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

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

Kritikus Adinan

30776032578_9fd8f484bdKritikus Adinan is one of several books by Budi Darma that recently got republished. Previously released under the title Laki-Laki dalam Secarik Surat in 2008, last year it had a chance to see the light again with a new one, referring to one of the short stories on its table of contents. Here the senior writer holds his very view on morality—which doesn’t sound preachy, but is not unclear, either—and his surrealistic style as he does in Hotel Tua, with characters mostly unnamed and showing the reader the clear line between what’s right and what’s wrong within the somehow unclear narratives not easily understood.

The collection has fifteen short stories mostly written in the 1970s while the rest without any time stamp. Just as in Hotel Tua, Budi Darma starts the book with a shocking, unbelievable tale where readers, at some point, have to question their sanity in order to get into and understand it. Krematorium Itu Untukku is a story of a sick man who has promised his friend to attend her father’s funeral. He comes earlier, but no one’s there. He keeps waiting and asking people—who, for some unknown reason, keep looking at him in a weird way and secretly laughing at him—if anyone has come and whether the funeral has actually started and he is late. But no one knows, and so he keeps waiting there, until he finally finds his way to the right crematorium. There, he doesn’t get a warm welcome and is attacked by the doorman instead. And that is not the weirdest thing he finds at the crematorium. His friend Corrie, and Tien, look so much older than they should be, or at least than he thinks they should be. And, in the middle of his confusion, he’s sweating and crying blood. More unexpectedly, all people present lift him up then put him into one of the burning booths and burn him like a dead body.

Sahabat Saya Bruce is also one of the first pieces here. Those who already know Budi Darma and frequently enjoy his works must have known that he often writes stories with foreign backgrounds and characters, all thanks to his long stay in the United States back then. This piece of story is one of them, so it should not be surprising to see the name Bruce on the title. It is unusually not surrealistic, but it is still strange in many ways and so hard to chew.

Through Burhan, the narrator whom we see everything from, the reader knows that Bruce is not there when he comes to visit him in his rented house. It looks like a house which has not been inhabited for a long time: dirty, everything is in disorder. Burhan thinks it’s weird, because they’ve been close friends for quite long and the fact that Bruce is suddenly gone without telling him sort of bewilders him. However, when you see it from one side, it’s not really weird for Bruce is basically indeed a weird person. One day he asks Burhan to marry Milann, saying that Milann likes him and all. But while Milann is not Bruce’s girlfriend, the request is not something Burhan can wrap aroud his mind because, in fact, Milann often spends her time with Bruce. And then, both Bruce and Milann are gone, just leaving without telling Burhan a word. He is as much in the dark as everyone else, but he is the one who is being suspected.

This book, in its entirety, is very thought-provoking and very funny in a cynical way. Some stories might hit the reader in the cruelest way possible yet they won’t probably realize it until one or two sentences punch them in their head. The story Laki-Laki Lain for instance, which basically talks about a husband-wife relationship. It is only natural that husbands and wives know each other very well, but here, Budi Darma gives somekind of a hint that that’s actually when they start to hate each other. If we just think about it, then there must be something about our spouse that we hate after years and years living together. Though, on the other hand, this shortcoming is also what sticks them perhaps forever. However, ironically, the more we know our spouse, the more we feel we don’t know them.

“Laki-laki sudah ditakdirkan untuk tidak mampu mengalahkan nafsunya sendiri, dan perempuan telanjur sudah diciptakan untuk memperbudak nafsu laki-laki.” – page 228.

There is also Dua Laki-Laki, a pretty long tale telling us how people, in general, always try to prove that they’re right and others are wrong. Even to their death they won’t let others’ opinions win. Bambang Subali Budiman is interesting, too. In the afternote, Budi Darma states that what brought him to write this short story was a particular discussion on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, which is related to one aspect of Puritan life in New England back in the 19th century where people were so afraid of devils and their bad influence that people tried so hard to prevent it. But they didn’t realize the more they tried to purify themselves, the more rooms existed for devils to enter and control them. This idea then develops within the story, displaying implicitly that people are basically hypocrites, doing good deeds not because they are good people, or for the sake of others, but only for their own benefit, if only to get good karma in return.

There are layers and layers in each and every narrative presented in Kritikus Adinan and all of them are down to three recurring themes: humanity, morality and conscience. It has the same tone as Hotel Tua: not preachy, but hammering over and over again into the reader’s mind what is right and what is wrong, subtly yet strongly. The writer clearly wants readers to see through those layers of smoke their own conscience. Is it good, or bad? Are you good people, or not? Have you done something wrong? And even if you’re doing good deeds, is it for real? And the best of all, Budi Darma does it in his surrealistic style, which is clouding his intention even more, making this book something to ponder about and not some kind of tool to judge. If there is any shortcoming, it’s just that several stories read longer than they should, dragging a bit too much before finally getting the reader to the point. But still, its significance doesn’t miss the target.

