fiction, review

Uncommon Type

Tak mungkin tak mengenal negeri Paman Sam beserta segala gagasannya mengenai kebebasan, kesetaraan, dan kesempatan. Paling mudah gagasan-gagasan ini dapat dilihat dalam film-film Hollywood di mana Tom Hanks telah lama menjadi bagiannya. Namun, kini sang aktor peraih Piala Oscar memilih untuk menampilkan itu semua dalam sekumpulan cerita singkat bertajuk Uncommon Type. Berisi tujuh belas cerpen, yang beberapa di antaranya berbentuk kolom surat kabar, Hanks memperlihatkan makna impian Amerika serta rasa cinta terhadap negara dari sudut pandang warganya dalam sebuah pengabadian.

Impian Amerika bukanlah sekadar cita-cita. Setidaknya di buku ini impian Amerika direpresentasikan sebagai suatu “kenyataan”, suatu tujuan yang pasti tercapai apa pun rintangannya, siapa pun dan bagaimana pun latar belakangnya, serta sekecil apa pun kemungkinannya. Amerika Serikat yang (tampak) berjaya itu digambarkan menolak untuk berkata “tidak mungkin”. Sebagaimana dalam kisah berjudul Who’s Who?, sebuah narasi klise tentang seorang aktris muda berbakat dari kota kecil yang mengejar impiannya menjadi seorang aktris panggung besar di New York. Tak kurang-kurang kesialan yang harus ditanggungnya, tak kurang-kurang usaha yang harus dilakukannya, dan akhirnya Dewi Fortuna pun tersenyum padanya.

Pun dalam cerita yang cukup panjang, Pergilah Temui Costas, yang berkisah tentang seorang imigran gelap yang lari ke Amerika demi terbebas dari kekejaman rezim komunis di negara asalnya. Assan, serta temannya Ibrahim, melarikan diri dari kejaran polisi Bulgaria seusai kabur dari penjara dan diam-diam menyeberangi perbatasan menuju Yunani. Di Yunani, Assan mendapat pekerjaan sebagai juru api di Kapal Berengaria yang akan berlayar membawa kargo ke Amerika. Sembari menyelundupkan Ibrahim, menyeberanglah ia ke negeri kebebasan. Dengan bantuan sang mualim kapal, ia berhasil mendarat di New York tanpa dokumen dan tanpa ketahuan pihak yang berwenang. Namun tentu hidup di Amerika bukannya tanpa kesulitan. Meski telah diberi “uang saku” oleh sang mualim dan diberi tahu di mana ia dapat menemukan orang Yunani, tetap tidaklah mudah bagi Assan untuk mendapatkan pekerjaan dan tempat berteduh. Akan tetapi, lagi-lagi, Amerika adalah negeri sejuta kesempatan dan kemungkinan bagi siapa saja. Walau telah ditolak berkali-kali oleh Costas, seorang pemilik restoran Yunani, Assan akhirnya memperoleh pekerjaan untuk bertahan hidup di negeri barunya.

“Kesempatan dan kesetaraan bagi semua orang” di sini tidak hanya berlaku bagi kaum pria. Hanks menegaskan bahwa wanita juga memiliki kesetaraan yang sama. Dan bukan melulu kesetaraan dalam hal pekerjaan, tetapi juga dalam hal bagaimana wanita dipandang sebagai manusia. Ini terutama dapat dilihat pada sosok Anna yang muncul dalam tiga cerita pendek yang berbeda. Dalam ketiga cerita tersebut ― Tiga Minggu yang Melelahkan, Alan Bean Plus Empat, dan Steve Wong Memang Sempurna ― Anna memang bukanlah tokoh utama dan merupakan satu-satunya perempuan di antara empat sekawan, tetapi ia digambarkan sebagai wanita yang mandiri, cerdas, aktif, dan tangguh; tak kalah dan bahkan dapat mengalahkan ketiga teman laki-lakinya dalam banyak hal.

Ketangguhan dan kemandirian ini dimiliki pula oleh sosok ibu Kenny Stahl dalam kisah Akhir Pekan Istimewa. Sosok ini menarik bukan lantaran ia menawan secara fisik, tetapi lebih karena cara Hanks menarasikan cerita dan menggambarkan tokohnya. Ibu dan ayah Kenny dikisahkan telah lama bercerai, dan ayahnya telah memberinya keluarga baru. Sementara itu, ibunya masih belum (atau memilih untuk tidak?) menikah lagi meski memiliki kekasih, dan menjadi seorang wanita karier yang sukses. Dari cerita akhir pekan bersama sang ibu, pembaca dapat mengetahui mengapa orangtuanya bercerai. Andai ditulis dari sudut pandang sang ayah, cerita ini akan terasa penuh penghakiman; sedangkan jika dikisahkan dari sudut pandang sang ibu, ia akan terlihat sangat egois. Untungnya, Hanks memutuskan untuk bercerita dari sudut pandang si kecil Kenny, yang masih polos dan dapat menerima keadaan apa adanya. Dengan demikian, pembaca dapat bersimpati terhadap ayah Kenny sekaligus memahami perasaan dan keputusan ibu Kenny.

Akhir Pekan Istimewa hanyalah salah satu contoh bagaimana keluarga di Amerika “berjalan”. Kisah pendek Selamat Datang di Mars juga mempertontonkan hal yang sama, meski dengan konflik berbeda. Keluarga Ullen tak bisa disebut sebagai keluarga harmonis. Dengan seorang ibu pemarah, seorang saudara perempuan memilih tinggal dengan pacarnya dan yang seorang lagi bertekad untuk datang dan pergi sesuka hati, serta Kirk yang selalu tenggelam dalam buku-bukunya, sosok Frank sang ayah yang selalu sabar dan menengahi pertengkaran demi pertengkaran menjadi satu-satunya orang yang masih punya akal sehat di antara mereka. Hanya bersama sang ayah pulalah Kirk merayakan ulang tahunnya yang kesembilan belas di pantai Mars, tempat ia pertama kali belajar dan kemudian menjadi raja ombak. Tetapi kejutan terbesar di hari itu bukanlah hadiah jam tangan anti-air pemberian Frank, melainkan rahasia keluarga yang selama ini tak pernah diketahuinya. Atau, mungkin, yang paling mengejutkan adalah sikap Kirk sendiri setelah mengetahuinya.

