yang memilih apa yang mereka anggap baik, nyaman, tepat dan terhormat bagi mereka meskipun itu berarti mendiskriminasi, menyakiti, dan merugikan orang lain (dan tentu saja mereka tidak peduli sama sekali).

Sifat dan sikap mereka inilah yang kemudian membentuk pola masyarakat, yang menciptakan jenjang bertingkat-tingkat. Pola dan jenjang ini kemudian diturunkan dari generasi ke generasi, diterapkan pada satu kelompok masyarakat ke kelompok masyarakat yang lain. Pola dan jenjang ini tidak pernah musnah lantaran ada sistem hukum: mereka yang melanggar akan disingkirkan, tak peduli jika itu adalah anggota keluarga mereka sendiri. Pola dan jenjang yang mengakari diskriminasi ini lantas menjadi bibit penyakit yang tidak akan pernah sembuh sampai kapan pun, selama manusia masih memilih dan memilah siapa yang layak dan tidak layak mereka kasihi.

Sebagai sebuah karya, The God of Small Things sungguh luar biasa, baik dalam menceritakan suatu kisah secara mendetail, mendalam, mengharukan serta membuka mata, pun dalam menggambarkan tokoh-tokohnya secara manusiawi namun keji―sesuatu yang sesungguhnya, dan sayangnya, tidak bisa kita hindari.

Rating: 4.5/5

review, TV/movie adaptations

Word of Honor: More Than Just A New “Wuxia Adaptation”

Shan He Ling ‹‹山河令››, or Word of Honor in its official English title, is last year’s webdrama adaptation of Tian Ya Ke ‹‹天涯客››, a danmei wuxia novel written by Priest. It was, and is still, hugely popular domestically and internationally. This widespread fame might be purely due to its main genre, which is in itself very popular and not rarely used to make money by television production companies in China; on the other hand, however, it might be purely due to its very well written, engrossing, epic jianghu story―the journey of heroes in the pugilistic world and their romance.

Audiences who are fans of, or at least familiar with, classic wuxia stories (either in movie/drama or novel form) would definitely notice after the first few episodes that this drama has the formula of Jin Yong ‹‹金庸››’s works, especially that of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu ‹‹笑傲江湖››―or, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, as is usually entitled in English. It’s not only the appearances and mention of the orthodox sects like Shaolin, Wudang, Emei, the Beggar Gang and the Five Mountains Sword Alliance (particularly Huashan, Taishan and Hengshan Sects), but most importantly the premise: how those orthodox sects (and, of course, those under the Five Lakes Alliance, which is the main player here) being self-righteous, hypocritical and power hungry as they’re tirelessly fighting for a treasure which is said to enable the owner to become tian xia di yi ‹‹天下第一›› and rule the (pugilistic) world. This treasure is usually a certain gongfu manual or weapons, but here in this drama it’s the Glazed Armor, the so-called “key” to an armory containing the secret gongfu of all sects in wulin.

This hypocrisy and power hunger are always at the core of Jin Yong’s stories; this is the people’s mentality that the late author always wants us to see through his characters: greed is a human nature that no one can escape from―it’s not only the nature of evil villains, but also of “righteous” people who claim to be on the “bright” side of the world. And while evil people fight for power in an open and “honest” way, “righteous” people do it secretly in ways which are not any less evil. So who is actually evil and who is actually righteous? This makes the world not clearly black and white; this makes the world so laughable, hence his novel’s title Xiao Ao Jiang Hu―which literally means “laughing proudly at the (pugilistic) world”. This is what Wen Kexing saw with his own eyes and experienced himself so badly. This is also what Zhao Jing sort of summarizes in episode 23 through his dialogue with the Scorpion King―something he decides to take advantage of.

Zhang Zhehan as Zhou Zishu

The dichotomy between righteous vs evil then takes us to Jin Yong’s favorite romance trope: the star-crossed lovers. We have the famous Guo Jing – Huang Rong couple (of Legend of the Condor Heroes), Zhang Wuji – Zhao Min couple (of Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber), and even Yang Xiao – Ji Xiaofu couple (also of HSDS novel)―who are the most obviously in opposite and the most tragic. But Wen Kexing – Zhou Zishu couple in this drama is more like Linghu Chong – Ren Yingying couple of Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. Seeing Zhou Zishu (who is of the upright, orthodox sect Four Seasons Manor) leaving the Window of Heaven with his body severely injured is almost like seeing Linghu Chong being expelled from Huashan Sect with an equally severe, incurable injury. Meanwhile, Wen Kexing is almost similar to (or, in this case, the male version of) Ren Yingying, in that he is the leader of the Ghost Valley (the evil side and the common enemy of jianghu) just like Ren Yingying is the “leader” of the evil Sun Moon Sect instead of her missing father and on behalf of Dongfang Bubai.

Gong Jun as Wen Kexing

However, interestingly, their characterization is in converse. People might look at Zhou Zishu as sort of a replica of Linghu Chong―drowning himself in wine while waiting for his time to die; but, in fact, it is not him but Wen Kexing who has the similar character as our wandering swordsman: funny, carefree, mischievous, flirting Zhou Zishu non-stop the way Linghu Chong teasing Ren Yingying whenever they are together. On the other hand, Zhou Zishu is the one who has Ren Yingying’s character: calm, wise, smart, with solid integrity and strong leadership.

The differences do not stop there, though; because unlike Linghu Chong and Ren Yingying who simply stand side by side against the (pugilistic) world and challenge anyone who dares to question their love, Zhou Zishu and Wen Kexing’s relationship goes so much deeper. They’re not merely a pair of two people coming from different backgrounds and opposite sides. They each have their own journey and development. Zhou Zishu is indeed an “upright” person from an upright sect, but as the leader of the Window of Heaven, just how much blood he has in his hands? How much guilt and regret he has on his shoulders? Upon his “first” meeting with Wen Kexing, he’s like half-dead already, waiting for his last two years to take him away from the mortal world so he can leave all his sins behind. And Wen Kexing himself is no better (if not worse)―being a man with tragic childhood and evil upbringing, whose every action is driven solely by revenge, he wants nothing else but destroy the entire pugilistic world with himself in it.

