Tag: classics

A Thousand Ships

35563773995_fd0f1ed35b_oThe war between Troy and Achaea is perhaps the most famous one in classic literature, the most memorable, the most talked-about, the most retold in modern era. It doesn’t only revolve around revenge, dignity and heroism, but also passion and reckless love. It has been so often reproduced in many forms of popular culture, and now it appears in the form of graphic novel, entitled A Thousand Ships. It doesn’t exactly retell the story of the Trojan War, but the beginning, how it comes to the horrific end. Eric Shanower, the illustrator responsible, has made a tremendous effort to represent the old legend in pictures, and tried his best to formulate a narrative adaptation to accompany his drawings which would be easily fathomable.

It all starts with Paris going to Troy to win back his precious buffalo taken by the King’s representatives to offer to God. Things are getting complicated when he learns that he is not actually the son of his father, but that of the King of Troy, Priam. He was supposed to be left to die after his birth, for the prophesy didn’t hold something good about him. But he is not dead, and raised instead by the old man responsible for the horrible task into a young, handsome man. In short, when the truth is finally revealed, Paris is welcome at his homeland as the long-lost prince, and his real father embraces him with love. As the time goes by, his recklessness and natural character as a spoiled young boy bring imminent disaster to the kingdom. When he is supposed to set off for Sparta to free his father’s sister Hesione, he can’t help but fall blindly in love with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and deadly set to take away home the most beautiful woman in the world. Menelaus is greatly offended, no doubt, and determined to wage a war against Troy to take back his wife. And at this point, the role of Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother and the Grand King of Achaea, is on display. The great king takes it upon himself to mobilize his friends and allies from various small kingdoms and even looks for Achilles, the one foretold to bring victory to the Achaea’s side. And this is only the beginning.

As a myth, as an age-old legend well-known through generations and nations, the Trojan War has been told and retold by various writers, poets, and even playwrights. It has even been adapted into the big screen. So many versions available, so many approaches have been employed to deliver the story that sometimes the curious audiences cannot decide which one is true, or which one is to their favor. Eric Shanower might not present the truest version, or the best one, but his graphic-novel adaptation of the Greek myth at the very least tries to make it simple for the reader to get the general picture. It is indeed easy to understand and very much entertaining. The narrative, and how Shanower arranges it into a well-organized structure, is very informative, though it might not follow the complicated, already blurred, inexplicable origin.

As it is a graphic novel, it is only natural that readers would have pretty high expectation especially of its drawing quality. And Shanower doesn’t disappoint a bit. Every picture is created in meticulous detail, every character is sharply drawn, they’re even quite graphic sometimes that I believe this is not for children. However, subjectively speaking, they are not to my taste. Perhaps I’ve been too used to Japanese-manga/Chinese-manhua style of comic books to accept the way of the American. So however good the drawings might be, I cannot say that I liked them, especially—what a shame—those of Paris and Achilles, the two main protagonists in this famous War of Troy. I expected Paris to have a truly handsome facial character, but he turns out to look dumb and dull. The same disappointment brought about by the character of Achilles, who is supposed to be so handsome that he looks girlish instead. I didn’t find him handsome, nor too beautiful to manage to hide himself among girls.

A Thousand Ships is not a disappointment of a work. Only it is not to my favor and didn’t live up much to my expectation. It is well-structured, though, and makes for essential bits of information about the Trojan War. That said, I will just keep it in the corner of my distant memory.

Rating: 3/5

Drupadi

33828926655_9a7f05b53b_oWanita sering kali tidak punya pilihan, dan tidak bisa berkata tidak. Sebelum banyak dari kaum perempuan di zaman modern menangisi kenyataan ini, kisah-kisah wayang Jawa kuna sudah sejak lama menyiratkannya, dan kisah Drupadi dalam epos Mahabharata adalah salah satunya. Seno Gumira Ajidarma menuliskan kembali kisah sang dewi nan cantik cemerlang ini dalam sejumlah cerita pendeknya, yang kemudian dijadikan satu sehingga terbaca sebagai sebuah novel yang utuh. Ditemani ilustrasi-ilustrasi apik karya Danarto serta bait-bait puisi yang memantik akal dan rasa, buku yang diberi judul Drupadi ini tidak hanya berbicara tentang penderitaan yang harus dialami wanita, tetapi juga peran dan apa yang sanggup mereka lakukan dengan kekuatan tersembunyi yang mereka miliki.