Yang terakhir, dan mungkin yang paling menonjol, dari buku kumpulan cerpen ini adalah rasa cinta terhadap negara yang tanpa cela. Aroma nasionalisme tercium begitu kuat di lima dari tujuh belas cerita, kendati beberapa di antaranya bukanlah secara langsung mengenai cinta negeri. Nasionalisme ini kerap muncul dalam bentuk olok-olok terhadap lawan di masa-masa Perang Dunia II dan Perang Dingin. Ini sebagaimana yang disiratkan dalam cerpen kedua, Malam Natal 1953, di mana para tentara sekutu Amerika Serikat digambarkan begitu hebat di medan perang, sedangkan para tentara Jerman digambarkan sebagai pecundang. Pada Alan Bean Plus Empat ― yang menghadirkan tokoh Anna beserta ketiga kawan lelakinya ― sang narator seakan mengejek Rusia yang gagal dalam misi ke bulan mereka sementara empat sekawan Amerika ini berhasil memutari bulan bahkan tanpa bermodalkan pelatihan dan dukungan dari NASA. Jelas-jelas sang narator hendak berkata, “Kami orang Amerika biasa saja bisa melakukannya, sedangkan kalian astronot Rusia tidak.”

Satu hal lagi yang kentara dari tulisan-tulisan Tom Hanks dalam Uncommon Type adalah kecenderungannya untuk “mengabadikan” masa lalu. Ini tampak jelas dari hadirnya mesin tik kuno bukan hanya dalam bentuk gambar tetapi juga di hampir semua cerita pendek yang disajikan. Hanks bahkan mendedikasikan tiga cerpen khusus untuk menghadirkan mesin tik kuno sebagai “tokoh” yang tidak hanya numpang lewat: Inilah Meditasi Hatiku, Kembali ke Masa Lalu, dan Penginjil Perempuanmu, Esperanza.

Secara umum, menulis memanglah suatu bentuk pengabadian. Dalam tulisan, pemikiran-pemikiran seseorang serta peristiwa-peristiwa yang pernah terjadi tak akan lenyap oleh waktu; karena terus dibaca dan disampaikan oleh satu orang ke orang lain, dari suatu waktu ke waktu berikutnya. Dan Uncommon Type adalah salah satu contoh dari pengabadian tersebut.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Circe

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Indonesian edition’s cover

What is power? This might not be the right question to ask for it’s more than likely that everyone knows the answer already. And it might not be wrong to conclude that everybody agrees it’s about controlling others, domination, making decisions on what others should or should not do. Madeline Miller pretty much (if not completely) shows this through her 2019-Women’s-Prize-for-Fiction-nominated novel, Circe. She shows how the gods have total control over humans (or, any creature below them), how men dominate women (also the undercurrent counter-attack they never realize), and how those with strength can do whatever they want to those who are less powerful.

The book, founded on and centered around the Greek mythology, tells about a nymph (a lower-class, powerless deity) named Circe who was born to a Titan father, Helios, and a naiad mother, Perse. She’s so physically imperfect, with unpretty appearance and bad voice, that even her own mother despises her. But she has a heart of compassion and determination that one day, when she knows she shouldn’t, she comes near Prometheus and asks, “What is human like?” while giving him some nectar to survive after his punishment. That might be a simple question asked out of curiosity, but it looks like a particular one the writer wants us readers to ponder about while scrutinizing her characters not as deities nor Titans, but as human beings.

And while you’re at it, Circe falls in love with a human herself, a charming fisherman named Glaucos. Helplessly head over heels and willing to do anything in order for them to be together forever, she ventures into Knossos and picks the flowers known for their ability to change somebody into somebody else (or, rather, into their real selves). She uses them on Glaucos and changes him into a sea god, but the result is not what she has expected. He becomes as arrogant as any deity or Titan you might encounter, and he falls in love with another nymph, the pretty and mean Scylla. Jealous and desperate, Circe uses the same flowers to change Scylla into a monster, which brings her to her demise: imprisoned for the rest of her life on a remote island.

But that’s her turning point. There on that secluded place, she starts to see things clearly, understand more the way of the world and herself, exploring her true power and using it. She meets sailors (men, to be precise) and comes to know how the opposite gender thinks that a woman living on her own is a weak creature easily intimidated and made a target of their animal desire and abusive behavior. Without her willing to, she has to help her sister Pasiphaë give birth to a monster and learns that if you don’t use your every power and trick to control men, men will control you. She meets Daedalus and finally feels what true love is. She meets Odysseus and knows that she can’t make the same mistake again and so secretly bears him a son, a descendant, walking steadfastly  into the realm of motherhood. Through her centuries of experience, she can finally see that she is the master of her own destiny and can do whatever she deems right, or necessary.

Circe’s transformation is perhaps that which people see as ideal these days. Initially innocent and letting herself be bullied for what she is, she then fights back with all she has. She is still a compassionate person at heart, but she no longer takes anybody’s nonsense thrown her way. However, the most interesting thing most readers will never probably miss out is how Miller, through the story of Circe’s ups and downs she has constructed, lays out blatantly the bitterness so many women have to endure. She bewails the notion that unpretty women (here being symbolized by ugly nymphs) are considered useless and unvalued, having no possibility of marriage, a huge burden to their family, dirt staining the world. She cries out loudly that women can actually totally independent: living on her own, fighting on her own, making her own decisions and being held responsible for them. With this lone wolf that is Circe, Miller wants to push into our face the fact that women can rely on their own capability and on themselves. And one more thing that we have to praise Miller for is her audacity to criticize the divinity—how the gods want humans and every creature beneath them to always worship them, pray to them, and sacrifice anything for them to the point that they will do just anything: manipulating, threatening, creating troubles and giving ordeals. This is not a mere criticism. This is how the world truly works.

