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

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

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

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

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

fiction, review

Subuh

Indonesian edition’s cover

When it comes to Turkish literature, we don’t seem to be able to separate it from its characteristic melancholy. And this melancholy seems to come from, very strangely, matters of bad politics, social injustice, clashes of ideologies and failed romance all at once. At least, Orhan Pamuk has proven so. We might not want to think that Turkish literature is only about the Nobel laureate, but Selahattin Demirtaş exudes apparently pretty much the same kind of atmosphere when writing stories. All of his twelve short pieces in this small and thin collection are dimly melancholic, be it about honor killing, a wrongly accused house cleaner, conflicts and suicide bombings in Aleppo, or a little girl running away from the war in her home country with her mother.

The first issue to be brought foward in the book Subuh (translated from Turkish into Indonesian by Mehmet Hassan) is, interestingly enough, masculinity. Or the way we see it. Laki-laki dalam Jiwa Kami (The Man Inside) looks like a semi-fable where the protagonist is a prisoner who watches everyday a female sparrow building a nest to lay down her eggs, while the male one doesn’t do anything more than staying in guard on the fence outside. One day comes a group of inspectors from the “Department of Nesting Code Enforcement”, charging them with a crime of building a nest without permission. Those inspectors give the pair of sparrows two options: destroy the nest, or give them their brood as compensation. The female, of course, refuses to do so and chooses to fight the inspectors, but the male seems so scared of them and tries to talk it over. At the end, it’s only the female sparrow that fights them alone and fiercely to defend the nest she builds and her offspring.

Looking at it from a distance, or closer, the piece shows the instinct of a mother and to what extent they would wield their power to protect their children. This is the nature of a woman. Males, quite the opposite, tend to use threats and physical strength to stomp on others, especially when they are part of the authority. On the other side, though, they can also be as lame as the male sparrow when it comes to facing the upper power while as weak as people in general see women, they can be strong enough to fight the injustice.

Speaking of masculinity, the second story Seher (the original book title and the Turkish word for Subuh/Dawn) displays blatantly and brutally how toxic it can be when added to pride and honor. They demand even the lives of women, in the name of the family’s good reputation, despite the women being innocent in any sexual crime or assault or even harassment they have suffered from. For the men of the family, their female relatives are guilty only for losing their virginity, whatever way they lose it, and whether or not they actually want to lose it.

Seher, the titular character, falls in love with Hayri and believes that the man returns her feeling as “he picks her out” from so many other women in their work place. He asks her to go out and meet up after the day of Eid celebration, and Seher feels both anxious and excited at the same time about the meeting that she doesn’t dare to look at anyone in the eye. And so they meet and talk, and when it’s time for Seher to go home Hayri offers her a ride to her house. At this very point, it would be pretty much unsurprising to see Hayri (and his friends) stir the vehicle to a different direction and then rape her in turn. This secret cannot be hidden, cannot be hushed, and cannot be solved in any civil way. Once her father and brothers know it, it’s over for her.

Injustice seems to be penned down everywhere in this book, Nazan Petugas Kebersihan (Nazan the Cleaning Lady) and Salam Untuk Si Mata Hitam (Greetings to Those Dark Eyes) being the most glaring examples. But while Nazan Petugas Kebersihan generally talks about the injustice we often see in legal system, Salam Untuk Si Mata Hitam is more about the huge gap between the rich and the poor, between people with low and high education, and between those living in the city and in the village. In Nazan, we see how demonstrations voicing any dissatisfaction with the government are deemed disruptive that everyone on the street should be arrested and tried for such “crime”, whether or not they’re truly involved in them. In the latter, two illegal child laborers are faced with difficulties when they are trying to get their payment after working on a construction site, building a type F jail in Edirne. This seems to be something which is, surprisingly, common in any unskilled, physical labor. People with money (or, in this case, the government) always want cheap labor to do these things, so they go and hire child, lowly educated laborers who have no insurance or official permission to work, hence no need to pay them high. If anything happens, they can also wash their hands easily.