Di buku ini kisah Drupadi dimulai ketika ia diarak dengan segenap upacara kebesaran menuju gelaran sayembara yang diadakan sang ayah, Prabu Drupada, untuk mencarikan suami baginya. Belum apa-apa pembaca sudah disuguhi kenyataan pahit di mana Drupadi, sebagai seorang wanita, tidak berhak untuk memilih suaminya sendiri, karena yang akan menjadi suaminya adalah siapa pun yang memenangkan sayembara tersebut. Pesertanya pun dibatasi hanya dari golongan yang sederajat atau yang tidak lebih rendah dari Dewi Drupadi sendiri. Secercah harapan muncul ketika Arjuna memenangkan sayembara, karena walaupun akhirnya ada seorang pria yang berhasil “memiliki” dirinya, Drupadi jatuh cinta pada pandangan pertama pada sang kesatria yang tengah menyamar. Dapat menikah dengan pria yang dicintai merupakan kebebasan tersendiri, tetapi bukan lagi saat pria itu justru kemudian menolak untuk menikahinya dan melempar tanggung jawab untuk mempersunting dirinya kepada saudara yang lain. Jadilah Drupadi dari seorang putri yang tak bisa memilih suaminya sendiri menjadi sebentuk tanggung jawab yang dilempar-lempar di antara para Pandawa karena tidak ada yang mau menanggungnya. Drupadi hanya bisa tertunduk dan diam, tak mengungkapkan pendapat maupun keinginannya. Karena sekalipun ia mempunyai keinginan dan harapan, wanita seakan-akan tidak dikodratkan untuk memperjuangkan dengan cara mengungkapkannya. Maka pada akhirnya orang lainlah yang menentukan nasib Drupadi, menjadikannya istri dari kelima Pandawa bersaudara sekaligus.

Drupadi tertunduk. Apakah perempuan diandaikan tidak punya kemauan? Tentu seorang perempuan memiliki kehendaknya sendiri. Namun meski dirinya hidup di antara para bijak, selain kepada perempuan tidak pernah diajukan pertanyaan, perempuan sendiri tidak akan memperjuangkan kehendak dan cita-citanya dengan cara menyatakannya.

Dalam kisah ini, menjadi seorang wanita yang bersuamikan lima orang bukanlah balasan atau jawaban dari praktik poligami di mana seorang pria boleh memiliki lebih dari satu istri. Di sini, Drupadi justru menanggung beban harus bersikap adil kepada kelima suaminya (walau hanya mencintai seorang saja) dan menurut kepada kelimanya pula. Ia tetaplah seorang istri yang, sedikit banyak, merupakan properti dari para suaminya dan dengan demikian menjadikannya bagian dari diri kelima Pandawa. Ia tetaplah seorang wanita yang tak bisa berbuat apa-apa kala salah seorang suaminya, Yudhistira, mempertaruhkannya di atas meja judi dan menyerahkan nasibnya pada dadu yang berputar. Dan benar saja, ketika Yudhistira kalah di tangan Sangkuni, sebagai bagian dari properti sang suami, Drupadi pun harus ikut diserahkan kepada Kurawa bersama seluruh negeri Indraprastha. Sekeras apa pun ia menolak, bukanlah takdirnya sebagai seorang istri dan wanita untuk bisa lepas dari suratan menjadi “milik orang lain”. Belum cukup penderitaannya sampai di situ, ia diperkosa beramai-ramai di hadapan kelima suaminya sendiri serta harus ikut mengembara bersama mereka di hutan saat terbuang dalam penyamaran.

32946376464_713f388337Namun Seno Gumira Ajidarma tidak hanya menceritakan derita yang mesti dialami Drupadi sebagai seorang wanita. Dalam bab berjudul Wacana Drupadi, SGA menggambarkan betapa sang dewi sudah tak sanggup lagi memendam dendam di dalam hati dan menuntut kelima suaminya agar menuntut balas kepada para Kurawa. Dari tuntutan Drupadi inilah berkobar Perang Bharatayudha, di mana Kurawa dikalahkan oleh Pandawa dan Drupadi dapat memenuhi sumpahnya: mengeramasi rambutnya dengan darah Dursasana. Dari sini dapat dilihat betapa perang bisa terjadi “hanya” karena dendam dan tuntutan dari seorang wanita. Tetapi dari sisi lain juga dapat dilihat betapa balasan dari menghinakan seorang wanita mampu menyeret seratus orang kesatria beserta seluruh pasukannya pada kematian. Ini adalah kekuatan wanita, kekuatan tersembunyi yang tidak diperoleh dari penempaan fisik maupun penggunaan senjata.

Seno Gumira Ajidarma mampu menceritakan ulang kisah wayang Jawa yang berakar dari legenda India ini dengan sangat sederhana tetapi dengan gaya bahasa yang sangat apik dan dramatis. Dan meski terkesan sangat singkat dan plotnya melompat-lompat, novel ini mampu menerangkan karakter dan menangkap peran seorang Drupadi dalam kisah peperangan yang didominasi oleh kaum lelaki dengan lugas dan terperinci. Novel ini menggambarkan dua sisi wanita (kuat dan lemah) yang tak terelakkan, layaknya dua sisi kehidupan (baik dan buruk) yang sudah menjadi suratan dan hanya dipisahkan oleh sebuah garis tipis berwarna abu-abu. Novel ini juga seolah ingin menyatakan bahwa pria dan wanita seharusnya setara dan sederajat, bahwa bukan hanya wanita yang memiliki kewajiban terhadap suami tetapi juga sebaliknya. Pesan inilah, selain gaya bahasa dan ilustrasi-ilustrasinya, yang membuat novel Drupadi terasa sangat indah dan menggugah.

Rating: 4/5

The Old Man and The Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

Indonesian Local Culture in Literature: Past and Present

Not so long ago I had a chance to read two Indonesian books, one is a classic and one is contemporary, which are heavily laden with cultural values and traditions: Sitti Nurbaya by Marah Rusli, and Puya ke Puya by one of our young potential writers, Faisal Oddang. Interestingly, though written by authors of different generations and talking about different cultures, the two books bring up the same restlessness. And, to me, that’s quite something.