Circe is, on the whole, a story about women. It’s about how all women on this planet can have their own power and the right to wield it. And Madeline Miller makes it clear through her engrossing narrative. It’s like pieces of cards being piled up neatly into a pyramyd the top of which readers will finally see, where Circe eventually decides her own final destiny and goes through what she has to. Miller also describes every character very well, displaying their seeming personality traits and then gradually revealing their true colors, making them so complex and natural and “human.” With this way of characterization you cannot even hate Pasiphaë, though Circe has time and again fallen victim to her cruelty. And you cannot also love Odysseus whole-heartedly, though he is one of those men who can understand and cherish her. Miller shows you people as they truly are.

Last thing to say, Circe is a fantastic read, fast-paced and enjoyable. And though there is nothing new in its idea or structure, its being “realistic” and powerful is enough to move you.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Namesake

32782023108_d92f86917dBeing different is always difficult. And there’s no better proof than The Namesake, a 2003 immigrant-themed novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. At a time when many people abandon their countries—either to escape war and persecution or to seek a better life—this book is something very much relevant. Putting aside the political aspect, it is always worthwhile to see what life of those newcomers is like and how they survive in the foreign land. Will they mingle well? Or will they distance themselves from others? Will they stay true to their motherland’s culture? Or will they blend all ideals together just so they can live a smooth life?

It all starts—despite the novel’s opening chapter—with Ashoke’s desire to travel the world upon the tragic accident that befalls him in his hometown in India, before which he meets and chats with a businessman suggesting him to go abroad at least once in a lifetime. Just before his leaving for the United States to do research and study further, his family arrange a marriage for him with Ashima, a young educated woman who, fortunately, is not disinclined to live abroad with him. But that cannot change the fact that living alone, just the two of them, in a foreign land is a difficult experience. Everything is alien to them, as they are to the nation they’re now part of. Everything is different from their inherited culture, from what they are used to, especially when it comes to naming their baby.

And here’s the unfortunate event where our main character gets his name, Gogol Ganguli. It has been a Bengali tradition that the grandmother of the mother will give her baby a name—a good, official name, to be precise—but alas! The letter containing this supposed name is lost between India and the US—it’s in the late 1960s so you can imagine the difficulties—and so when the hospital, as per usual in the country, asks Ashoke and Ashima to give their baby a name to fill the birth certificate, so they can take him home, they are forced to put a “pet name” on it instead, unwilling to breach the tradition by giving their baby a good name themselves. From then on, their son is Gogol, a name quickly picked up by Ashoke from his favorite author, the one who always inspires him and reminds him of  the near-death tragedy in his early life.

But Gogol is not happy with his name. It’s neither Bengali nor American, and its original owner had a tragic life Gogol cannot bear to know. He’s already a foreigner in a foreign land, and having a strange name is another burden to him. More than that, he hates his cultural background, his burdensome family tradition, his ties with his homeland. He spends almost his entire life defying all of that, including changing his name and make it a “good, official” one and dating Caucasian girls though he very well knows that his parents must want him to marry any Indian girl of their choice. However, he then meets, and falls in love with, Moushumi, a childhood Bengali friend of his. Their wedding later is quite predictable, though it’s not for the blessing their parents give them, but rather for their shared fate and will to escape their inherited identity and traditions. Unfortunately, this proves a mistake, because Moushumi’s character, and her sense of rebellion, make her realize that Gogol is not someone she wants to be with in her life.

It is easy to see how all main characters in The Namesake suffer from a sense of alienation. But while Ashoke and Ashima try so hard to hold on still to their culture and embrace that of Americans’ at the same time, Gogol wants none of that. He doesn’t like being who he is (a stranger with a strange name) and all he wants is to be assimilated totally and successfully into the American society. He only wants to be a “normal” person in the land he was born into, and to have a “normal” name which doesn’t make anyone around him stop and question him. At the same time, Moushumi, who is in the same generation as Gogol himself, shows the same strong will and determination. She even once pledged to not marry an Indian/Bengali man just so she can break her parents’ hopes and expectations as Bengali people living in America—a pledge which she accidentally breaks and brings her to her demise.

All this shows that assimilation is a tremendous feat that can be very much personal. There is no way Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t know it perfectly, and she succeeds in narrating the whole process. Her narrative is open and clear, her language is simple and direct. She doesn’t take on lavish, pretentious writing style to tell her tale so readers can really see through all the characters: what they think and feel, and their development toward the end of the story. What’s a little bit disturbing (I wouldn’t say disappointing) here is that some parts are pretty boring to follow, and some are even too much predictable. You can almost foresee what is going to happen even before opening the next page. It may be because you already know it, or perhaps it is just the way it should be. Putting all that aside, the plot development is still as good as that of the characters, and the atmosphere created by Lahiri’s diction can truly drag the reader down with subtle yet stormy emotions.

All things said, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a very satisfying book in many aspects, if not all. It might not provide readers with what immigration or assimilation is actually about, or with all the struggles immigrants have to go through in the foreign land. But it surely gives the reader some insights into how immigrants could or should blend in with their new society, and how “being different” is also a part/process of creating a melting pot.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

The Girls

41396137951_8e2e70a170Manusia dan identitas tidak dapat dipisahkan. Salah satu makna identitas adalah apa yang melekat pada diri kita, cirri khas yang menunjukkan siapa kita, dari mana asal kita, apa status kita, dan, sering kali, termasuk ke dalam golongan apa kita. Identitas secara tersamar dapat berupa kepercayaan yang dianut, pakaian yang dikenakan, bahasa yang digunakan, tingkah laku atau perilaku, maupun gaya hidup.

Emma Cline menyodorkan kisah yang cukup unik dalam karya fiksi debutnya, The Girls (diterbitkan dalam bahasa Indonesia dengan judul Gadis-Gadis Misterius), berkenaan dengan krisis identitas akibat kegelisahan dan kejemuan masa remaja yang lantas bersinggungan dengan budaya lain yang mempertontonkan identitas nan beda tapi nyata.

Cerita baru benar-benar bergulir pada 1969 dengan kehidupan Evie Boyd, seorang remaja berusia empat belas tahun, yang terkesan tidak menyenangkan: pertemanan yang hanya direkatkan rutinitas, rasa suka bertepuk sebelah tangan terhadap kakak sang sahabat, keluarga kaya yang tidak harmonis hingga tercerai-berai. Sampai suatu saat diam-diam muncul dalam diri Evie perasaan ingin memberontak, ingin merambah sesuatu yang lain, sesuatu yang tidak menjemukan.