Demirtaş’ narratives on wars are no less thought-provoking, matter-of-factly yet gloomily elaborating how people try to escape from them and still do not meet a good end. In Gadis Laut (The Mermaid), a five-year old girl named Mina and her mother are running away from their hometown Hama in Syria where war has taken her father’s life. When they don’t have much on them her mother has to bribe the boatmen so they can cross the Mediterranean Sea, but that doesn’t help them at all. The story of Hidangan Aleppo (Kebab Halabi) is certainly not less heart-breaking. Hamdullah is himself a refugee from Aleppo who ran away to Hatay and who has finally had a good life there, opening a kebab restaurant where everyone eager to taste the famous Arab kebab is going to. But he never forgets his friends in Aleppo and lets them stay in his two-story house, including the first love of his life, Rukiye, who was married to another man at 16. Sadly, though, his good life must end there when a suicide bombing ends Rukiye’s and her husband’s lives.

Besides those short stories, Subuh also presents others with different themes such as mundane life (Sesunyi Sejarah/As Lonely As History) minority (Akan Berakhir Istimewa/A Magnificent Ending) and even one with a surrealist style (Tak Seperti yang Anda Pikirkan/It’s Not What You Think), which is looking at imaginary love stories that never once end well. Despite the various themes and diverse styles, all stories in this collection have proven the melancholic tone the writer chooses to use most of the time, melancholy which doesn’t particularly bring tears but is there to make readers feel moved and think about the things depicted in each narrative. It is all because, presumably, Demirtaş wants to show us what is wrong with his country, what is wrong with his society, and that even if life seems so hopeless there in his land there is always hope, at least hope to escape from the misery.

Subuh by Selahattin Demirtaş is really a heart-wrenching collection, well written and pretty well translated. It’s small and condense, short yet with such knocking effect on the reader. It is one which people really should consider to read to know, even if not about Turkey, at least about how this world in general doesn’t really work well.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Semua Untuk Hindia

Dalam kumpulan cerpen Teh dan Pengkhianat, Iksaka Banu mengambil sudut pandang “lawan” dalam menceritakan masa-masa pendudukan Belanda di Nusantara, demikian pula dalam kumpulan cerpen Semua Untuk Hindia ini yang terbit lebih dulu pada tahun 2014. Di satu sisi, Iksaka mungkin ingin menunjukkan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda yang bersimpati terhadap kaum pribumi atau yang tidak setuju dengan pendudukan ini sejak awal, menunjukkan bahwa “tidak semua orang Belanda sama”. Tetapi di sisi lain, hak beliau dan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut juga patut dipertanyakan. Jika pun benar ada beberapa orang Belanda yang bersimpati dan menentang kolonisasi atas tanah Nusantara, maka (seharusnya) pihak mereka sendirilah yang berhak menyatakannya.

Meski demikian, tidak berarti cerita pendek-cerita pendek yang terdapat dalam buku ini tidak menarik atau tidak dapat mendorong pembaca untuk melihat “sudut pandang lain”. Selamat Tinggal Hindia, yang merupakan cerpen pembuka, menampilkan sudut pandang Maria Geertruida Welwillend atau Geertje, seorang perempuan muda yang lahir dan besar di Hindia Belanda. Ia sangat mencintai “tanah kelahirannya” dan bersimpati terhadap orang-orangnya. Ketika Jepang datang ia sadar bahwa era Hindia Belanda telah usai, dan ia mendukung penuh terbentuknya Repoeblik Indonesia serta menentang NICA.

Rasa simpati yang muncul dari keterikatan dengan tanah Hindia Belanda juga ditunjukkan tokoh Letnan Pieter Verdragen dalam kisah Keringat dan Susu. Tidak hanya lahir dan besar di tanah air, Letnan Pieter juga disusui oleh seorang wanita pribumi. Ikatan ini tak pernah pudar dari hati maupun pikirannya, meski kini ia telah menjadi tentara bagi Belanda. Ketika bersama pasukan yang terdiri atas tentara dari berbagai bangsa Eropa ia berpatroli pada tengah malam di Batavia―mengingat pada saat itu pasca pendudukan Jepang dan terjadi banyak kekacauan menyusul diumumkan berdirinya Republik Indonesia―ia melihat seorang anak muda yang tidak waras mengenakan ikat kepala merah-putih serta seragam, dan lantas dicurigai oleh anak-anak buahnya sebagai tentara laskar dan sengaja menghadang mereka di tengah jalan, sang Letnan melepaskan anak muda tersebut atas permintaan sang ibu―yang mengingatkannya kepada ibu susunya dulu.