Wen Kexing – Zhou Zishu’s own “us against the world” moment

But their chance encounter (and their journey together, later) changes the way they look at the world and themselves inside. While Zhou Zishu becomes more and more optimistic about life, Wen Kexing can finally see that he was wrong all along. Knowing Wen Kexing’s true identity and fragile heart, pain and misery, Zhou Zishu sees a chance to redeem himself by saving his soulmate from falling even deeper into the abyss of darkness―because he knows it’s not yet too late. Wen Kexing, besides trying to find a way to cure Zhou Zishu’s self-inflicted injury, is all-out in his attempt to save Zhou Zishu from bearing another huge regret on his shoulders―that particular scene when he’s draining out his internal energy to keep Han Ying alive for Zhou Zishu is one of the most heart-wrenching moments of this drama.

But being basically star-crossed lovers cannot be without the process of accepting each other first, not only their backgrounds but also their pasts. It is so much easier for Wen Kexing to accept Zhou Zishu and all his past sins ‘cause he himself would naturally have no qualms about killing anybody; however, in his mind, he fears that Zhou Zishu wouldn’t do the same with his Chief of Ghost Valley status and what a mess he has done in jianghu. This is in line, back again to their similarities, with Ren Yingying being afraid of Linghu Chong discovering that she is the shen gu of the evil sect. And for Wen Kexing, this process is even more complex seeing that it’s already difficult for him to accept himself and the “mistake” he had previously done―which leads us to the wrongly planned mass-killing revenge action.

Zhou Zishu questioning Ye Baiyi’s conscience

It might not take a long time for Zhou Zishu to accept Wen Kexing as he is, but it does take a necessary confrontation with Ye Baiyi for him to show clearly to Wen Kexing that he can fully understand what he has been going through and why he’s stranded in the path that he is now.

That backstory of Wen Kexing, in all fairness, is what actually drives the entire narrative of this drama, what makes this drama as it is. The jianghu community can just fight against each other over the Glazed Armor all they like and kill each other the way Wen Kexing wants them to, but without his tragic past there will be no solid reason for the mass-killing plan which culminates in the Heroes Conferences, for the display of pathetic hypocrisy of the entire pugilistic world and of all the schemes and betrayals that are so typical of being “heroes”; and, of course, there will be no solid foundation for his romance with Zhou Zishu where they accept each other the way they are and save each other from the utter fall. Wen Kexing’s story is deeply embeded in the drama’s story; Wen Kexing’s story is Word of Honor’s story.

Speaking of a story, especially of BL genre, having it written by, from, and for women (audience) doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll be feminist, or at least women-friendly―if you just know how sexist and misogynistic Addicted ‹‹上瘾›› is in its narrative and dialogues and how it portrays women as two-dimensional annoying people. The episode 5 of this drama when Zhou Zishu roughly saying to Zhang Chengling that “men cannot cry” makes it look like it’s going to the same direction; and Cao Weining’s male heroic syndrome doesn’t help it, either. As badass as Gu Xiang is, the gender vibes of the story still doesn’t make it comfortable enough to watch at first. Only after Luo Fumeng’s and Liu Qianqiao’s backstories are revealed does this drama give itself so much more balance. And the moment the Scorpion King says to Liu Qianqiao that “cheating is not about gender, women can also cheat” is when this drama clearly shows to the audience that it goes for gender equality.

This is something that doesn’t exist in classic wuxia stories. Although Jin Yong often presents us with “strong female characters”, they always look almost like a mere “tool” for the hero’s (a.k.a their lover’s) success. And there’s always this “one hero surrounded by many girls” trope, to boot. Feminism, or gender equality, or even a “decent” women representation is something that we never see in any of classic wuxia literary works. This, and the male-male romance (with a deeper, far widely-encompassing love story than in those classics), is the modern twist the original writer and scriptwriter have given to this based-on-classic-formula wuxia drama. This twist makes Word of Honor more than just a new “wuxia adaptation”.

Left: Linghu Chong & Ren Yingying of CCTV’s 2001 Xiao Ao Jiang Hu adaptation. Right: Zhou Zishu & Wen Kexing of Youku’s 2021 Tian Ya Ke adaptation. Fate or not: the two dramas were produced by the same production company.

It can be an “adaptation”, a tribute to, or it can be a fanfiction (with all those similarities and same formula it almost feels like a “copy”) of―once again, in particular―Xiao Ao Jiang Hu. They even start off the drama with Zhang Chengling’s family tragedy the same way as how Xiao Ao Jiang Hu begins with the disaster that befalls Lin Pingzhi’s family caused by the treasure that everyone is struggling to get their hands on. And if it is not enough, one of the songs on the drama’s soundtrack list is called Xiao Kan Jiang Hu ‹‹笑看江湖››―and that’s only one word different title from our late author’s masterpiece.

Well, whatever it is, Word of Honor can really capture and reflect the “essence and spirit of wuxia” that not even the “most decent” wuxia remake could do these days. People keep remaking the same classic source materials without doing them any justice―with stupid changes from the originals and no proper plot, not even a proper fighting scenes choreography. This drama, on the other hand, has its own story―properly using the classic formula―and gives us what a wuxia drama should be, what a wuxia drama must be.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Orang-Orang Bloomington

2016 reprinted Indonesian edition by Noura Books

Budi Darma’s narrative is always a place where readers will find the darkest sides of human beings: hatred, envy, spitefulness, loneliness, indifference, anger, obsession, resentment. If anyone ever read his works before (for example: Hotel Tua, Kritikus Adinan, or Olenka), they’ll know right away that the late Indonesian author never describes human beings as “okay” (literally or figuratively). People have ill-intentions, they have their own evil; and the tone in which Mr. Budi portrays them can always drive the reader even more to that dark corner where they wish (or deny) that they are not one of them. Orang-Orang Bloomington is no exception. Every piece of the seven short (and rather long) stories on the list brings us disturbing narrators who let us see more characters with even more disturbing behaviors and attitudes and thoughts, which often result in sort of saddening situations.