Perasaan ini semakin kuat ketika tanpa sengaja ia melihat segerombolan gadis aneh dan misterius di taman, yang tampak dipimpin oleh seorang gadis berambut hitam dan lebih tua dari Evie sendiri. Mereka berpakaian kumal, memakai cincin-cincin murahan, terlihat tidak peduli dengan kehadiran orang sekitar (si gadis berambut hitam sempat menurunkan leher gaunnya hingga memperlihatkan sebelah payudara), dan sangat dekat dengan satu sama lain bak keluarga. Yang membuat Evie lebih tercengang adalah tatkala mereka membongkar tempat sampah di luar sebuah restoran dan mengambil sisa-sisa makanan yang “sekiranya masih bias dimakan.” Bagaimana mungkin ada orang yang mengambil makanan yang sudah dibuang ke tempat sampah? Kecuali dia seorang pengemis. Tetapi gadis-gadis itu bukanlah pengemis.

Di tengah kepenatan Evie menghadapi sang ibu yang berusaha keras bangkit dari keterpurukan setelah bercerai dan mencari pendamping baru (sampai-sampai mengabaikan perasaan putrinya sendiri), Evie akhirnya berbuat nekat: mendekati si gadis berambut hitam, yang kemudian diketahuinya bernama Suzanne, dan memasuki lingkaran gadis-gadis hippie yang tinggal secara komunal di peternakan bobrok di sebuah bukit di Petaluma.

Di sana Evie benar-benar menemukan apa yang ia cari, yaitu sesuatu yang tidak lazim baginya: kumpulan orang (kebanyakan gadis) yang tinggal bersama tanpa ikatan, anak-anak yang entah bagaimana statusnya, pakaian kotor dan seadanya, rumah yang hamper tanpa perabotan, ganja yang dikonsumsi melebihi asupan makanan, cinta yang diumbar secara bebas, serta seorang pemimpin bernama Russell yang dipuja-puja.

Bagi Evie yang bosan dan lelah dengan kehidupannya, semua itu tampak mewah dan menarik luar biasa. Selama dua bulan, ia pun lebih sering tinggal dan menghabiskan waktu di peternakan dan menjadi bagian dari mereka, menjadi seperti mereka. Sampai suatu rencana kekerasan yang tak disadarinya mendorongnya keluar dan melihat kenyataan dari sudut pandang yang berbeda.

Dalam Gadis-GadisMisterius, Emma Cline secara lihai dan memikat menangkap serta menggambarkan karakteristik yang merupakan identitas kaum hippie di Amerika Serikat, setidaknya mereka yang tinggal di California Utara. Hidup di peternakan di bukit—dengan rumah yang nyaris kosong, duduk beralaskan tanah, anak-anak dibiarkan bermain di kolam—sedikit banyak merepresentasikan prinsip kembali-ke-alam yang mereka pegang. Begitu pula dengan pola hidup bersama dalam satu kelompok tanpa status apa pun yang menunjukkan praktik communal living. Hal lain yang dapat mengidentifikasi kelompok tersebut adalah penggunaan obat-obatan seperti LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide, biasa disebut acid) serta ganja secara sembarangan dan rekreasional, juga penerapan free love (cinta yang bebas) yang kemudian menjadi cikal bakal free sex (seks bebas).

Cline juga secara mendetail menambahkan bus sekolah yang dicat ulang sebagai kendaraan mereka. Hampir segala hal yang dapat kita identifikasikan dengan kaum hippie tersaji secara samar tetapi juga gamblang di saat yang bersamaan, digambarkan dari sudut pandang Evie yang sarat decak kagum akan hal-hal yang tidak konvensional. Cline bahkan sampai memanfaatkan pembunuhan yang dilakukan Charles Manson, yang merusak nilai-nilai perdamaian dan anti peperangan kaum hippie dengan tindakan kriminalnya, sebagai inspirasi aksi bagi Russell dan kelompoknya. Atau, bias jadi, Cline memang sengaja menceritakan kisah nyata ini dalam bentuk serta dengan sudut pandang yang berlainan, meskipun kisah tersebut tidak menjadi focus utama narasinya.

Namun, selain penggambaran kaum hippie yang menunjukkan bagaimana bentuk dari identitas diri mereka, Emma Cline juga memperlihatkan bagaimana tokoh Evie Boyd mengalami krisis identitas akibat kegelisahan dan kejenuhan yang dialaminya. Sebagai remaja yang masih terombang-ambing dalam pencarian jati diri, serta terkoyak akibat perceraian orangtua, Evie mencari sesuatu yang dapat melegakan hatinya, suatu tempat di mana ia dapat melepaskan beban. Kebebasan gaya hidup yang ditawarkan kaum hippie, yang bahkan untuk mendapatkan sesuatu mereka hanya tinggal “mengambilnya” saja, mengiming-imingi Evie janji akan kehidupan yang lepas dan tanpa beban: beban dari sekolah yang monoton, ibu yang menekan, persahabatan yang lekang.

Akan tetapi, jika dilihat lebih dekat, meski telah memilih bersama kaum hippie, Evie tetap tidak terlihat seperti bagian dari mereka. Ia juga tidak dapat sepenuhnya berpikir sebagaimana mereka berpikir, dan terkesan asing berada di tengah-tengah mereka. Seolah-olah Cline ingin menunjukkan bahwa mengadopsi atribut tertentu dan bergabung dalam kelompok tertentu bias jadi dapat memberikan identitas tertentu kepada diri kita, tetapi bias jadi juga tidak. Bila atribut-atribut tersebut tidak benar-benar melekat pada diri kita, maka kita belum tentu akan menjadi seperti orang-orang yang memiliki identitas tersebut. Layaknya orang yang mahir berbahasa Inggris belum tentu berasal dari Negara berbahasa Inggris, atau orang yang berkeyakinan tertentu belum pasti terlahir di Negara asal keyakinan tersebut.