Namun bagaimanapun, bagi orang Belanda, atau sebagian besar dari mereka, orang-orang pribumi tetaplah orang-orang terbelakang yang lebih rendah. Pada cerpen Di Ujung Belati, sang protagonis beranggapan bahwa agar orang-orang pribumi hormat dan setia kepada orang-orang Eropa, mereka harus memberi contoh budaya Eropa yang tinggi, bukannya mengikuti budaya pribumi yang rendah atau menuruti tuntutan dan cara berpikir mereka. Tetapi di sinilah letak kesalahan mereka, karena ketika Hindia Belanda diserang oleh pasukan Inggris, sang protagonis diselamatkan oleh mantan mandor yang pernah ia tolong dan angkat derajatnya. Bagi orang pribumi, kesetiaan datang dari balas budi.

Bias pandangan orang Belanda terhadap orang-orang pribumi pada waktu itu tidak berhenti pada kaum bawahan lelaki, tetapi juga menyentuh kaum perempuan. Dalam cerita Racun Untuk Tuan, seorang nyai (wanita pribumi yang “disewa” pria-pria Belanda untuk melayani kebutuhan fisik dan rumah tangga mereka) dipandang rendah dan berbahaya. Nyai dianggap pencemburu dan menakutkan bila pada suatu saat mereka akhirnya menikah secara resmi dengan wanita Belanda dan “harus menyingkirkan” gundik mereka, karena bisa jadi mereka mati diracun. Tetapi tentu saja, sebagaimana karakter mandor pada Di Ujung Belati, karakter Imah di Racun Untuk Tuan tidaklah seperti pandangan umum orang-orang Belanda terhadap mereka.

Menariknya (dan untungnya) di sini, karakter seorang nyai tidak hanya digambarkan dari sudut pandang pria Belanda, tetapi Iksaka juga menyediakan ruang bagi perempuan pribumi untuk memperlihatkan sudut pandang mereka sendiri. Stambul Dua Pedang menceritakan tentang Sarni, yang berganti nama menjadi Cornelia van Rijk setelah menikah dengan orang Belanda yang merupakan petinggi di perkebunan teh Tanara. Karena tertular hobi suaminya, Sarni suka membaca dan menonton opera, dan dari situlah ia jatuh cinta pada bintang opera Stambul Tjahaja Boelan, Adang Kartawiria. Keduanya pun berselingkuh, lantaran Sarni tak pernah merasa cocok dan bahagia dengan suaminya, walau suaminya sangat mencintainya. Lagipula Sarni tidak pernah merasa dirinya merupakan bagian dari orang-orang Belanda, ia tetaplah orang pribumi yang dipaksa menikah dengan orang Belanda oleh ayahnya.

Meski sebagian besar (bisa dibilang hampir secara keseluruhan) buku ini menceritakan tentang kehidupan dan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda di tanah air, sebenarnya cukup menarik melihat sekilas sudut pandang orang pribumi menyusup di tengah-tengah dan “dipertentangkan” dengan sudut pandang tersebut. Stambul Dua Pedang merupakan cerita pendek paling menarik di antara cerita-cerita lainnya lantaran memperlihatkan situasi dari mata bukan hanya seorang pribumi yang “dijajah”, yang harus tunduk dengan “pernikahan paksa”, tetapi juga mata seorang wanita yang tidak bisa berbuat apa-apa sedangkan ia sangat membenci penjajah dan tidak bahagia dengan pernikahannya. Perselingkuhan Sarni dengan Adang di satu sisi bisa jadi salah, jika dilihat dari “kesucian ikatan pernikahan”, tetapi bisa juga tidak jika mempertimbangkan hati seorang wanita dan seseorang yang mendamba kemerdekaan.

Namun terlepas dari sudut pandang apa pun yang digunakan oleh Iksaka Banu, sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut dan apakah Iksaka sebagai penulis berhak mengambil sudut pandang yang demikian, pada akhirnya buku ini hanyalah sekumpulan cerita fiksi yang titik beratnya adalah keelokan narasi dan kekuatan karakter. Pada nomor-nomor di mana karakter-karakter Belanda digambarkan bersimpati kepada rakyat pribumi, Iksaka dengan tepat menunjukkan adanya alasan keterikatan karakter-karakter tersebut dengan tanah air, dan bagaimana keterikatan itu kemudian memengaruhi sudut pandang mereka. Ada pun tokoh-tokoh Belanda yang memiliki bias tertentu dalam memandang orang-orang pribumi, hal itu juga dapat dimaklumi lantaran jelas-jelas mereka merasa superior sebagai penjajah, sebagai bangsa yang menduduki tanah bangsa lain. Dua sudut pandang dalam satu kelompok bangsa ini saja sudah merupakan sebuah pertentangan, apalagi jika ditambah sudut pandang kaum pribumi seperti Sarni.