Sitti Nurbaya (1920) is an Indonesian classic known to and hailed as a masterpiece by everyone in the country, even by those who never actually read the book. Every time there’s a young girl being married off to a man she never desires, we, Indonesians, will immediately, and stupidly, say that the girl suffers the same fate as Sitti Nurbaya. But most people get the story wrong, for it’s not about a girl being married off to some old, notoriously rich man her father picks for her. Set in Padang, West Sumatra (the land of Minangkabau people) the novel unfurls the story of a very young girl named Sitti Nurbaya who suffers a tragic fate in which she has to lose not only her love (by her own choice), but also everything she has. She is the daughter of a very rich merchant, befriending, and later falling in love with, Samsulbahri, a young man of noble birth. They could have been married, if not for her father’s sudden bankruptcy after the conflagration that destroys his shops and the evil scheme his competitor plays against him. The situation forces Nurbaya to forget about her dream and give up her happiness for her father instead. In order to help him pay his debts, she ends her relationship with Samsulbahri (without his knowing it) and marries Datuk Meringgih, who is also a bloody rich merchant in their city. She’s not happy, of course, and before she can see it coming, a fate worse than death befalls her and takes her life.

Unlike the classic, which is a tragic story by nature, the contemporary Puya ke Puya is lighter in its tone, though the story itself is all about the pursuit of heaven in the afterlife. The Tempo’s Best Book 2015 relates generally about what the people of Toraja (it derives from the words to riaja, which means “the people from above”) in South Sulawesi have to do for a family member who has just passed away to be able to find their way to heaven. Rante Ralla, a known noble man of his ethnic group, dies a sudden death while drinking ballo, some kind of alchoholic drink from Toraja. Rante’s son, Allu Ralla, refuses to hold rambu solo, a huge and costly funeral for the deceased, for he has no money and his father hardly leaves him a penny. His uncle urges him to sell their family’s land to the mining company that has been sucking their village dry for years so he can have the money to hold a proper ceremony instead of just burying his father in a low-cost, Christian way. It’s not only about money, though, for Allu doesn’t see any point in performing an “old custom” which is not relevant anymore. Thus, he insists on going on “the modern way”.

If we compare the two novels, even if only at a glance, we will see some differences in what they each tell of. While Sitti Nurbaya is a tragic love story, Puya ke Puya is a tragicomedy about death and family affair. More than that, both represent two different cultures in Indonesia, that of West Sumatra, and of South Sulawesi. The focus is different as well. Somewhat unrelated to the main plot, at some point in the narrative Marah Rusli describes how the society of Padang live under the matriarchal system: when two people get married, it is the family of the bride-to-be who provide the dowry and not the man; in a family, it’s not the father who is responsible for his children, but the brothers of the mother; and usually, the inheritance is passed down from mothers to daughters. Funnily enough, though, this rare system doesn’t seem to stop the nature of the society itself from being chauvinistic. I remember Sitti Nurbaya talks about how a woman should get more education, empowering herself instead of just bearing and rearing children, and how women should not marry too young. I assume, looking at the way she says all this, that the people of West Sumatra, whatever their social system is, is still patriarchal by nature and culture.

Puya ke Puya focuses on another matter. It’s not about how people marry, it’s about how people die. Throughout the multi-points-of-view narrative, Faisal Oddang puts his best effort into describing how the people of Toraja try to keep their traditions no matter what and hold a proper rambu solo for dead people, especially the high-ranking ones, so they can go to and arrive in heaven safely. For this journey, the deceased will need at least a hundred buffalos and pigs as their vehicles and supplies, hence the need for their family to hold said ceremony and butcher all those animals for them. It needs a lot of money, a whole lot of money. The problem is, not every time do the family have that much to carry out the expensive tradition but if they fail to do their “duty”, the spirit of the deceased will surely be lost between the heaven and earth.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, despite the differences, Sitti Nurbaya and Puya ke Puya imply the same restlessness. And the nagging question is, do old values and traditions need to change? In Sitti Nurbaya, the protagonist herself and her father and uncle rue the culture they hold and look up to the Dutch people (who occupied Indonesia in the past) for their progressive way of thinking. Baginda Sulaiman, Nurbaya’s father, insists that the local society of Padang should leave their old ways and do better, while her uncle Ahmad Maulana thinks that they should follow the Western path where it leads to the good example and leave it when it’s bad. He also believes that they should dump everything useless about their customs and keep still the good ones. But all these lamentations are a bit subtle and gentle. Oddang is louder and more progressive in delivering his ideas. He wants change, not just suggests it. Through the voice of Allu Ralla, his main character, he doesn’t hesitate to say that he hates the old ways, that the traditions the people of Toraja hold dear are so burdensome and pointless they have to be left behind.

This is very interesting: both classic and contemporary writers despise the old ways, demanding an immediate and progressive change in the local traditions their societies have been holding for generations. Well, I don’t believe the traditions are still there and whole now, but I don’t think the people of West Sumatra and South Sulawesi have left them altogether, either. Even here in Java island, in the small town I live in, people still hold on to their culture. Though, as part of today’s generation, I don’t understand half of it and hate the rest.