Laki-laki Tua Tanpa Nama is the starting example. Through the eyes of the ever-curious, and disturbingly anxious, narrator―who rents an attic room in Ny. MacMillan’s house, which is one of the three in a row in Jalan Fess―the reader will see an old World War II veteran who plays with a gun in his own rented room and carries it to crowded places, causing confusion (and cautious amusement) among people.

But under this worrying situation―at least according to the narrator―what becomes a bigger problem is the indifference of the people around him, and how it clashes with the narrator’s unreasonable, growing fear. On the one hand, readers have to witness how―for some people―an old, senile man carrying a gun (loaded or not) is “none of my business”; on the other hand, the narrator keeps nagging his lady neighbors about the old man and his gun and trying so hard to get to know and befriend him so that he can stop him. It’s not something pleasant to read; it shows how people―in their comfortable space―try to draw a clear line between other people and themselves and end up misunderstanding others and then taking an unnecessary, fatal action. It also shows how our unstoppable desire to meddle in other people’s business can bring about their bad ending.

Another disturbing story is Keluarga M. However, here, instead of giving a disturbing vibe of a character, the narrator seems more of a dark-hearted, vengeful person. The Meek family is poor, and though both parents (Melvin and Marion) are working, the children (Mark and Martin) still cannot get enough food and clothing, and they definitely do not have toys to play with. That, quite understandably, leads to both often having fights with other children in their apartment complex over toys and trivial stuff.

Mark and Martin, however, also do not have the best of characters, and do not always do the best of actions. One day the narrator finds out that the younger brother has scratched his car’s passenger door, so he demands justice from their parents. But Melvin and Marion defend their children, and they already apologize so there’s nothing the narrator can do about it. Unfortunately, the narrator’s mind cannot rest until he can make Martin pay for what he’s done; and somehow, in his action of revenge, he hurts the other family’s child instead.

In Yorrick readers will meet a worse narrator (not the worst, if they can understand the annoyance and the broken heart he has to suffer) and an annoyingly worse character who (very much strangely, as the narrative shows) is very likable among people around him. For some inexplicable reason, Yorrick―this annoying man, at least according to the personal experiences and opinions of our narrator―can be very friendly toward others (but not toward the narrator) and can even snatch the attention of the girl our narrator falls in love with. If we put ourselves in our narrator’s shoes, we can probably understand why he hates Yorrick (and everybody around him) so much; but if we step back and observe everything from another point of view, then we won’t probably agree with all his actions.

Not all stories here are bleak and dark, though; some are pretty warm to read―with a tinge of grittiness still. Orez is a story of a man who’s determined to marry the woman he loves despite knowing what bad things could result from their marriage, and who still loves his son however his condition is and whatever he’s growing up into. There’s a fleeting moment when he almost kills him but fortunately doesn’t have time to because once he gets back into his car, that moment’s gone away. Ny. Elberhart is also heart-warming, although it is actually a reminder to the reader that we, people, at the end of our days, will always be old and lonely and have no one to accompany us day and night, unless there’s someone who is sometimes willing enough to take care of us―someone who doesn’t necessarily like us, for that matter.

Through these “unpleasant” stories, in general, we kind of able to see our true faces reflected like in a mirror. It’s not to say that we are all as bad and pathetic as those characters drawn by Mr. Budi, but at the very least we are as complex as they are. None of us are saints, and sometimes, not to say that it is right to, we can hate someone who has treated us unfairly or has merely annoyed us to the core.

Mr. Budi treats all his characters in this book very humanly, giving them a chance to speak out their minds through their narratives and let the reader see not only their personalities but what makes them decide what they do. And Mr. Budi’s profound writing style lend more strength to their each characterization so they look, feel and sound so real that readers would not probably be able to bear it sometimes. Some points in some pieces feel too cruel, too painful to “enjoy”. For some readers it would probably be like, “I’ve had enough of this life I don’t need it to be written on a piece of paper.”

But that’s not actually the flaw of Mr. Budi’s writing here; it’s the grammatical errors and the diction. Orang-Orang Bloomington was written and first published in 1970s and 1980 respectively so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Budi didn’t use today’s standard of Indonesian language. But the book being reviewed here is the reprinted edition from 2016 and they should’ve edited some incorrect sentences and confusing diction but apparently they didn’t. It makes the writing a bit off and awkward; and just imagine reading it in the middle of putting so much effort to sit still and face unacceptable characters.

All in all, however, Orang-Orang Bloomington by Mr. Budi Darma is a classic to start off if people want to know more about Indonesian literature, though not about our culture because that’s not what he’s talking about here. But at least people get to know our kind of literature and that there are still more fields yet to explore. This book is already translated into English by Tiffany Tsao and published by Penguin Classics for those who are interested.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Salvation of A Saint

It’s definitely a howdunnit, because no matter how hard the reader tries to avoid spoilers and not to take a peek at the last pages, still they’d already discover who the culprit is right after the first chapter. And the excitement (if there is any) comes from the question of how the culprit commits the murder when there is so much distance to cover.

Mashiba Yoshitaka was found dead at his home with a cup of coffee spilled all over the floor beside him. Some kind of arsenic is detected in that coffee, so it is decided that he was murdered. But who could poison him when he was all alone at home? Is it possible then that he actually committed suicide? And if he did, why?