Gadis-Gadis Misterius karya Emma Cline seakan hendak membuktikan bahwa identitas diri merupakan hal yang pelik. Ini bukan sekadar perkara atribut-atribut yang dimiliki atau gaya hidup yang dijalani. Bukan pula semata soal ingin tidaknya kita merengkuh ciri khas dan gaya hidup tersebut. Seperti karakter Evie yang sangat cinta kebebasan tapi tak pernah bias sepenuhnya menjadi hippie, atau karakter Russell yang justru mencemari prinsip cinta damai yang dipegang oleh kaumnya sendiri. Identitas bias dibilang sesuatu yang cair, layaknya karakter manusia yang tidak melulu hitam dan putih.

N.B.: resensi ini pernah ditayangkan sebelumnya di Jurnal Ruang.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

The Shell Collector

36957532463_91281909daHope springs eternal, no matter what happens. Or, rather, no matter how little or even no possibility there is. The eight short—sometimes quite long—stories making a list in The Shell Collector drive home, instead, a bitter fact that it is often so pointless to have any hopes at all. Why? Because life is just the way it is and what actually happens is not what you want to happen. This is not pessimism. This is reality, in a way. The unpleasant one, though. What you should do is merely to get over it. Move on. Do something else, if you still have energy even to use your brain and think. Why does it sound so bad? Not really, if you succeed in moving on and having another hope to cling to.

Anthony Doerr’s 2002 collection will definitely shred the reader’s heart into pieces with its beautifully merciless pieces of prose. However, due to my incapability to summarize and tell all of the eight stories, I think I’ll settle for writing briefly three which could truly shake me personally. So Many Chances was the first among them. You could say it’s the most pessimistic one, especially when somewhere in the middle of the story a mother says:

“Life can turn out a million ways, Dorotea […] But the one way life will not turn out is the way you dream it. You can dream anything, but it’s never what will be. […] The only thing that can’t come true is your dream.”

It might sound so annoyingly hopeless, as if peope do not have to bother to hope at all. But the narrative gives readers the reason when Dorotea, the said mother’s daughter, is being let down by the fishboy she likes—and whom she thinks returning her immature feelings—as he’s gone without a word. She also has to feel the same disappointment when her father turns out to be working as a cleaning man in a boat as he has been before, and not the shipbuilder he has told her to be. Thus, their family’s moving to the seaside town is something pointless and obviously unnecessary.

The second to spin my head around was For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story. It seems to remind us of our jealousy toward others, when they appear to be a lot better than us, achieving bigger things than us, and doing something we can only dream about that we start to feel so small and useless. Rosemary is a short, rather fat girl who is absolutely nothing like her sister Griselda—tall, slim, having achieved big in volley. Her irritating envy drives her almost off the edge, not telling their mother when Griselda has gone without saying anything with the metal eater stopping by to hold an accentric show in their town. She doesn’t even say a word to their mom when Griselda sends postcards from around the world to tell them where she is and what she is doing with the metal eater. Rosemary doesn’t want their mother to know, not merely because she doesn’t want her to worry a bit about Griselda, but also because she’s angry that her sister can do as she please while she’s stuck in that town, doing nothing better than having a boring job and caring for their mother till the end of her life. Is life fair? Definitely, she thinks it’s not.

And the last one was July Fourth, a hilarious story unlike any other in the collection. It looks like it wants to tell the reader that there’s still hopes and optimism even if you’re doomed to failure in every direction you’re walking to, but not in an emotionally wrenching way. A group of British men challenge a group of Americans to fish and get the biggest fish possible in both continents. While the Brits have always been successful with their feat, the Americans do not get a single big fish, only bad luck and disappointment. But they do not give up. The deadline is the fourth of July, their own independence day, so they rush off. The determined efforts they’re making through the entire story can surely make readers both laugh at their innocent optimism and amazed by their unrelenting hard work.

Anthony Doerr has a unique style of storytelling. His sentences are not something ordinary, not only do they provoke profound emotions and melancholy, but are also capable of expressing the characters’ hidden feelings and thoughts in thorough detail. Even the plot of each story is extraordinarily structured, with complexity of a narrative full of agony and pessimism but also a voiced elaboration that urge the reader to be optimistic despite the little amount of it. All in all, this collection is about small miracles in the midst of difficulties and pain of life. And that storytelling style of Doerr’s can really represent this theme through and through. Reading it, readers will only get the feeling that life is just the way it is; sometimes there are too many troubles and unexpected things that it’s so pointless to have any hopes at all. Nevertheless, it’s also worthwhile to entertain a little bit of optimism inside our heart.

The Shell Collector might be a pretty heartbreaking bunch of stories. It dashes and raises your hopes at the same time. It’s beautiful and painful at the same time. And, either way, it’s still worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Old Man and The Sea

old-man-and-sea-2There are only a small boat, an old man, a wide, seemingly endless sea and nothing else. Ernest Hemingway could have created a boring piece unworthy of reading time we try so hard to spare, but The Old Man and The Sea is worth so much more than that. With Hemingway’s deftness in narrative building and the character’s thought-provoking, sometimes funny monolgue, the 1952 classic proves to be a work bigger than its size (at least, the size of my copy). It’s simple but deep and complicated in what it wants to deliver, it has only two human characters but their presence says more than their number, and its conclusion is all but you need to face the fact that life is not what you think it is.

The Old Man and The Sea tells the story of an old fisherman named Santiago who has been through eighty four days without catching a single fish that he is dubbed salao, the worst form of unlucky. But he is far from being disheartened, instead, the bad days only spur him on to go and set sail again on the eighty-fifth day, with what fishing gear he has and no one keeping him company. The boat trip seems to go on as usual and he does what he normally did. He does wish to catch a big fish, that’s what his aim, but he never thought that he would manage to bait a very huge marlin. He is certainly not prepared for it, and he tries with all his might to handle the shocking catch while navigating the wild blue sea at the same time. It’s obviously not an easy task to beat such a large animal and bring it home, especially when it seems to stay stubbornly strong despite the hook stuck inside its mouth and drags the old man along with his boat over la mar. With his only self and his equipment, Santiago has to face the challenges that lie before him before everything he has started ends well as it should. But, will it?