So, what do you think? Do the old values and traditions need to change? Or should they stay the same for the sake of identity? Because, what would people be without cultural identity? But, what if all that stuff is not relevant to the fast-moving world anymore?

Introduction to Hercule Poirot: A 2-in-1 Review

It is an inevitably shameful fact that I was so belated in recognizing Agatha Christie’s world-famous detective stories, the Hercule Poirot mystery, but I just hope it wasn’t too late. It’s not that I never knew the Dame, only between the recent craze for the modern TV adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and pursuing my wish list books, somehow I didn’t have time to even think to get my hands on them. I did eventually, though, find myself an opportunity to read one, randomly picking Murder on the Links, and I was instantly captured. It is safe to say, I think, that I’m not safe from its beguiling plot and intricately woven mysteries, as were millions other people before me. And thus, I picked up without the slightest hesitation another Poirot book, which was Death on the Nile, to devour. So this post is especially dedicated to elaborating my opinion and impression after reading my first (and not last, I hope) Hercule Poirot mysteries.

2011 Indonesian edition's cover
2011 Indonesian edition’s cover

Murder on the Links begins with Captain Hastings meeting a mysterious acrobat girl on a train back from Paris. This accidental meeting is already mysterious enough to be put aside, but unfortunately that has to be forgotten for a moment. Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective famous for his small body and funny mustache, and Hastings’ close friend, received a letter from someone named P.T. Renauld, who is very well-known for his tremendous wealth. The letter sounds as if the rich man is in unimaginable danger for knowing a certain secret. Thus, Poirot and Hastings immediately set out for Merlinville where the Renauld family spend their summer in France. But when they get there, Mr. Renauld has already died. Stabbed in the back, literally. Mysteries swirl around wildly, suspicions thrown at everybody, including Mr. Renauld’s secret lover, Mrs. Daubreuil, and his own son, Jack Renauld. But if it’s true that Mrs. Daubreuil is the murderer, why would she do it when she can always blackmail her victim? And if it’s Jack Renauld, does he really have a strong enough reason to do the horrible crime?

2011 Indonesian edition's cover
2011 Indonesian edition’s cover

Unlike Murder on the Links, Death on the Nile has a somewhat different approach to introducing the case. It, perhaps in an attempt to explain its premise and strengthen its foundation, tediously tells the background of Linnet Ridgeway, the young and unbelievably rich woman who is used to have everything her own way, including when it comes to love. She has no qualms about snatching away her best friend’s fiancé, and that unquestionably triggers hatred and vengeance in the heart of Jacqueline de Bellefort, that friend of hers. Subsequently, of course, the deep loathing Jackie has for her friend spurs her to do the unthinkable. She threatens to kill the woman she deems to have betrayed her, she follows her and her new husband everywhere, even to Egypt. And there, right on the Nile, the unthinkable really comes to reality. Upon Jackie’s argument with Simon Doyle, the man who becomes the problem, Linnet Ridgeway, or Mrs. Doyle, is found dead in her bed on the ship taking them along the river. But then, considering the evidences and alibi, is it really Jacqueline who does it?

Every detective has their own way of solving cases, and Hercule Poirot is no exception. He is not one to rely on theories, because he thinks theories sometimes do not accord with facts. He uses his “little grey cells”, as he puts it, not just observing things but thinking them through, too. He doesn’t care to do deduction, for in his cases the mysteries are so intricate that doing deduction might be very much prone to misleading conclusions, and accusing the wrong person. The cases of Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile prove to be almost impossible to solve that readers will always be in the dark until Poirot decides to reveal everything at the end of the story. Unless, of course, we can be faster than him and really, really use our little grey cells. What’s unique about Christie’s method of investigation in her Poirot books is the presence of Captain Arthur Hastings. He might not be present in all Poirot books, as far as I know, but the fact that he is there accompanying Poirot in some of his investigations cannot be deemed insignificant. Somehow Hastings’ simple, rather sentimental imagination forms an assumption on the course of action taken by the culprit and thus provides the reader with a glimpse of clue, and much fun, too. Such a shame this isn’t applied in Death on the Nile, where we will only meet Colonel Race who doesn’t seem to have any significance nor do anything but standing silently beside Poirot and leaving everything to him.

I may not have read many crime/mystery novels yet, and I am definitely still new to Agatha Christie, but I can tell that the mystery in both Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile is a creation of a genius. Who would have thought that, instead of narrowing the suspects of the crimes to one or two persons, Christie would wildly cast doubt upon almost everyone except the investigators? The way Christie twists and turns her storylines has seriously made the reader have so many suspicions and nearly accuse the wrong character. Every individual seems to have a reason to harm/kill the victim, and those reasons are usually made to make sense. But that’s where Christie lays her trap. It is as if the reader is persuaded, seduced even, to believe that someone with some motive is the killer, which more often than not is not the case. What’s more captivating, the mysteries are not only vastly numerous but also arranged in puzzling layers. And the plot is fastly paced, too, which is something that I like most in a crime novel. Christie wastes no time in exploring every each character, they are described through their gestures and dialogues, while every fan of hers must have known that there are a lot of characters in each of her books.

