Tag: contemporary

Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas

34135013895_b46a7651dc_oKita hidup di tengah budaya patriarki di mana sering kali perempuan dipandang sebagai obyek seks semata sehingga kekerasan maupun pelecehan seksual terhadap wanita (diam-diam) dianggap wajar saja. Dan jika memang karya sastra merupakan refleksi dari kehidupan nyata, maka sepertinya itulah yang hendak disampaikan Eka Kurniawan dalam novelnya Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas. Dengan mengambil latar belakang masyarakat kelas menengah ke bawah yang gemar kekerasan, buku ini seolah ingin menunjukkan bahwa hal yang dianggap “wajar” ini sesungguhnya justru tidaklah wajar.

Kisah dimulai ketika Ajo Kawir dan sahabatnya, Si Tokek, masih berusia awal belasan tahun. Suatu malam, tanpa sengaja mereka melihat Rona Merah, seorang perempuan gila di kampung mereka, diperkosa dua orang polisi. Akibat rasa terguncang saat menyaksikan peristiwa ini, kemaluan Ajo Kawir, atau yang ia panggil si Burung, jadi tidak bisa ngaceng alias berdiri. Ajo Kawir berusaha keras membangunkan si Burung dari “tidurnya”, mulai dengan cara yang paling menggelikan sampai yang paling menyedihkan. Tapi si Burung tetap tak mau bangun, tidur nyenyak bak seekor beruang kutub yang terlelap di musim dingin dan memimpikan hujan salju. Masalah bertambah runyam bagi Ajo Kawir ketika ia berjumpa dan jatuh cinta pada Iteung, gadis cantik dari sebuah perguruan silat, karena bagaimana mungkin ia dapat membahagiakan seorang gadis dengan kemaluan yang tidak bisa ngaceng? Tahun demi tahun Ajo Kawir lewati dengan menanggung penderitaan ini, sementara satu-satunya cara untuk menuntaskannya adalah dengan menghabisi kedua polisi yang telah memerkosa Rona Merah.

Tidak seperti Cantik Itu Luka maupun Lelaki Harimau yang sangat mengandalkan realisme magis dalam menyampaikan ide ceritanya, novel Eka Kurniawan kali ini lebih berpegang pada realisme. Namun realisme yang maskulin. Maskulin dan sovinis. Hampir di sepanjang jalan cerita terdapat adegan-adegan brutal di mana adu jotos (dan membunuh dengan tangan kosong) adalah cara yang biasa digunakan untuk menyelesaikan masalah. Akan tetapi, yang paling menonjol di sini adalah kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan. Hal yang menimpa Ajo Kawir, yang menjadi sorotan dalam novel ini, berawal dari aksi pemerkosaan yang dilakukan oleh dua orang polisi biadab terhadap seorang perempuan gila. Dari sini dapat dilihat bahwa dua orang lelaki, yang berfisik dan bermental lebih kuat dari si perempuan gila, dengan demikian memiliki kuasa lebih, dapat memaksakan kehendak mereka secara semena-mena terhadap wanita yang lebih lemah. Hal nahas serupa juga dialami Iteung di masa kecilnya, ketika ia masih seorang gadis polos dan dilecehkan oleh guru sekaligus wali kelasnya sendiri. Tapi tentu saja tidak ada tempat untuk mengadu. Si perempuan gila hanya diam saja sampai ia mati seusai diperkosa, begitu pula dengan Iteung yang memilih jalannya sendiri untuk menyudahi pelecehan yang dialaminya. Karena, pada umumnya, yang berkuasalah yang akan selalu menang dan yang lemah (baik secara fisik, mental, maupun kedudukan) akan selalu kalah. Maka mengadu kepada siapa pun hanya akan menjadi jalan keluar yang sia-sia.

“Kau pikir perempuan barang, bisa dibeli di Pasar Tanah Abang?”