Semua Untuk Hindia merupakan kumpulan cerita pendek yang sesungguhnya menarik, jika pembaca dapat menafikan persoalan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang yang dipakai dalam menuliskan cerita-cerita di dalamnya. Ide-idenya juga menarik, walaupun gaya penulisan Iksaka Banu kurang dapat menjadikannya lebih menarik lagi.

Rating: 3.5/5

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

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything

34755014963_e93c4f2e6aSometimes, some things are better kept unsaid. It is not, mostly, a matter of being or not being honest; it’s a matter of taking the best measure in the worst condition. And it should not necessarily be the right one either, only the best, for as many people as possible. Narrowing it down to a triangle love affair, where keeping secrets is almost like a cliché, telling your partner that you have another lover might not be the best decision. And perhaps you should just keep it that way, because an invisible wall between two lovers is not like a physical one between two separate parts of a country, and unity is not always an option. Daniela Krien brings this heart-shattering paradox to the surface with her Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything, a grippingly emotional short novel taking place in the 1990’s Germany when the country is finally on the verge of total reunification.

Deep in an unusual village in the less modernized, socialist half that was GDR (German Democratic Republic), a young school girl named Maria is taking up temporary residence in her boyfriend Johannes’ home, a large farm of which house has a somewhat modern taste in furniture. It is in contrast to the Henner’s, a neighboring farm not so far away that has not changed since the war, whose very owner is said to live in seclusion, and a quite mysterious man himself. For a while, Maria is enjoying a quiet life in the Brendel’s farm, with a family half-heartedly accepting her and a dirty little secret about Alfred, some sort of worker there, which everyone seems to know but keep it to themselves.

Her days are never boring, though, what with Johannes showering her with passionate love (and sometimes neglectful attention) and reading and driving together to the West. She even lends a hand in the household chores and farm work. But when she meets, truly face-to-face, Thorsten Henner, everything starts to change gradually. Unwanted desire flares, secret love affair occurs, true love questioned. What’s started as pure passion slowly turns into pure affection and sudden urge to be together forever. However, unlike their country Germany which has eventually come to terms with itself, Maria’s and Henner’s different worlds do not seem to be able to find a way to unite. Maria persists, but Henner knows his place. And as Maria starts to try to break down the wall between them, everything, on the contrary, begins to crumble in ruins.

As it was already implied, Maria-Henner’s difficult relationship and East-West Germanies’ imminent reunification here is like two parallel roads running in two opposite directions. It might be unwise to elaborate more on this, but it’d be interesting to see how the writer, as someone born in East Germany herself, uses the characters as an analogy to describe one ideology vanished at the hands of another. Depicted as politically active, as Krien tells in flashback, Henner is being spied on by the Stasi through his own wife. It does seem like a “same old, same old” pattern of fiction, but that is just how it goes. This spying thing is definitely repressive, but when we look at Henner’s character closely, then there wouldn’t be much difference there. At least in the way he treats Maria sexually at first: commanding, compulsive, cruel to some extent. He is also a solitary person, so out of reach. Everyone can see him but cannot touch him—just like a socialist country living in isolation.