Among all the possibilities the police could think of, there is one where Wakayama Hiromi, the young woman who first found his body, is the one who committed the puzzling crime. Looking at the fact that she had an affair with him behind his wife’s back, Detective Kusanagi deems it possible that there was a certain “love motive” behind it. But his junior, Detective Utsumi, doesn’t share the same view. Using her instinct as a woman, she doesn’t think Hiromi would do such a thing. Instead, her suspicion is directed toward the victim’s wife, Mashiba Ayane. It’s simply because if there was any “love motive,” then Mashiba Ayane would be the only one who had the “right” to murder her husband.

However, if it is really the wife who is the murderer, there is not a single evidence to prove it. She was miles away at her parents’ home in Hokkaido, how would she put poison into her husband’s coffee in Tokyo?

Mashiba Ayane, as the prime suspect, is obviously the most outstanding character in this novel by Higashino Keigo. But Higashino clearly does not want her to stand out above all the other characters, much less above the iconic Detective Galileo. Higashino makes her a very quiet, calm and inconspicuous person, pitiful even that our main protagonist, Detective Kusanagi, falls hard for her. Unfortunately, this is what makes the book so unbearable to read. It is quite impossible to sit still and enthusiastically read a crime story where the detective, who’s supposed to be clear-headed and objective in viewing and solving cases, sort of fall in love with the suspect and is blinded by his sentiments. It’s somewhat exasperating, somehow urging the reader to stop even before they get to the last quarter of the book.

Fortunately, however, the pace picks up at that last quarter, a bit too rushed maybe for some people, but it just wants to make sure that everything is revealed one by one in an appropriate way before the plot gets longer and boring. It ends quite well, in a way that our smitten detective isn’t devastated too much.

Salvation of A Saint is actually a good blend of a character-driven plot and a proper crime story; but the narrative is a bit dull at first, almost no excitement at all, and having a blinded-by-love detective doesn’t help, either. Personally speaking, this book doesn’t quite work; but for Higashino’s fans, it might do.

This book was read and reviewed for #JanuaryInJapan reading event.

Rating: 3/5

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2022 Reading Plan (sort of…)

My reading life has really been a mess this year, I wouldn’t even close my eyes and say the otherwise. I could finally manage to finish 15 books (including manhuas), and am currently reading one more so hopefully I can finish another one. Let’s see if I’ll succeed…

Meanwhile, there is always a plan―although, as we all know, not everything will always go as planned. Let’s just say, I’ve mapped out my reading track for next year according to the challenges/events I intend to participate. This is only for temporary, so it’s subject to change anytime (as my mood changes).

1). January: January in Japan

I hadn’t joined this reading event for a very, very long time. I didn’t even remember when the last time I joined it. Now that I have Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint on my TBR, I think I’ll participate in it again (if it’s still on, of course).

2). March: Orang-Orang Bloomington Buddy Read with Fanda and Melisa and Reading Ireland Month [UPDATE]

The book has been on my TBR for more than four years now, its pages has even started to yellow here and there. Thank God my blogger friend Melisa has a plan to read it a month before its release in English edition in April 2022, and our fellow book blogger Fanda also joins in. In short, I can finally take it out of the shelf.

Another reading event that I might join in March is Reading Ireland Month 2022 hosted by Cathy. I have a copy of Milkman by Anna Burns, but it is not impossible that I would read the highly-hyped Normal People by Sally Rooney. Let’s see what I’ll choose when the time comes.

3). May: Asia Readathon

I remember joining this event in 2020, reading Yoko Ogawa’s Memory Police. This year I was absent (I don’t remember why I was, though). And since I have quite many books by Asian authors or representing Asian protagonists on my stack, I’m planning to join it again next year. This time Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Unknown Errors of Our Lives is my book of choice. It has also been on my shelf for four years or so. Pray to God nothing will get in my way then.

4). June: Jazz Age

It’s the first time I heard about this reading event. Where have I been? Seriously :D. I guess my fellow book blogger Fanda has already been running it for quite some time now, and I intend to join her for the 2022 edition. I happen to have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on my Google Playbook and have been meaning to read it since a while.

5). July: Spanish Lit Month [UPDATE]

I always like Spanish literature and always want to dive deeper into it―such a shame my chance of doing it has always been slight. This year I combined it with Women in Translation Month and read Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo. Next year, I think I’ll try to do it separately. And after so much thought, I finally chose Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos for this event.

6). August: Women in Translation Month

I instantly fell in love with Ariana Harwicz when I read her Die, My Love last year. I don’t say that I didn’t have a headache reading it, but her bold narrative had caught me off-guard. Her style of storytelling was something so unexpected to me, and I couldn’t get out of her snare since then. So for next year’s WIT Month, I’m planning to read her another book, Feebleminded.

7). November: Novellas in November and German Lit Month [UPDATE]

NovNov is fun because you’ll only have to read a short book and you’ll accomplish a challange and cut down your TBR at the same time :D. And it’s so coincidental that we have German Lit Month in the same month, so I think I’ll pick up You Would Have Missed Me, a novella by German author Birgit Vanderbeke. I read her The Mussel Feast some years ago, and it’s about time that I read her again.

In addition to the list above, I might also (actually) finish the last volume of Jin Yong’s Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber. Every time I look at the complete books on my desk I instantly think of my friend from whom I borrowed them two years ago. It’s about time I finish it and return them all to her. I might also (finally) read Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions. I’ve borrowed it from my other friend for a year now :D. The rest of time I’ll be reading manhuas, of course, and books by Indonesian authors. It’s been my habit for several years now to read Indonesian literature, so I cannot possibly abandon it.

That’s all my reading plan for now. Hopefully I won’t be as busy fangirling as I’ve been this year and will focus myself on reading, writing reviews, and translating (still in need of money here :D).