Namun dengan narasi yang teramat maskulin dan sovinis inilah Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas justru mengolok-olok seksisme dan kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan yang dianggap lazim di masyarakat. Si Burung yang tidur lelap bisa dibilang merupakan kiasan dari sesuatu yang tidak wajar, berlawanan dengan tindak pemerkosaan (sebagai penyebabnya) yang diam-diam dan sering kali dipandang wajar dan sambil lalu. Dan seperti yang disiratkan oleh kisahnya sendiri, ketidakwajaran yang diderita Ajo Kawir hanya akan sembuh jika kewajaran yang dilakukan oleh kedua polisi biadab tersebut dihapuskan secara nyata, bagaimana pun caranya. Tampaknya, bagi Eka Kurniawan, memandang wajar seksisme dan kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan adalah hal yang konyol dan patut ditertawakan, maka dari itu ia melawan gagasan ini dengan kiasan burung (kemaluan lelaki) yang tertidur. Eka juga melakukan perlawanan dengan menciptakan tokoh Iteung yang kuat baik secara fisik maupun mental, yang mampu melawan lelaki dengan tangannya dan memilih jalannya sendiri dan melakukan apa pun yang dikehendakinya.

Sebagaimana sudah menjadi tipikal Eka Kurniawan, novel Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas penuh dengan satire dan bernuansa komedi gelap (black humor). Tetapi memang gaya penulisan seperti ini sangat cocok untuk menyampaikan olok-olok yang diinginkan penulis. Namun novel ini juga tak melulu berisi sindiran terhadap budaya patriarki dan masalah sosial, Eka juga mewarnainya dengan guyonan-guyonan segar terutama melalui burung Ajo Kawir yang ia ajak bicara dan mintai pendapat setiap kali ia dihadapkan pada masalah yang rumit. Dan yang paling menarik dari novel ini adalah plotnya yang terlihat seperti tak beraturan, tak memiliki batasan antara masa lalu dan masa kini, pun antara kenyataan dan khayalan. Uniknya, jalan ceritanya mengalir dengan sangat baik sehingga tetap dapat diikuti tanpa kesulitan.

Secara keseluruhan, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas bukan hanya sebuah karya yang sepertinya diciptakan memang sengaja untuk mengkritik, tetapi juga merupakan hasil olahan narasi yang ciamik dan bukti dari kelihaian sang penulis dalam bercerita.

Rating: 4/5

Dijual: Keajaiban

32918651421_ddb0ce58f9_oNine different writers from various Asian countries with nine different stories. Dijual: Keajaiban is an anthology that provides you with this wonderful miracle. Despite the geographical question you might be left with after perusing the list of writers contributing to the collection, the nine short pieces bring you thought-provoking ideas, deep, vividly drawn characters, emotional plots and thoughtful messages. This book is something we can call a hidden gem, something that might not be popular among readers (here in this country) but has the value of a treasure.

All the stories contained in this book are of high quality, there is no doubt about it. But there are four that can truly tear your heart apart, or at least leave you dead silent and aware of the reality around you. The first one is also the first to welcome readers to the collection, a very subtle love story by the Chinese Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian, entitled In the Park. It’s about a couple of childhood friends who meet again when they are grown up and are talking about their past and present, while watching a restless woman waiting for the man she loves nearby. The way Gao composes the dialogs tells us how both of them are actually in love with each other, unluckily, destiny doesn’t seem to want to see them together. But there has to be someone to blame, and the woman doesn’t conceal the fact that she intends to do so. However, it is not this attitude, or the subtle conflict being told she has with her male friend, which pulls the reader to the depth of the narrative, but the idea of how women, even in a personal love affair, has always to be on the losing side. It is crystal clear from what the woman says to the man:

“If the woman falls in love first, it’s always unlucky.”

The second lump-in-the-throat story of the book is Qismati and Nasibi by Naguib Mahfouz. Imagine you have a Siamese twin sibling and you cannot get away from the fact, much less from them. Characteristically, you both are so different you might as well be two different people born from two different mothers, and nothing unites you but your conjoined bodies. You cannot help but hate each other and fight almost everyday, sometimes willing to take the defeat only to get spurred again and determined to get what you want without an ounce of care about your twin’s feelings. Life is like a hell on earth, so much worse than that even. Unfortunately, even death cannot do you apart.