All I can say is that I am truly, deeply fascinated. Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile are really incredible, unbelievable. Though I prefer the former to the later one. And now I’m looking forward to reading more Poirot books, and more of Christie’s work.

Rating: 4/5 for Murder on the Links, 3.5/5 for Death on the Nile.

Overall rating: 3.75/5

Botchan

2009 Indonesian edition’s cover

People anywhere in the world these days would not want to be told what is right and what is wrong, or to have some literary works showing the moral standards they deem old-fashioned pushed under their nose. But just in case you forget how this world somehow works and how to be true to yourselves, the Japanese classic Botchan by the prominent, highly praised author Natsume Sōseki might be the tool to remind you of the way. First published in 1906, this Indonesian edition firstly appeared in 2009 with the same title, the humorous book is one of Sōseki’s notable works that brings to the reader not only a good (though not strong enough) story, but also a character that is so honest and appealing.

Botchan, actually a term of endearment for the son of an employer in Japanese, is our leading character and narrator. The story begins with him telling the reader of his grim childhood as an unwanted child: deemed useless by his father, unloved by his mother, cheated constantly by his older brother. But lucky him, his devoted servant Kiyo loves him so much and often spoils him. As the story moves forward, we’ll see Botchan loses both of his parents and his brother sells everything they have, giving him his share of 600 yen which he then uses to enroll in a school of physics and study mathematics. After graduation, he accepts an offer to teach math in a small town’s middle school in Shikoku Island. It is there, subsequently, that he gets to see a wider world than he ever saw before and experience the unpleasant life of a rural area. Aside from a bunch of naughty, troublesome students—which is not unpredictable for a teacher to handle—Botchan has to face a failed education system which is so far away from educative, and an unwise principal who always seems to humiliate him. Worse still, he has to deal with two deceitful teachers, whom he calls the Red Shirt and the Clown, trying always to discredit him and play him off against another teacher.

“Kalau orang jujur tidak bisa menang

di dunia ini, siapa lagi yang bisa?”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan gets through it all with his steadfast honesty, outspokenness, and unwavering stand on justice. It is this character which is the main attraction of the book, not really the story. Throughout the narrative, Sōseki looks like he wants to make Botchan’s characterization stick out above any other aspect so that the reader can see what he means to show us: that a good character, no matter what we think about right or wrong, is all that we have to navigate this rotten world. Botchan is not an embodiment of high moral principles or an angel, since he has some flaws—impatient, emotional, hot-blooded—which shows that he is just a human being like any other. But his keeping a tight grip on honesty and justice at least teaches us how having integrity is something worthwhile and that’s what we should do, not littering this old, tired world with our evil deed.

“Kalau dipikir-pikir, sebagian besar masyarakat malah

mendorongmu bertindak jahat. Mereka seolah percaya

tanpanya, kau tidak akan bisa sukses dalam kehidupan.

Pada kesempatan-kesempatan yang langka, ketika me-

reka melihat seseorang yang berbicara terus terang &

jujur, mereka meremehkannya dan menyebutnya hijau,

tidak lebih daripada anak-anak.”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan is an engrossing story, such a page-turner. From the beginning to the end, the book appears to intend to drown the reader without mercy into its depth of narrative. It really has something about it that drags you along so that you’ll forget everything but everything in it, particularly the character aspect. The thing that I found lacking is its untidy storyline from which Sōseki often brings out sudden conflicts, of which solutions seem unclear until much later, and out-of-the-blue statements about the characters—for example, when Botchan suddenly says he has huge respect for Koga, the English teacher. But these few flaws are made up for by the humor scattered in many places. You’d think a novel about honesty and justice would feel or at least sound so serious, but this one is not. You’d either giggle or laugh, no less. Some of you will perhaps even read it as a satire criticizing the world and how rotten it is, especially looking at the way Botchan innocently narrates his story and speaks out his mind. This feature is helped very much by the fast pace and the nice flow of the plot. I have to admit the mess of it is pretty annoying, but during my reading I couldn’t help but feel like I was lost in the flow, reading on and on without wanting to stop, even though I knew my eyes had already been weary and watery.

All things considered, Botchan by Natsume Sōseki is one of my best reads so far this year, and definitely one of the best Japanese literary works I’ve read to this day. And thanks to Indah Santi Pratidina for translating it from whatever language it is so I could have fun reading it. It’s a recommended fiction work for you who have forgotten how to say the truth.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

Layar Terkembang

In 1936’s Indonesia was barely on the verge of its independence, but the pressure for gender equality seemed greater and greater. Through Layar Terkembang, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana appears to imply that the urge to embrace modernity, in every aspect possible, couldn’t be held back anymore. Told in a form of short novel, the thought-provoking story of this classic Indonesian work unfolds what it was like in the past when an independent woman fighting for a place in society had to war with her own desire for love that demanded her letting go of her stand and cause.