So, what’s yours?

fiction, review

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die

Is it The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, or is it the old tradition? In this novella by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay it is, sadly, both. Translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha and firstly appeared in English language in 2019, this book depicts a particular landlord family and the society they live in with all the traditions and patriarchal practices they’ve been performing through generations. It’s supposed to be funny, through the actions and voices of the characters, but as the plot progresses and we get deeper into it, it’s not funny anymore.

It opens with Somlata, a poor young girl of 18, being married off to an older man from an aristocrat family that’s already at the door of bankruptcy. They have nothing left but a facade, they even have to borrow money to pay for Somlata’s dowry. And while the family tries so hard to maintain their dignity, Somlata knows they can no longer survive without doing anything.

In the knowledge of this, Somlata stumbles upon the body of her husband’s aunt, whom she calls Pishima. When she finds her Pishima is already dead, and her ghost appears out of thin air. She asks Somlata to keep her box of jewelry and not to tell anyone in the family about it, much less letting them have it―even though they both know the family is in financial crisis. Somlata is so scared of the ghost but she does what she’s told, and does not admit her keeping the box although her sister-in-law clearly knows that she does.

The family’s financial crisis can no longer be ignored, and with Pishima’s box of jewelry Somlata might just save the entire family from falling further into poverty. But her fear of Pishima, and her ghost’s constant appearance and following Somlata everywhere remind her that she cannot break her silent promise. She therefore sells her own necklace and invites her husband to open a shop. Her husband’s reluctant, and the family, except for Somlata’s mother-in-law, is resolutely against the idea. They are a landlord, upper class family, they “don’t do trade” and they “don’t be a shopkeeper”. But Somlata’s husband finally agrees, and though their business often fails at first, they can eventually pass the storm.

Somlata’s persistent efforts can be seen as her act of kindness and loyalty to the family she’s married into, but on the other hand, it can also be considered as her act of rebel against its long-lived tradition. They are too busy preserving their dignity and refuse to do any labor to stay afloat, while Somlata sees no other way to survive than to do so. She’s insistent in the face of the family’s sneer and rejection and ridicule at the beginning, and her hard work and her husband’s willingness to follow her suggestion and guidance prove to be fruitful. But this is the only line that she’s determined to cross, and that’s certainly for the sake of the family.

As the second generation, her fate is actually no different (no better?) than Pishima’s, who had to conform to the patriarchal family tradition and suffer from it all her life through to her death. She was married at 7 and widowed at 12, and never allowed to remarry or even to enjoy a little bit of worldly pleasure after that. She’s doomed to be a miserable, unhappy, caged widow all her life and what she had left to keep is her box of jewelry―that’s why her ghost warns Somlata not to give her jewelry to their family, because she holds a deep grudge against them for all the sufferings they had put her through as a woman and a widow. She curses them all the time, wishes them all dead. She also teases Somlata to betray her husband and go seeing the handsome guy who’s been stalking her for days. But Somlata resists the temptation, because there is only one line she’s determined to cross.

Her daughter Boshon though, as the third generation, is the true rebel of the family. She refuses to submit to any social mores or family rules or patriarchal system which has held down her mother and her great-aunt. She doesn’t want to marry, and she doesn’t want to be loved merely for her looks because it’ so “empty” and pointless. She even sneers at her friend Priti who’s so mooning over her boyfriend.

The narrative says a lot about how the three women of different generations and different personalities and thoughts have to face the same problem: long-lived tradition, endless sexism, and familial system unfriendly to women. Somlata is the bridge between the heavily shackled Pishima and the more free Boshon, that’s pretty obvious; her situation is not as bad as Pishima, either, but she still restrains herself at the end, knowing that she has limit she cannot break. Pishima’s ghost appearance here and there at unexpected moments throws out all of her rage and anger toward all of those system and tradition, because she is dead and cannot do anything anymore to take her revenge on her family and society. Boshon’s freedom seems relieving, but let’s not forget the fact that she has privilege of being pampered by her family, that she’s entitled to do as she likes because she’s the only granddaughter of their family whose mother has successfully dragged them out of poverty. The sexism is still there, and she’s determined to fight against it.

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has certainly an engrossing, thought-provoking, yet funny style of storytelling in this book. Well, it’s not funny because it is funny, but because it’s ironic and it’s a mockery of the way and the condition that we live. It’s funny because it’s not supposed to be the life that we live. It’s funny because after three generations, old tradition and sexism are still lurking behind us, trying to catch us unguarded and put chains on us, though each in a slightly different way.

There are more and more books highlighting women’s problems we see being published every year, both in English or translated ones. And among those growing number there are still very few from South Asia, which is actually very rich and unique and has many things to tell the readers. Mukhopadhyay’s The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die might only be one among those few, but its poignancy is worth a spotlight.

Rating: 4/5

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Back to (Bookish) Life

Time flies, as always. It’s been more than a year since the pandemic started and while people think that being on lockdown means that they can finally read more books, I find myself becoming less and less productive instead―very particularly this year. 2021 has seen me spend half of it working (and reworking, for several times) my translation in a desperate attempt to get some money―because, like everybody else, I lost my “steady” job―and the rest of it fangirling non-stop.

It’s already the end of September and I’ve only managed to finish ten books, including manhuas. I’ve always tried to open and read one book, but could never finish it and eventually jumped to another one. That’s what I’ve been doing these past few months, and it’s horrible. I even lowered my Reading Challenge goal on Goodreads from 20 to 12 books this year. I did still write some reviews here, but not that many, and not that good, either. I tried to send my reviews to competitions and online media but to no avail. Well, you know it when your writing was so bad that any judges or editors didn’t even have to tell you.

This reading slump is killing me, and the toxic book community on Twitter doesn’t help, either. What’s worse, I’ve been losing my interest in reading just exactly when I could fulfill my book wish list at lower prices and even for free. This is so embarrassing and disheartening. And now, when I finally get a little bit enthusiastic again about reading, I find myself having to do another translation to offer to publishers. Really no time to read now.