“But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

The Old Man and The Sea is about struggle and hard work, about dreams and hopes that never cease to flare, about dogged perseverance in trying to achieve our aims. But it is not, unfortunately, about getting them easily. But that’s what Ernest Hemingway wants the reader to see. When Santiago is already halfway toward the end of his taxing journey, fate is suddenly playing tricks on him and he has to wrack his brain, take on patience, and keep calm and sane. Reaching dreams is not a piece of cake, there will be challenges, obstacles, and twisted roads our eyes fail to see laying before us. Determination and patience are not the only qualities, we have also to be smart and emotionally intelligent, and Santiago has shown us he has those. He also shows that, when everything goes wrong and doesn’t end the way he wants it, he still has the humility to accept it.

As a whole, The Old Man and The Sea is merely a simple kind of prose, with conventional, novelistic structure and a lonely man talking to himself almost throughout the plot. But the story is dense and focused and Santiago is a marvelously strong character. Hemingway doesn’t waste his time describing too much; he makes the introduction fast and precise, inviting the reader to the boat trip immediately afterward and follow the character fighting his fight and keeping his chance even if it’s only small and dim. The description of events at sea and the continous monologue cleverly suck the reader into the prevailing situation and make them see, crystal clear, what it’s like to struggle almost to the dying point and end up with merely half success. They result in us vaguely feeling troubled and hurt, unable to accept what reality serves us and yet resigned to acknowledge the truth. The entire story, however, doesn’t leave us hopeless, because Hemingway seems to point out, somewhere in the heart-warming conclusion, that there will always be hopes no matter what.

Though sad, this masterpiece of Ernest Hemingway is really encouraging instead of the opposite. It gives us hopes and reassurance that our belief and hard work will never waste in vain. It might not be a grand creation of a narrative, but it has a punching effect on the reader. More than that, I think it will stay long-lasting as well, as it has always been.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Go Set A Watchman

One might wonder, what was Harper Lee thinking when she started to write Go Set A Watchman? Did she intend to write a story about racial discrimination and segregation? Or a story of a man who tries to use his reason, rather than to act heroically, in the time when race is an issue capable of dividing a country into two? Whatever it was, what I’m pretty sure is that she couldn’t have been thinking to make an angel out of him when she wrote this book like the one she had in To Kill A Mockingbird, for this was the first manuscript she finished before she finally switched direction and wrote the later, phenomenal one.

The story opens with Jean Louise Finch coming home to Maycomb County to spend her two-weeks yearly vacation. The county is not only her home, it is where she spent her childhood, where her father taught her (and her brother Jem) justice and equality. Until then, her father, the well-known, heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, is her idol, her rock, her role model. Everything she knows about humanity, about what’s right and what’s wrong, she learns from Atticus. But one day, she finds an appalling pamphlet in their living room, of which content is about supporting racial segregation and discrimination, defying the idea that black people are equal to the whites. It breaks her heart to discover that the pamphlet is her father’s, and that her father and boyfriend, Henry Clinton, are together in an effort to “keep the black people in their place”. She feels betrayed, hurt, resentful. It is at this point that she realizes her father is not someone she knows anymore.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a hero of justice and equality, defending against all odds a young black man accused of raping a white girl, whom he’s certain is not guilty of anything of the sort. But his character suddenly becomes controversial with the release of Go Set A Watchman, chided and hated. Here in the “lost manuscript”, he is described as racist and supporting segregation, believing that Negros are inferior to the white people in every aspect. There is no explanation, I think, for this huge gap between the two characterizations other than that they are two totally different persons: the Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t hesitate to act heroically for the sake of justice, while the one we encounter in Go Set A Watchman is a man who tends to err on the side of caution and use his logic to solve the racial problems eating away his part of country as he sees fit. If we would just stop and ponder over Atticus’ argument when he has a clash with Jean Louise in his office, we will see that he actually tries to be realistic, considering Southern black people’s lack of capacity at that time for them to be granted political right to vote. So, if To Kill A Mockingbird is a body of idealism, then Go Set A Watchman is an embodiment of unpleasant reality. What makes To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as its version of Atticus Finch, long-lasting and much beloved is that people like to dream and won’t give up hope whatever happens. While the reason Go Set A Watchman, along with the cruelly realistic Atticus Finch making appearance there, becomes inevitably unpopular is that people don’t like being slapped in the face by the hand of reality.

Truth to be told, I found Go Set A Watchman a bit lacking. It’s raw and not properly worked on. Harper Lee spends 1/3 of the book just to make space for the character of Jean Louise to describe herself: her attitude and behavior, her opinion, her way of thinking, so on and so forth. Only after that comes out the real problem, what makes her relationship with her father a brittle one. Even at this point, Lee doesn’t care enough to elaborate the conflict more for the reader to understand, providing merely a quick flick into Atticus’ horrible fault and nothing else. And then, after a terrible shock on Jean Louise’s side and some more flashbacks, the plot glides fast to the final confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus where Atticus is given only a little room to explain himself while Jean Louise has so much to pour out her anger and idealism. The road to the conclusion is even faster and unconvincing. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just too fast to believe. What makes it still bearable is definitely the characters: they are all flawed and human.

Overall, Go Set A Watchman is an imperfect yet intriguing work. It has flaws here and there. I think To Kill A Mockingbird is so much better written than this one. However, I like the way Lee describes the racial issues in this book: it triggers our sense of humanity and yet forces us to see the issues from two different points of view.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has been booming for over two years now, and yet it seems unlikely for the book to see its echo die anytime soon. Labeled as a thriller/mystery novel, it surprisingly does not have lots of thrills this kind of book needs and, unfortunately, the mystery encasing it only lasts for the first part of the story and then dissolves mysteriously into thin air. So much like Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, this Flynn’s third work of such fiction focuses more on its drama and the psychologically disturbing characters employed to twist its already winding narrative. It does have a mind-blowing idea of mixing marriage and murder, in a very unusual yet very real way, but calling it pure crime fiction wouldn’t feel comfortably right.