It is quite contrary to Maria, who, despite keeping secrets all the time, is naturally an open and easy-to-get-along-with person. She can even endure boredom in the middle of Johannes’ friends, and live among a bunch of people who impose so much silence and awkwardness on her. She is also very open to Henner’s brutal love and lovemaking, and to his enigmatic nature and all his horrible past. At some point in her childhood, she even despised the Pioneer Camp and called it a prison. She loves modernity, too. In conclusion, she and Henner are poles apart, so much like the East and the West. Be that as it may, there is a strong attraction between them, a powerful longing to unite in the middle of vast and various differences. And, also similar to East-West reunification which demands ideological sacrifice on the East’s part, Maria-Henner’s relationship also demands the same unbelievably huge one. Only the result is contradictory.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is a very heartbreakingly beautiful novel. The narrative, with all its many flashbacks, feels so smooth yet is often blotchy with disturbing scenes and silently emotional monologues. It’s incredibly structured, too, letting the reader see the detailed historical aspect, the painful love affair, the subtly yet distinctly drawn characters, and ponder over the tragic ending—if not mourn for it. Jamie Bulloch’s flawless translation also helps readers much in absorbing the intense story. The book is short but it’s justifiably so. Longer and it would be disastrously dragging.

All in all, this book by Daniela Krien is a superb one. It’s nearly perfect and capable of draining away the reader’s emotion. It’s really a dense and satisfying read.

WITMonth 2017

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah

34626568873_cbefafc12d_oMembaca kumpulan cerpen Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah karya Danarto serasa seperti menyelami perkara keimanan di lautan yang tak nyata, seperti memetik buah kesadaran dari pohon yang tampak hanya bayang-bayang semata. Gagasan kisah-kisahnya boleh jadi nyata, begitu juga dengan latar belakang dan tokoh-tokohnya, tetapi tidak dengan narasi yang diolah oleh penulis. Di setiap tulisannya dalam buku ini, penulis seakan merancukan antara realitas dengan lawannya. Namun justru dari olahan narasi masing-masing cerita yang terasa tak nyata itulah muncul satu pesan yang dapat digenggam erat: bahwa agama dan keimanan bukanlah melulu soal ritual, simbol-simbol, dan atribut yang tampak oleh mata, tetapi juga, atau justru utamanya, adalah tentang penyerahan diri sepenuhnya kepada Tuhan, memaknai dunia dengan segala isi dan kejadian di dalamnya, rasa syukur, serta niat dan perbuatan baik. Singkat kata, spiritualitas.

Jika kita percaya bahwa segala perbuatan, baik maupun buruk, pasti ada balasannya dan bahwa niat baik sudah terhitung baik apa pun jadinya, maka cerpen berjudul Jejak Tanah dan Zamrud merupakan perwujudan dari gagasan ini. Dalam Jejak Tanah, diceritakan jenazah seorang pengusaha properti selalu keluar dari makamnya setelah dikebumikan dan seorang kiai berkata bahwa itu karena semasa hidupnya ia selalu memperjualbelikan tanah rakyat kecil tanpa keadilan. Bila dibaca sepintas, cerita pendek ini mengingatkan kita pada kisah-kisah horor “siksa kubur” yang biasa digunakan untuk menakut-nakuti orang tentang perbuatan dosa dan balasannya. Tetapi kisah racikan Danarto ini terkesan “lebih ringan” dan tidak menggurui, hanya terkesan absurd, terlebih ketika keluarga si pengusaha tidak merasa ketakutan melihat ada jenazah mengambang di depan pintu rumah mereka. Cerpen Zamrud juga tak kalah absurd, menceritakan tentang sebuah keluarga yang mengalami kecelakaan tapi tetap selamat berkat jasa seorang bapak tua yang misterius. Bapak tua tersebut bisa dibilang merupakan medium pertolongan dari Tuhan kepada seseorang yang di dalam hati memiliki niat yang baik, walaupun pada kenyataannya niat baik itu tidak pernah terwujud dan ia harus menerima hujatan dari orang-orang yang merasa dirugikan.

Perkara keimanan dalam artian kepasrahan penuh kepada Yang Maha Kuasa juga menjadi fokus dalam kumpulan cerpen Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah. Dua di antara delapan belas cerpen yang mengisi, Pantura dan Alhamdulillah, Masih Ada Dangdut dan Mi Instan, menunjukkan petuahnya dengan cukup jelas. Dalam Pantura, seorang pemuda harus mengarungi banjir yang tinggi demi mencari pertolongan untuk santri-santri yang kesurupan. Kepasrahannya di tengah keadaan yang serba sulit itu berbuah manis, bahkan lebih. Tidak hanya mendapatkan pertolongan yang dicari untuk para santri, tetapi juga pertolongan untuk keluarganya sendiri. Cerita berjudul Alhamdulillah, Masih Ada Dangdut dan Mi Instan, yang merupakan cerita pendek paling panjang dalam kumpulan ini, menggunakan latar belakang waktu dari zaman sebelum Indonesia merdeka sampai Orde Reformasi. Di sepanjang hidup Slamet Sukro, sang tokoh utama, ia telah berjumpa dan melihat para tokoh besar bangsa dari masa jaya sampai saat kejatuhan mereka. Namun bukan itu inti dari cerita ini. Semasa hidupnya itu, Slamet harus mengalami kesulitan yang tak henti-henti, mencicipi kekayaan hanya sekejap mata sebelum akhirnya kembali miskin dan tak punya apa-apa. Namun ia tetap berpasrah kepada Tuhan dan bersyukur karena ia masih punya grup dangdut dan bisa makan walau hanya mi instan.