I don’t know if or when I can get back to my bookish life. I want to read as many books as I used to, I want write as many book reviews/articles as I used to, I want to focus my eyes and my mind on pages in front of me and not on Twitter or Weibo timeline. I really don’t know if I can go back to that phase again. But I wish to, I really do.

fiction, review

Bagaimana Kita (Seharusnya) Memandang Olenka

Dalam sebuah cerita, sudut pandang adalah yang mendorong jalannya narasi dari awal hingga akhir. Sudut pandang ini bukan semata-mata perkara dari “kacamata” siapa cerita tersebut dilihat dan dikisahkan, tetapi juga memengaruhi bagaimana kemudian pembaca menerima dan memahami cerita tersebut. Bukan hanya itu, sudut pandang jugalah yang “membentuk” karakter setiap tokoh yang kemudian tertanam di benak pembaca.

Novel Olenka diceritakan dari sudut pandang pertama, dari “kacamata” Fanton Drummond, sang tokoh utama. Namun ada yang terasa sedikit mengganggu pada sudut pandang bercerita ini. Gangguan ini datang dari bagaimana tokoh Olenka digambarkan sebagai seorang wanita, diperlakukan sebagai seorang wanita. Gambaran yang menggelisahkan akan tokoh Olenka ini juga datang dari Wayne Danton, suami sang tokoh dalam judul. Jadi bisa dibilang, bagaimana karakter Olenka “dibentuk”―dan bisa jadi “diterima mentah-mentah” oleh pembaca―adalah bagaimana kedua tokoh pria ini (secara dominan) memandang tokoh tersebut.

Pertama-tama mungkin kita mesti melihat bagaimanakah karakter Wayne Danton, seorang penulis menyedihkan yang tidak memandang Olenka sebagai istri melainkan sebagai wanita jalang dan budak belaka, dalam urusan seks pun dalam urusan rumah tangga. Wayne seorang pria yang egois, yang ia pikirkan hanyalah karier dan dirinya sendiri. Ia tidak mau bekerja karena baginya itu akan mengganggu pikirannya dan memakan waktunya sehingga ia tidak akan sempat menulis. Demi menopang keluarga, Olenka-lah yang harus bekerja. Wayne juga menganggap Olenka sebagai alat pemuas nafsu dan memaksa Olenka memiliki anak―dan melahirkan anak yang tidak diinginkannya membuat Olenka tak pernah menyayangi Steven, anak mereka, begitu pula sebaliknya. Masih ditambah lagi, Wayne terus-menerus berusaha (dan berhasil) membuktikan bahwa Olenka bukanlah seorang ibu yang pantas dicintai.

Sementara itu, Fanton Drummond, sang narator dan tokoh utama, bisa dikatakan terobsesi terhadap Olenka. Pemuda gelisah ini mungkin terlihat sebagai “pria yang lebih baik” daripada Wayne. Fanton mencintai Olenka dengan tulus dan tanpa usaha. Ia merasa memiliki ikatan batin dengan Olenka dan merasa terus dibayang-bayangi Olenka. Ia mengikuti semua keinginan Olenka dan ketika Olenka menghilang dari hidupnya, ia menelusuri jejak-jejak Olenka. Bahkan saat mengejar Mary Carson, Fanton tetap tidak bisa melupakan Olenka. Ia juga merasa bahwa dengan mengenal Olenka, ia dapat mengenal dirinya sendiri.

Tetapi bagaimanakah Fanton memandang Olenka? Apakah sebagai manusia, ataukah benda? Apakah sebagai subjek, ataukah objek? Ketika berhubungan intim dengan Olenka, Fanton selalu menganggap Olenka sebagai “peta dunia”, yang ia ketahui “lika-liku dan seluk-beluknya”. Dalam menggambarkan hubungan dan badan Olenka, Fanton selalu menggunakan kata “meletakkan” dan “menggarap”. Bagi Fanton, tubuh Olenka adalah alam yang dapat ia “garap”, ia “rombak”, ia “kuasai”, ia “miliki”, dan ia “rusak” kalau perlu. Bahkan, pada salah satu bab, Fanton pernah berkata, “Seorang laki-laki jantan yang baik mampu menguasai perempuan bagaikan pioner memperlakukan tanah dan hutan,” dan “saya yakin bahwa dia [Olenka] juga ingin saya perlakukan demikian.” Dari mana Fanton tahu? Apakah Olenka pernah berkata demikian? Setidaknya, dari sudut pandang Fanton sendiri, ia tidak pernah mengutip pernyataan dari Olenka bahwa Olenka memang ingin diperlakukan seperti “tanah dan hutan”.

Bukan hanya dalam hubungan seks, dalam hubungan cinta pun Fanton menganggap Olenka sebagai objek. Bagi Fanton, Olenka adalah “sasaran” dari rasa cinta dan gairahnya, tujuan dari segala obsesi dan keinginan-keinginannya. Sudut pandang Fanton dalam bercerita juga menjadikan Olenka objek pemikirannya. Olenka merupakan sosok yang jauh, sosok yang tertanam di benak Fanton yang kemudian ia gambarkan dengan kata-kata dalam narasinya. Sekalinya Olenka memiliki ruang untuk bicara sebagai subjek, sebagai dirinya sendiri, adalah ketika ia menulis surat panjang kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka bercerita tentang dirinya, tentang keluarganya, tentang pengalaman “main apinya” dengan seorang kawan perempuan beralias Winifred, dan bagaimana akhirnya ia menikah dengan Wayne dan menderita karenanya.