On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, is gone and no one knows where she is or where she goes. There is no clue or trace left to lead to her whereabouts, but there are some horrible, convincing evidences of violence and aggressive attacks on Amy before she is, presumably, being kidnapped. The police wastes no time in getting up and investigating the case, throwing suspicion at Nick in the process. Nick insists he is innocent, unfortunately all the evidences found say the opposite, and he doesn’t have an appropriate alibi to prove that he doesn’t kidnap or kill his own wife. Moreover, his negligent demeanor undeniably mirrors the state of guilty he must be in, showing that he doesn’t care, and is even happy, if his wife is gone missing or dead. With more and more proofs, the police finally arrests him and gets him awaiting for trial. But then, something strange happens and the trial has to be canceled. Nick cannot feel relieved, though, because he must be forever glued to his guilty status and will never have the free life he fervently desires.

I would say that the two main characters here are the main attraction of the book. Amy and Nick are not, basically, normal characters by fiction standard. Throughout the story, the reader can see that Amy is everything that Nick is not. Even the subtle description of Nick being an average man while Amy is an above-the-average woman leads us to the fact that Amy is more than Nick in everything: smarter, brighter, richer, and frighteningly, more hateful, more vengeful, more selfish, and more insane. It turns Nick’s insecurity even lower, rendering him suffering a crisis of confidence not only in front of his wife, but also within himself. It is no wonder then that Nick feels like he gets stabbed right in his male pride and dignity and eventually, when it’s already too much for him, runs to some average young woman who can match him in everything.

So this is where the problem lies, the spot that, in my opinion, gets the brightest light so the reader can see it crystal clear. The conflict between men and women is what actually drives the whole narrative—the wrecked marriage, the cheat, the murder, the mind-boggling scheme. Men have a certain standard of how women, physically and characteristically, should be. And when women fail to meet that standard, or marvelously go beyond that standard, they will not have it.

“[And] the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even

pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be

the woman a man wants them to be.”

—Amy Elliot Dunne

This book, with all its idea, characters, and storyline, vehemently tries to fight against the pattern of fairy tales. I noticed that at some point Amy really mocked how women usually behave in romantic fiction books through her voiced narration, making me raise my eyebrows both in agreement and tame disapproval. However, on the other hand, Flynn also seems to want to create criteria for perfect men through Amy’s demand on Nick to be a “loving, doting, caring, understanding, faithful” husband. Alas, eventually, all we are forced to see is how people are trying so hard to be the ideal, and how exhausting and brain-consuming it can be.

Divided into three parts, Gone Girl is told from two different, changing points of view. The story unfolds in a very deceptive, frustrating, overlong narrative, with all its misleading clues and distractingly convincing evidences. Well, at least for the first part of it, for then the reader is entertained with a sucking marital drama and psycho characters. Flynn deftly leads the reader through her puzzling, twisting initial plot without so much as a little clue until we arrive just at the first page of part two. Such a shame, the most mysterious part of the book is also the most boring one. It was really a struggle to finish it. It wasn’t until the end of it that I could completely enjoy the whole storyline, albeit I had to lose the exciting thrill, for all of the mysteries seemed to have been answered already. Starting the second part, every strange description, every enigmatic sentence, seems to dissolve itself and leaves the reader able to guess what they will find next. However, though all the excitement seems to end there, finally seeing everything through Amy’s honest lens and looking at what truly inside her head is are very much tensely enjoyable. But there was something that bothered me quite much: why did Nick have to realize his wife’s way of thinking all of a sudden after the first half through the book? After all those clues? Why the suddenness? The plunging ending Flynn sets to conclude the entire story also left me unsatisfied. I almost hoped she would have prolonged the third instead of the first part. To me, it’s just a little too fast.

All in all, I must say that Gone Girl is a fabulous psychological crime drama, but not a proper thriller/mystery novel. I adore the magnificent idea it has, but I’m left unenthralled, even now, by its overly long plot and awkwardly executed ending.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Clean Sweep

While I’m still so far away from going on with Kate Daniels series, Ilona Andrews’ Clean Sweep has satisfied a little bit my thirst for their other works. It’s turned out quite unsatisfying, though, in some ways. Firstly published for commercial purpose at the end of 2013, it was originally a weekly free short story posted on Andrews’ official website, being worked on in the middle of their other projects and hectic familial life. I’m not really sure, however, if it’s the reason why Clean Sweep turns out flat to me, for I always believe in their talent for writing. It might have been just me who didn’t feel the click, but I seriously didn’t find it as exciting or even interesting as any Kate Daniels novels.

Dina Demille, a young girl running a Victorian bed-and-breakfast down in Avalon Subdivision, is no ordinary girl. She has a unique magic power and she is, too, the magic itself. On one light summer day, a dog has been murdered. It dies in the strangest fashion anyone can imagine. As an innkeeper, Dina knows that she’s supposed to keep neutral and stay out of it, but it’s been the third murder in the subdivision and she senses that what is to come will be even worse. With the help of Sean Evans, an ex-military newly arrived in their neighborhood, Dina sets to investigate what actually happens and who the perpetrator is. Their investigation into the stalker and its dahaka wreaking havoc in their peaceful territory leads them both to the dirty linen tightly kept by one of vampire families of the Holy Cosmic Anocracy, House of Krahr. The coming of the vampires to the Earth, with a definite goal to capture and arrest the dahaka, stirs things up. Dina has to protect and tend to Lord Soren, an injured vampire knight, and give sanctuary to his Marshal nephew, Arland. Things get more complicated as the neighborhood becomes painfully affected by the damage done by the dahaka, so Arland is forced to reveal what problem his family has. At the end of the day, Dina, Sean, and Arland have to work together to fight the enemy who is dangerous enough to kill them all.