All in all, Kritikus Adinan is a short-story collection anyone would expect from Budi Darma. The beauty of his surrealism alone is an enough reason for readers to plunge into his typical narrative of morality and conscience, even if they would like to do nothing but dismiss it. All the mostly-unnamed characters are also beautifully drawn: very flawed, with a good side that can only be seen from one narrow angle. This book is truly a masterpiece.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Hotel Tua

hotel tuaHotel Tua comprises 18 Budi Darma’s short stories dating from the 70s to the first decade of 2000s. It perhaps deserves to get dubbed the modern classic of the genre, although Orang-Orang Bloomington obviously gets the more fame and critical acclaim. This new collection is not to be underrated, though, what with all its twisted narratives and quiet but sharp criticisms on several issues.

The book starts with a short piece entitled Pistol, the best, the most deceitfully constructed, and undoubtedly the most feminist story of all which is not actually talking about a gun. If men have their pride and dignity, it is in their sex and sexuality. What perpetual ideas do most men have in their mind but that they’re sexually superior to women, and that they will and can sexually conquer them? The main male character of Pistol finds it hard to bear embarrassment knowing that his impotance has been widespread among the women he’s ever been with, thanks to the widow who has been his lover for some time. This alone has caused him feeling resentful and vengeful, and seeing the widow mocking him out-and-out spurs his hatred even more. There is just no other way but to take his revenge on her.

Equally talking about equality, Distrik Rodham comes second to Pistol. Its theme is broader, however, encompassing interclass problems in a society and questions whether or not all human beings are truly created equal and thus must be treated equal. Set in Rodham, New England, this longer story describes in simple detail how the society there was first formed, and how they live their lives and change through the years and generations. Class differentiation—hence discrimination—is inevitable, since it’s only natural for people to live in “diversity”, in every sense of the word. But is this then an enough reason to bury people in different places and build fences to affirm the socio-class differences? Is it just or unjust to put human beings in burial grounds based on their social status, when they’re already dead and all they had in life does not matter anymore?

When it comes to criticism, Budi Darma does try to make it as subtle yet piercing as possible at times. And who doesn’t want to criticize the way of our dirty politics and deep-rooted corruption when you have a pen and a piece of paper at hand? In stories like Tangan-Tangan Buntung and Dua Sahabat the senior writer definitely shows his forte at this. I could almost imagine a smirk on his face as he was writing Tangan-Tangan Buntung especially, a surreal story about a made-up country reigned by a certain dynasty whose corrupt character seems incurable. And this trait never leaves said country even when it has changed into a democratic one where a ruler is elected. In Dua Sahabat Budi Darma is even more cynical through his narrative, implying (if what he does is truly implying) that our evil politicians have made corruptors and villains our parliamentary representatives. Where is the shame?

As well as equality and dirty politics, Hotel Tua also keeps religious matters and human-God relationship up its sleeve for readers. Before you even realize it some numbers spring up with narratives pointing out defects in our morality, like Mata yang Indah, Kisah Pilot Bejo, and Derabat. Those stories do not try to be preachy, though, they merely reveal what humans are like, and what they should be like with a touch of religious teaching that I believe readers won’t really mind. Gauhati is starker in showcasing this value, with a clear moral teaching on being honest, kind-hearted, and doing good deeds. It’s just Budi Darma doesn’t appear to force the reader to accept his ideas, nor does he look like he thinks he is the most righteous person in the world trying to make things right. No, it does not show in his writing style.

The old writer is very astute in consctructing exquisite tales, wielding sentences that appear to be so-so but then lure the reader into his inescapable trap: moral values, spirituality, criticisms of the high-ranking officials. He is a “good writer” without trying to state that he is. What’s more, he’s so full of surprise. His writing is like the embodiment of “saying this but actually meaning that”, a tricky road that readers won’t feel suspicious of until they arrive at the real destination. And he is often economical in what he’s saying, no dragging plot whatsoever. Though readers may find some stories quite long, they’re not boring or anything.

Hotel Tua is a collection of mostly surreal short stories which in fact speaks reality. It feels heavy with ideas and thoughts yet is written in a fairly light style. It is luring, it is beguiling, and it teaches you something without burdening you with pretentious teachings. It’s definitely one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read.

Rating: 4.5/5