Dalam surat tersebut, Fanton bukanlah objek bercerita Olenka sebagaimana Olenka dalam narasi yang dikisahkan Fanton pada keseluruhan novel. Fanton merupakan “teman bercerita” Olenka, Olenka bercerita kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka adalah subjek sekaligus objek narasinya sendiri, dan Olenka tidak memandang atau memperlakukan Fanton sebagai objek dalam hal apa pun, sebagaimana yang terlihat sebaliknya. Sesungguhnya, ini bukanlah sesuatu yang dapat dianggap aneh. Namun lantaran penggunaan sudut pandang pertama pada novel ini―juga “cara pandangnya”―ini menjadi terasa tidak (atau kurang?) adil. Adil memang bukan soal “sama” dalam segala hal, tetapi entah mengapa dalam kisah ini ketimpangan yang demikian terasa―sedikit banyak―mengganggu.

Lalu bagaimanakah kita (seharusnya) memandang Olenka dalam kisah ini? Apakah sebagai “wanita jalang” seperti yang digambarkan Wayne Danton lantaran ia gemar “melayani” pria-pria lain? Sebagai “bukan istri dan ibu yang baik”? Atau apakah seperti yang digambarkan oleh Fanton Drummond―objek cinta dan obsesi serta objek seks yang bisa diperlakukan sesuka hati?

Dalam novel Olenka, tidak ada satu pun tokoh yang sempurna, atau bahkan “cukup baik” menurut standar moral tertentu―entah itu Fanton, Wayne, ataupun Olenka sendiri. Maka apakah kita mesti bergantung (dan percaya) pada sudut pandang Wayne yang membuat ketidaksempurnaan Olenka tampak sebagai suatu “keburukan” alih-alih suatu “kewajaran” pada diri manusia biasa akibat kesulitan-kesulitan yang menimpanya? Apakah kita mesti menerima sudut pandang Fanton yang membuat Olenka tampak seperti benda tak bernyawa dan hanya diberi kesempatan bicara sepanjang beberapa lembar surat?

Olenka, jika dilihat dalam bingkai yang lebih luas, bukan semata-mata sebuah kisah nan kompleks tentang manusia-manusia yang gelisah dan bermasalah, manusia-manusia yang (tentu saja) tidak suci dan murni. Novel ini tidak hanya bercerita tentang orang-orang dengan ego masing-masing, yang berjalan di atas pilihan masing-masing dan menanggung akibat masing-masing. Novel ini, disadari atau tidak, juga merupakan contoh dari cara pandang umum terhadap wanita―bahwa wanita sering kali dipandang sebagai objek (dalam hal apa pun itu, dan sengaja atau tidak sengaja), serta bagaimana “wanita yang tidak baik” dipandang dari “luar” lantaran tak ada yang mengetahui masalah serta penderitaan-penderitaan yang menuntunnya pada hal-hal yang dilakukannya, mengingat ia tidak diberi panggung yang layak.

fiction, review

Fish Soup

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo is a pretty difficult book to stomach. It is not because it’s about women and their sexuality, but because the entire narrative is so unapologetically blatant in describing them. Or, rather, “cruelly” so. It’s like a slap in the face of everybody who believes that women should keep docile, modest and only follow the generational, social rules and patriarchal views in which they should not show their desire, should not be sexually active, or that they cannot be as sexually free as men are. This book wants to tell readers that women cannot be sexually repressed, should not be sexually repressed. And that they should not be punished for being a victim of sexual harassment and/or abuse.

The first part is a novella entitled Waiting for a Hurricane. The opening paragraph truly gives a punch, with the middle of it talking about being in the middle:

The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle. It was where the lost causes lived: there, nobody was poor enough to resign themselves to being poor forever, so they spent their lives trying to move up in the world and liberate themselves. When all attempts failed – as they usually did – their self-awareness disappeared and that’s when all was lost. – (page 7)


The unnamed female narrator is always where she has been since she was born, dreaming of getting out of the place where she is now. She doesn’t care if she’s very smart and could have a “bright future”, she only cares about running away, escaping the small city she lives in. She even dumps her boyfriend because she knows he will never (be able to) bring her out of their hole. And finally she decides to be an air hostess, that way she at least can leave her city even if only for a short time and be back again. She becomes more and more desperate to go away upon seeing her brother marrying a nurse from the US, hence gaining a green card. But after so many efforts she has done, she can only eventually find herself stuck in the middle, in the life that she knows with someone who is also never going anywhere.

The second part of the book, Worse Things, is a mini short-story collection consisting of seven stunningly disturbing pieces. Once again, they’re not disturbing because of the ideas, but rather for how merciless the narratives can be. Like A Pariah might only be a simple story about an old woman in the middle of her recovery after having a cancer, but later it is revealed that deep down she still has her desire and that it is somewhat satisfied by a man so much younger than she is. The question then might not be “what is wrong with her?”, but rather “is it wrong?”

Another “disturbing” piece in this part is the titular short story, Fish Soup. It’s disturbing in a way that Mr. Aldo Villafora always has bad imaginations of his wife while he is in delirium. In his mind, his wife is a “whore”, always having sexual relationships with many different men, always brutally shameless. There’s also a point in his dreams where his wife is already dead, and what is left is only bad memories. The whole narrative clearly shows that Mr. Villafora doesn’t have quite a good impression of his wife, thinking that his wife is a “bad woman”. But then the question is, why? And the next question is, does that impression match his wife’s real character? Seeing that, as it is, the real person of his wife is not presented until the end of the story, and only in a glimpse with an anxiety over Mr. Villafora’s condition.

Something We Never Were is an attempt to reverse the male-female point of view on men-women (sexual) relationship. It is very often that we see men having free sexual relationships with any woman they like without maintaining ties while women have to bear whatever consequences there are. But here we see Salvador yearns for a “normal” boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Eileen while the girl only wants sex and nothing more. The differences between them do not stop there. Eileen is too well-read and too broad-minded for Salvador that he cannot catch up with her train of thoughts, cannot understand her. And while he feels more and more in love with her, she doesn’t seem to have the same feeling at all. And when Salvador finally wants to break up with her, Eileen just cannot get, “what is there to break?”