The book opens with two young women visiting an aquarium one morning and encountering an attractive young man by the name of Yusuf. The two sisters catch his attention instantly, but it is Maria, the younger one, who sweeps him off his feet for her sheer beauty and easy manner. It’s not that he doesn’t find Tuti, Maria’s older sister, attractive, but she is made of sterner stuff and more difficult to please that Yusuf can only admire her as a smart woman and nothing more. Tuti herself is not a woman to fall for a man so easily and chooses to stay single in order to focus on fighting for her cause: gender equality for the local women of a country which is still a Dutch colony. Over the times, though, as Maria and Yusuf forge a strong bond of love and affection, Tuti starts to feel jealous and lonely, missing and desiring for something Maria has and she doesn’t. She even almost—almost—accepts her fellow teacher’s proposal just so she can fill her empty heart and know what it is like to have someone who loves her. But she finally declines it for she knows that she can’t marry without love and that she can’t be with someone who is not equal to her in everything. However, at the end Alisjahbana shows us that even a woman as strong and stubborn as she is cannot fight the destiny, especially when Maria is dying and asking her to fulfill her last wish.

Tuti and Maria are poles apart, there are stark differences between them. While Maria is prettier, weaker, easier to love and dependent, Tuti is stronger, stubborn, tenacious, self-reliant and has no qualms about saying what she thinks is right and coming up with harsh comments on everything. Between the two there is Yusuf, a young man with an open mind and love for nature. He is a man who has respect for women and can appreciate women’s intelligence and thoughts, but he is also an average man who chooses beauty over brain. His character is a bit disappointing and too much confusing, especially when he, conscious or not, can fully understand how Tuti sees things and thus defends her opinions everytime there is a chance. Perhaps, to my thinking, Alisjahbana describes him in that particular way not only to show how men generally see women, but also to state that between two different qualities women can have, a man can turn to a path more worthwhile.

Layar Terkembang is not a tale of a love triangle, precisely, it is about women and how a relationship between a man and a woman should be. The writer wants to show that even in 1936 when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, the more developed a nation or society, the bigger the demand that women got equal rights to men in many if not everything. Women also, as represented by the character of Tuti, demand that a marriage should not anymore be an institution where women have to give up everything and only say yes to anything arranged for them, but rather a relationship where two people love each other and realize each of their rights and responsibilities and have equal positions. This book is a subtle embodiment of the urgent need for modernity wrapped up in the urgent demand for gender equality in a country that was still crawling towards independence. Quite unfortunately, however, this grand idea is not elaborated in a detailed plot. Short and compact, Layar Terkembang really doesn’t have an adequate storyline. So short is it that it feels as if the events hop from one scene to another without further explanation, and some readers may think the narrative has an irrational time structure. What helps the book to engage the reader other than its feminist message is definitely its characterization. The three of them, Tuti, Maria, and Yusuf are very well drawn, vivid and strong and drawing sympathy no matter what they do and how they behave.

Layar Terkembang by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana would have been a completely perfect novel had it not lacked the narrative elaboration a reader might have expected. Nevertheless, I think this book is still worth reading and being labeled as one of the classic works to remember. It’s something we would call an eye-opener.

Rating: 3.5/5

The Yearling

Indonesian edition’s cover

Sometimes, a book is so hard to devour, not because it’s very complicated nor using a too florid language not all readers can take in, but because it makes us think hard. It makes us want to run away because the world is too cruel for us to live in. It makes us realize that living in idealism is such an impossible thing because what we need is what we eat, not what we love and cherish. That’s pretty much what I felt when I read The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a Pulitzer Prize winning classic. Reading it was like swallowing a bitter pill, unpleasant and so difficult. But, I have to say, that’s why it makes for a good read, and a great work as well.

It talks about the Baxters living in 1800s’ Florida. They’re a farmer family, relying heavily on their crop production and game for food. With his Pa and Ma, Jody lives on the Baxter Island in the middle of a dense forest full of wild, predatory animals. But it’s not only bears and wolves they have to deal with, but bad weather, severe winter, storm, flood taking turns to blast them all year. And that’s not to mention their fierce, bad-tempered, drunkard but helpful neighbors who always get them into troubles and dilemma, leaving them with a restless relationship with their closest relatives. But, of all the ordeal they have to face, Jody’s domestic pet is the hardest. Flag, a yearling Jody finds in the woodland when he and his father go for a hunt and takes into his care, is at first so gentle and docile. But the bigger it grows, the bigger the trouble it brings. Flag becomes very wild and uncontrollable, eating the family’s plants and crops, robbing them of their food to survive. Penny, Jody’s father, has been so patient and understanding about the young animal and its troublesome presence. But their lives now are at stake. They cannot live with another cropless season, and they need to, have to survive. This is no longer about having and loving a pet, or even about caring for a living creature. This is about survival, about doing everything to stay alive, including killing our beloved one. This is about how life goes.