Dari sekian cerita pendek yang dihadirkan dalam kumcer ini, yang paling menantang pembaca untuk dapat menyelami rasa keimanan adalah cerita pendek berjudul Telaga Angsa dan Si Denok. Dalam kedua kisah ini Danarto seolah ingin mengonfrontasikan seni dan keindahan dengan moralitas yang menjadi lingkupan ajaran agama di hadapan pembaca. Telaga Angsa menggambarkan tarian balet dengan kostumnya yang ketat hingga “membentuk tubuh”, sementara Si Denok berkisah tentang Bung Karno yang menggemari dan mengoleksi patung-patung serta lukisan wanita telanjang. Yang menjadi pertanyaan pada kedua cerpen ini adalah, apakah dengan mempertontonkan bentuk tubuh di atas panggung dan memajang patung serta lukisan wanita telanjang, lantas kita bukanlah manusia yang bermoral? Apakah memang seni modern bertentangan dengan agama dan moralitas? Atau justru dengan mendalami keindahan seni, kita dapat menghargai dan mensyukuri keindahan dunia ciptaan Tuhan? Dengan membaca kedua cerpen tersebut, pembaca diajak untuk berpikir, tidak sekadar memihak salah satu karakter dengan segala pemikirannya.

Selain moralitas, Danarto juga mengajak pembaca untuk merenungi perkara rezeki dan bencana. Bagi orang pada umumnya, rezeki berarti keberuntungan dan bencana adalah kesialan. Tapi ada berapa orang yang sadar bahwa rezeki bisa jadi cobaan dan bencana mungkin saja sesuatu yang indah? Ada berapa orang yang menganggap kematian justru suatu berkah, sebagaimana narator dalam cerita Jantung Hati? Berapa orang yang mampu melihat bahwa bencana di suatu tempat, bisa jadi rezeki di tempat yang lain seperti yang tersirat dalam Lauk dari Langit?

Spiritualitas memang tampaknya menjadi fokus utama dari kumpulan cerpen Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah ini, tapi tidak berarti Danarto tidak mengajukan tema lainnya seperti alam, keluarga, peperangan di Timur Tegah, walaupun tetap dibalut dengan narasi absurd yang kadang-kadang berada di luar jangkauan pemahaman pembaca. Absurditas dari sebagian besar narasi tulisan Danarto di buku ini dibarengi dengan gaya berbahasa yang beragam: kadang puitis, kadang biasa saja, kadang penuh humor, kadang juga sendu dan penuh kalimat-kalimat perenungan. Kombinasi ini, pada akhirnya, membuat pembaca serasa mengawang-awang kala menikmati kedelapanbelas cerpen yang disuguhkan, serasa seperti menyelam di lautan yang tak nyata. Akan tetapi, di akhir penyelaman itu pembaca akan mendapatkan sesuatu yang, walaupun juga immateriel, lebih nyata digenggam.

Jika gagasan, latar belakang, serta tokoh-tokoh yang nyata dalam kumpulan cerpen ini dapat diibaratkan sisi fisik dari ajaran agama (pelaksanaan ritual, cara berpakaian, dan sebagainya), maka absurditas dari setiap narasi yang terbentuk bisa dibilang representasi dari spiritualitas yang tak kasat mata. Sesuatu yang hanya bisa diresapi dalam hati, tetapi lebih penting dalam penyatuan diri dengan Sang Pencipta. Saya rasa, menuliskan cerita-cerita pendek dalam kumpulan ini adalah cara penulis untuk menyampaikan pesan ini.

Rating: 4/5