The third and final part is another novella, Sexual Education. Well, it is, in part, about sexual education in which young girls in a school are encouraged to refrain from having (free) sexual relationships, seeing that so many have ruined their own future by having babies so early and being married off in such a young age. But, of course, some students do not just be quiet and comply with the teachings. Particularly Dalia, the narrator’s close friend, who has no qualms whatsoever about revealing her thoughts about women’s sexuality and doing sexual activities freely and openly with her boyfriend. But our narrator is so sick of her friend’s behavior and her way of (sex) life, though she herself doesn’t seem to agree with her teacher.

The story doesn’t have any end, as it is opened and is not concluded in any way. It even ends up displaying “another story” where one of their schoolmates is being raped by several boys and that she cannot get justice, cannot even spread the news about her tragedy because the editor of the newspaper is a relative of one of the rapists. And the boys, of course, are spared from any punishment.

Generally speaking, all stories in this book do not have any specific end. They all do not have any conclusion. It is as if Robayo wants to show that women’s problems, whatever they are, never have any solution. Women keep being hit by patriarchal views and practices, and especially, sexually. Fish Soup may not be a breakthrough in itself, but it is definitely a statement, a harsh statement, that those patriarchal views and practices against women should stop right now, that women should get justice when they are being the victims of sexual misconduct done by men, that there should be an end to it.

Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time, in a way that it’s so true and blatant that readers might want to stop and take a breath and admit to themselves that this is what happens, what always happens, in our society, even up to this day. It wants to wake us up by pouring cold water right to our face, making us shocked and see the reality immediately. And it doesn’t feel sorry for it, because that’s the least that it can do.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Joyride to Jupiter

Quietly vibrant, or brimming with subtle emotions―perhaps that is the way to describe Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride to Jupiter. It may sound like a collection of nineteen dull short stories with flat tone at first, but once readers get deeper into each of them, striking characters with heart-wrenching stories and clever narrative-handling are there to be found. O’Connor indeed tell them matter-of-factly, no flowery words or anything―she doesn’t seem to feel the need for―but the result is some knocking effects and restlessness banging in our heads.

The banging is loudest in some, like in Consolata, where Helen brings her new boyfriend Matthew to see her mother at her old house. It has been a long time since she came back home, and distant, somewhat bitter memories slowly open up before the reader as she’s thinking of her past, her late father, and Sister Consolata. Helen knew her when she was still a child and they were friends. But as layers of secrets unfolded unexpectedly, that friendship unfortunately―painfully?―had to fall to pieces.

Family bitterness also appears in Tinnycross, though in a different form and on another level. Oliver and Bernard are trying to divide the estate they inherit from their mother. Olly wants a half of the estate value, but Bunny denies him that, still blaming their mother’s death on his brother for never coming home to see her. Though Olly finally gets the amount of money he needs from Bunny’s wife’s own share, but deep inside, there’s a pain he never shares―pain coming from the attachment he never ceases to have to their family estate, to his childhood home.

This family theme seems to keep repeating, more so in Mayo Oh Mayo and Storks. But Mayo Oh Mayo is not the type of family story people usually have in mind. It’s more of how the writer, or the characters she creates, see the family bond. Is it more than anything that a passionate, brief affair cannot throw it off the cliff any minute? Or is it something that you can crush under your feet so easily? Apparently, the male character here doesn’t only think that Dublin and everything in it do not suit him, but also that a fling is a fling, and nothing about that can disturb his family life―though Siobhán, our female protagonist he’s having an affair with, thinks the otherwise.

Meanwhile, Storks throws out all the jokes life has in store. Fergus and Caitríona are on vacation in Spain to relieve their pain after losing their baby (again). It’s so obvious that Caitríona has it worse than her husband, and she just doesn’t want to do anything or say a word or even meet anyone. But unfortunately, she, and her husband, meet Worms Gormley―or Will, as Caitríona remembers him. He is an old friend of Fergus, and an old lover of Caitríona, but nobody knows. It may not be the right time to see a man with his happy family and healthy kids when you have just lost yours, but it’s definitely not the right time to find out that your secret ex-lover was actually your husband’s roommate, or that he’s the one who can actually heal your deepest wound.

O’Connor sort of want to state, however, that there might be one thing which is more important than family, or marriage bond: the bond between women, sympathy and empathy between women. Shut Your Mouth, Hélène doesn’t say that women have to keep mum about everything, but to do it at the right time. Women, of course, are entitled to say anything they like, anything they want, anything they deem proper to talk about; but when a man has sexually abused you and his wife, who was witnessing it, strikes him to death, you probably do not want to tell anybody about it.

It’s not suprising when women write about women, about their feelings, suffering, points of view, unpleasant experiences, their want (and dreams) of freedom, their secret passion and various problems. But Nuala O’Connor has certainly written women’s stories in a thorough way, with a very quiet yet very loud voice. The theme is mostly around family, yes, but she doesn’t hesitate to get deeper into it and dig out the darkest part of it. O’Connor also doesn’t hesitate to claim that there are other kinds of family (in The Boy from Petrópolis and The Donor) and that a family is never okay (Futuretense). That being said, what O’Connor always emphasizes here in this collection is women’s feelings and experiences, and how they see and handle their problems―whether it is with hatred or bitterness, anger or sympathy, sadness or love. Seeing all the female characters in all of the short stories contained, we can see (and be convinced) that women can be different from one another, but rest assured that they have one thing in common: they are free people, they want freedom, they practice freedom, they can be and do anything they like.

The problem with this book is that not all the premises are interesting, and not all the narratives are told engrossingly. Some are just so-so that you might want to skip them, or read them without paying much attention. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though.

One thing for sure, Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor gives you a wide-range angle on women, various points of view we should ponder about―different ones we should use to look at them.

Rating: 3.5/5