The Yearling is actually a simple story with simple characters. However, there are certain complexities in them. Jody Baxter is a childish, spoiled boy, getting too much love and trust from his father. But he’s also brave and a hard worker, eager to learn anything and bear any responsibility. He’s also lonely and a loving person, hence the need to have something to love and pet, to ease his loneliness and need of friend. And once he loves something, he will do everything to keep it and not share his love with something else, not even think about anything else. But beyond all that, he’s only a child, an inexperienced, innocent child. His character, more or less, is the reflection of his father’s. Penny Baxter is also a gentle and loving man, and a hard worker, too. He’s portrayed as understanding and strong-willed, but he can also be annoyingly stubborn and firm. He’s physically small and short, but he’s as strong as the Forresters, their raucous neighbors. And those raucous neighbors are the most interesting characters of all. They are a bunch of loud, drunk, coarse, rude men. Ma Baxter even describes them as having a black heart. They’re mean and cruel in some ways, but they’re also helpful and friendly. Sometimes, as I read through the narrative, they are quite forgiving. Most of the times they are disgusting, but they have their own white sides. It was their characters that stuck me to the pages when I started to feel like I almost fell into boredom at some point along the book. They truly kept my interest.

This book has a gripping narrative, unfortunately the plot doesn’t seem to have any direction. All the events, all the problems and their solutions are told one by one, without being overlapping nor woven neatly into one whole story. They seem to stand on their own, segmented parts put into cubicles. One thing comes after another, and then another, and then another until the storyline arrives at the point where Jody has finally to sacrifice his beloved pet. It’s not like one story as a whole, it’s more like LEGOs with bits arranged together into one shape. Luckily, it has stunning characterizations. As simple as they might be, they are still portrayals of real people, ones that we can deem so close to the reality. The circumstances they bring also picture what truly happens around us. Rawlings describes them in great detail and very vividly. They are one of the factors that boost up the atmosphere so it feels so strong and utterly absorbing. I was so caught at the end of the book, which is very touching and sad and emotion-draining, though doesn’t feel right in my opinion. However, this book is still amazing in how Rawlings delivers a humanist message and creates such an imaginative, believable setting.

In conclusion, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is a pretty great work of classic literature, such a shame it lacks the nice plot and an exciting ending. But I can say that I can absolutely take the message in, and quite agree with it. The Yearling is a book that leaves you thinking, trying to make of the world.

Rating: 3.5/5

Therese Raquin

Indonesian edition’s cover

Some classics are not meant to be a fairy tale. They tend to be true to life, describing the wave of a society and the mold of its people, the social problems, the discourse, and the ugly truth. They choose not to follow the usual path. And Therese Raquin, a painfully breathtaking classic work written by Émile Zola, is definitely one of them. Here, Zola chooses to picture the truth about people, the truth that is so hard to swallow. Set in the 19th century’s France, Therese Raquin tells a bitter story of a woman whose life is constricted by the general rules of the society and whose rebellion against it result in her being the guilty party. Readers may look at her with disgust, but Zola is merely revealing the weaknesses of human beings which in turn reshape themselves into the darkest sides people generally shudder at.

The beginning of the story introduces us to the young Therese, who’s being looked after by the Raquin family since the death of her father. From then on, all her life decisions are made solely by her overprotective, anxious aunt, Mme. As a result, she is deprived of all control of her own life, making her self and being restricted not only to the prison of a small apartment she lives in with her aunt and her cousin, Camille, but also to the life she despises so much. The disaster reaches its peak when the marriage between her and Camille becomes inevitable, thanks to Mme. Bored with her married life, Therese feels thickly engulfed in disdain. She may not say a word, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t scream inside. Soon, the sanctity of marriage turns into a sacrilege when Laurent, Camille’s old friend, comes to her life. They engage in a lustful secret love affair, desperate to grab the life they’ve been wanting all along, desperate to get the freedom out of the monotonous everyday routine. The strong urge to claw their way out of their secrets and to spring free from the rules of the society finally drives them into a regrettable, impulsive decision. This evil deed of theirs then, sure as rain, hunts them for the rest of their lives, allowing no room for them to live at ease.

Therese and Laurent are some kind of embodiment of the darkest sides of human beings, the evil nature which is molded by the pressure of morals and constricted life and tightly bottled up dissatisfaction. Therese, in particular, is most vulnerable to trials and soul-sucking boredom and pathetic situation. All she wants is to be free and to celebrate her passion. Her immoral, impulsive deeds are only an innocent result of her natural want and desire, however wrong they might seem. But, by the same token, it is not guaranteed that Therese would have not rebelled against anything had her life been different.

The other two characters do not seem to attract our sympathy, either. Camille, described as a boring, spoiled, sick person, should have drawn more of our compassion than of our contempt. But, as I read and absorbed his character, I felt the other way around. In fact, it is his pathetic self, more or less, that drives Therese to run directly to a secret love affair. And Mme is not blameless, too. I would say that she has a certain part in triggering the whole mess. Her overprotectiveness, her anxiety, and her vulnerable heart, which are supposed to disarm anyone, are also responsible for Therese’s doing what she doesn’t want to.

The story of Therese Raquin is told in a quite simple way, yet shrouded in an atmosphere so strong that the reader can sense the coldness, the boredom, the dark desire, and the belated regret. The storyline doesn’t have many twists nor turns, no shocking aspect except for the horrendous portrayals of each character. But, however ordinary the narrative might be, I still find it beautifully written and openly displayed. The complexity of the characters doesn’t make the story they weave seem difficult to comprehend, yet the way it is presented is so gripping and makes the book itself unputdownable. The way I see it, Therese Raquin is merely a simple story about the damage of moral principles in the society, but the fact that Zola is brave enough to bring it forth and explore it in the most brazenly real way makes it more special than it should be. What’s more, the last scene Zola chooses to put forward as the ending of the whole mess seems to me the right and best decision of his. I can say that Therese Raquin is an eye-opener, suitable for anyone of any generation despite its being a classic.