The main character of Clean Sweep, the heroine here—Dina Demille—can be said to be a little bit like Kate Daniels. I might have been just imagining things, but throughout the reading I was quite sure that Dina is as tough and sarcastic as Kate. She’s also that kind of independent lone wolf who’s trying as best she can to refuse anybody else’s help, yet so determined to help others. Unless you want to take Dina’s physical appearance into account, then that will be a different case. Thankfully, Sean Evans is nothing like Curran Lennart. He is some kind of shapeshifter, yes, for his character is a werewolf, but he is not that rich, bossy alpha male who leads a vast pack of were-animals and carries a heavy need to be obeyed. Sean is more of a loner, a wanderer seeking always adventures. Odd as it may seem, but he is still looking for his true self, the true place where he should belong to. He’s confused, uncertain, quite troubled inside. As for Arland, I have to say that I didn’t quite catch his whole character. The Marshal of House Krahr is described as dashing, charming, and protective, but that is all. There is nothing, I’d rather say, special about him, not the way I see it anyway.

Interestingly, as much as their descriptions are quite out of my “expectation”, the characters making appearances in Clean Sweep are very literally unusual. There are not only humans or humans with magic, but also out-of-the-box werewolves and vampires. Both are described coming from other planets in the universe, arriving on Earth through a gate of some sort. Even the vampires here are not some blood-thirsty undead. They are cosmic soldiers with carnivorous nature, and yes, they are common human beings. It felt so strange to read such a mind-boggling description, but oddly enough, Andrews can explain it all the way through the narrative so clearly that the reader won’t find it difficult to understand. The same applies to the world-building. The Andrews seem to have committed to create something unusual, something that the reader may not find anywhere else, but their world is not hard to catch on to. It even looks magically simple to read. If there is one setting description I didn’t quite get, it was Baha-char. Perhaps I just couldn’t follow the road path of the market. Well, putting everything aside, I have to regretfully say that I am so disappointed by the run of the story. I don’t find it interesting to follow. It’s so dull and didn’t catch my attention at all. I even had to read it with full force in order to finish it. The opening scene is not captivating either, not inviting enough to drag me through the whole plot. If it was not for Andrews’ signature sarcasm scattered over the dialogues, I don’t think I could endure the storyline, however fast the pace is.

Overall, I have to say that I don’t really like Clean Sweep. The idea is okay, but the whole plot is just beyond my expectation, in a bad way. The narrative is still typically Ilona Andrews, and so is the main characterization, which is a big problem for me. I had hoped that Andrews would’ve come up with a different kind of person when it came to a different story, but my hope proved to be broken into pieces.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Interpreter of Maladies

Indonesian edition’s cover

How does loneliness affect you? How will you deal with it? Can you interpret it? Jhumpa Lahiri, in her own way, has done it in Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection revealing several different embodiments of loneliness, and of alienation. It is not wrong, I should say, to think loneliness and alienation as maladies, for the two things are indeed what’s gnawing at us most. And Lahiri can cleverly describe those feelings through characters and simple narratives. I wouldn’t say that Interpreter of Maladies is a masterpiece, but it is a showcase for her literary ability to capture and transfer a seemingly belittled problem, which is truthfully never unreal in anyone’s life, into words.

The book consists of nine short stories, all of them are pretty well narrated. However, I won’t deny this, only four of them really captivated me, holding me hostage all through the few pages. In A Temporary Matter, the reader is presented with a married couple who seem to regret deeply the loss of their baby. They have not talked to each other for months and let silence invade their previously-full-of-passion home. The way Shukumar, the husband, describes it, his wife Shoba seems to be the one who becomes so distant after her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But beyond that, he cannot help but to admit, though only to himself, that he has lost his love for her far before that happens. Later on, he finds out that Shoba shares the same feeling for all this time. The question of love is also present in the story entitled Sexy. It shows the reader the contrast between a woman whose husband is having an affair with another woman and a woman with whom a man is having an affair. Craving for love and attention, Miranda doesn’t have even the slightest hesitation to develop a relationship with a man who is already married. Here Lahiri conveys how loneliness can secretly sneak its way through people’s hearts and make them craving for something that results in others being treated unfairly. But loneliness can come in any form, bringing with it toxic feelings we cannot run away from. Depression and alienation are what poisonous to the immigrants in Mrs. Sen’s and The Third and Final Continent, forcing them to develop a new habit and cope with social and environmental challenges that are so strange to them. Being isolated in loneliness doesn’t seem to harass them enough, and they still have to do what any immigrant should do: fitting themselves to the puzzle.

Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of stories about lonely people, those who are far away from home and those who are isolated in the society, and even in their own relationships. Shoba and Shukumar in A Temporary Matter had caught my attention instantly the moment the two appeared in a kitchen scene. Both were so silent, as I read it, creating an atmosphere so cold and unfriendly that they might as well be not a man and his wife. They were so out of reach, but the revealing narrative helped me understand their characters: dishonest, disloyal, distant. However, of the two, Shoba is the most attention-gripping to me. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to women more than I can to men. Shoba is a complicated person, her silence hiding more things than what we can guess through the reading. Her depression and disappointment do not show in her behavior nor in her attitude toward her husband, but in the hidden decision she’s made in silence, without even the reader knowing it. And, perhaps for the same reason, I feel sympathy for Miranda. I know she’s in the wrong, partly, for another woman’s ruinned marriage. She is so weak at first, falling easily into passion and hope of a true love, which happens to be concealed by mere lust. But then her sense of righteousness forces her to realize that she’s being unfair to that other woman.

There are some other interesting characters in Interpreter of Maladies, but I’m afraid I’m not capable of elaborating all my amazement for them. One thing for sure, though, they are portrayed so strong and fit each narrative they inhabit. All the stories tend to be ordinary, easy to read. They have no twists nor turns, no surprise, and even no emotional atmosphere such kind of stories should have. They all, I’d rather say, seem so flat. But, and I think this is the most important thing, their meaning feels so poignant, conveying the sense of loneliness and alienation in every possible way. Some stories end up cliffhanging, and some others are concluded in a bitter way. Oddly enough, that’s magical to me although I don’t think the narratives are quite engrossing, nor the storytelling is exceptional. However, the fast pace really helped me in enjoying and finishing them without substantial difficulties.

Seeing how flat all the short stories are written, yet how varied and deep they are, I can only say that I feel undecided whether or not I like Interpreter of Maladies. Lahiri knows very well how to tell of, and talk about, loneliness, the one thing that keeps lurking within everybody especially those who are alien to their surrounding. I just wish it could be better than it already is.

Rating: 3.5/5