All in all, Therese Raquin is a wonderful classic work that manages to wriggle itself free out of the embrace of fairy tale. The story and the characters in it are both so real, and the emotions and feelings of those characters are also so poignant that they seem to leap out of the sentences that describe them. This book is absolutely recommended.

Rating: 4/5

Pride and Prejudice

MacMillan Education Ltd. edition, published in Indonesia by Gramedia Pustaka Utama

Everything starts with a belief that a woman needs a (rich) man to keep a roof over her head and a penny in her pocket. When you have five daughters, Lizzie, tell me what else will occupy your thoughts. Then perhaps you’ll understand, I recall Mrs. Bennet seeming to say. I don’t think Jane Austen merely created a Cinderella story to sell, with a poor woman and a rich prince charming. I somehow get this particular impression that Pride and Prejudice, no matter how the love story runs, is also about being a woman of middle class with lack of fortune, four sisters, and an uncertain future who is forced by the prevailing system of her society at that time into marrying a man to guarantee her life. As one of the most memorable classic romances, Pride and Prejudice has become a vivid prove of women’s financial dependency on men in their relationships, despite the gloriously glorified fact that love (still) counts.

Mrs. Bennet is all but in a fuss knowing that the rich Mr. Bingley has come to their country and stays at the Netherfield Park, a mansion not so far from Longbourn where the Bennets live. She believes that, for the sake of their future, she must marry one of her five daughters off to him. But then, she doesn’t have to make such a great effort to smooth her way, for Mr. Bingley seems to have already settled his choice on Jane, her oldest daughter, then and there in the ball arranged to welcome him and his friend and sister. And in this very party, too, Elizabeth, Jane’s closest sister, meets the mysteriously rich and arrogant Mr. Darcy, who falls in love with her almost immediately, although not properly expresses it. His rude comment about Elizabeth gets her burned with anger and decided that he’s the worst person she’s ever known. She hates him almost instantly, and, in a later occasion, forthrightly expresses it.

“From the very beginning, from the very first moment that I met you, your manners showed me your arrogance, conceit and your selfish indifference to the feelings of others. On this basis was built, by later events, an immovable dislike. After I had known you a month I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be persuaded to marry.” —Elizabeth Bennet.

Their love saga is then purely filled with mixed feelings of pride, on Darcy’s part, and prejudice, on Elizabeth’s part, becoming more complicated by the issues of family background, rank, money, and misunderstanding. At the end of the story, Austen convinces us that all those hindrances blocking their way can be solved only by love, pure and sincere love.

As we can already see along the book, pride and prejudice are attached to the characters of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy is naturally proud, what with his rank, wealth, position, birth and background. The little time he spends with others only adds to his awkwardness in dealing with especially a woman, a woman with stubbornness, a sharp wit, and a sharp tongue, too, like Elizabeth. Despite her lack of fortune and education, Elizabeth is not someone to look down our nose at. Unfortunately, her somewhat innocence brings her disaster, where the false account of Darcy’s bad behavior by someone whom she mistakenly trust blends with her false first impression of him to inflict hatred and prejudice she determinedly holds, which then blind all of her judgements. Pride has unquestionably stopped Darcy from expressing his feelings, and prejudice has firmly shut Elizabeth out of the truth about him. These two traits also what make them an unforgettable couple, the proud man and the stubborn woman who set the standard for the characters in any romance story today.

I thoroughly enjoyed Miss Austen’s style of writing, it’s romantic and nicely flowing. It’s sweet without being too much to bear, even for someone who doesn’t particularly like romances. I admittedly found myself smiling at every sentence, every dialogue, every scene like an idiot. This may not particularly happen to everyone reading Pride and Prejudice, but I have to say that this is what magnetic about the book. What’s more, it’s not, in my opinion, merely a Cinderella story created to spark some (false) hope in the heart of every woman that their status or position in the society will not prevent them from having a rich, handsome husband. This book is also implicitly about the difficult situation of women in a society which doesn’t allow them to be financially independent, forcing them to agree that marriage is the only way to guarantee their future and to escape from poverty. In this very book, Austen also straightforwardly describes, with much disagreement, how women in her time were not the heirs to the property of their own parents because they all would be left to the male heirs. Marrying for love was a rare thing, while marry money had been a must to survive. This is the point where I think that it’s not only Austen’s love story which lasts forever, but also the ugly truth about women’s problem she describes here to deliver the said love story. Unfortunately, all those great features have to be ruined by the dull sequence of events Austen plots along the book. I’m not saying that it ruins everything, it just didn’t attract me the way it should have. When I watched the 2005 movie adaptation, I felt more into the whole narrative.

However, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a beautiful work of classic romance, one of the great and deservedly memorable classics. It has almost everything to satisfy a reader and is definitely recommended for both those who pursue the works of English literature, and those who want to indulge themselves in romances.

Rating: 3.5/5