To Look Out the Window by Orhan Pamuk is as much heart-breaking. With its rather flat narrative, it surprisingly has the ability to set fire to the reader’s heart and make what seems to be a simple idea of family affair feel more moving and profound than any other Pamuk’s story ever did. Told from a first-person point of view, this long short story talks about a father secretly leaving his wife and children without so much as a word but telling his youngest son, who doesn’t have the faintest idea of what actually happens, not to tell anyone about his leaving for Paris. It appears, though, as the story progresses, that he leaves them for another woman. Pamuk is very clever in how he employs the viewpoint of an innocent little boy to elaborate his creation of a plot and describe the feelings of adults around him. On the one hand, it indeed makes it seem like nothing is really happening, but on the other, from the way the little boy relates his mother’s state of mind and conversations we can tell that she is suffering from severe depression and trying hard to deal with it, and to find out what she should do next. It’s a very sad story, and it’s my most favorite of all.

Yusuf Idris’ A Tray from Heaven is also moving, but in its own funny, stinging way. It hilariously relates the life of an old man named Syaikh Ali—poor, jobless, uneducated, with no family at all. His bad temper never leaves the people of his village upset, instead, they think his rage and the way he takes it out on his poverty are funny and entertaining. Until one day he gets them into a panic because he takes it out on God and curses Him for he hasn’t eaten the whole day. His neighbors are all afraid God will retaliate against the entire village for his foolish act. So on their own initiative, they give Syaikh Ali any food they have in store on a tray. And they keep doing it every time he gets cranky and starts to verbally attack the Almighty.

All characters inhabiting each story in Dijual: Keajaiban are portrayals of ordinary people, they are there to reflect our complicated, gray life with all the bitter-sweet: poverty, patriarchy, destiny, humanity, and, of course, miracles. They are, in some ways, not the center of the story where they live and look alive, but they are the center of attention to the reader. It is through their existence, then, that readers are able to look into the depth of each narrative and find out what the writer wants to say. This is especially true of The Blind Dog (R.K. Narayan) and Miracles for Sale (Taufiq el-Hakim). Both the blind dog and the priest are not the narrators, nor are they the aspects we should give more emphasis to, but it is through their characterizations that we see the messages and criticisms expressed strongly in each of the storylines.

With the exception, unfortunately, of Yukio Mishima’s The Seven Bridges, every short story put into this anthology is very affecting and incredibly moving. The writings grip you, so much so that you need to pull yourself together to carry on reading. This kind of prose needs undoubtedly a superb writing technique and a perceptive mind, and the translated version needs a superb translator to do it. Tia Setiadi could really do it. It seems like he could naturally catch the tone used by each writer and follow their writing styles. It read so smooth and natural, as if those stories are his own. There are, however, some questioning diction and several sentences translated too much literally. It was a little annoying but fortunately it occured only rarely. No harm done. What actually bothering is the line-up of writers the publisher, or the editor, chose to get their stories put together into this “all-Asian” collection. There are two writers from Egypt and one from Turkey. When the entire literary world, people in general, and even Turkish people themselves think of Turkey as a European country, the editor of the collection put Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate, into the list. Perhaps, it’s just perhaps, the editor thought that since Turks were originally coming from Central Asia, and the majority of the land geographically lies in Asia, then Turkey is fundamentally an Asian country. But what about the two writers from Egypt? The last time I checked, this country is still located in Africa. Why were they chosen to contribute their pieces to the book? Is it only because they write in Arabic? If so, then it sounds like Isabel Allende is thought of as a writer from Spain just because she writes in Spanish while in fact she comes from Chile in South America. I’d rather have writers from South Korea or South East Asia. We’ve got plenty here.

Having said that, I’d still like to thank the editor and the publisher for bringing out Dijual: Keajaiban. It really is a miraculous book, some kind of hidden gem that will make you feel rich only by reading the whole nine stories.

Rating: 4/5

Melipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak

32572055191_8df2ceb2fb_oMelipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak comprises Sapardi Djoko Damono’s selected poems written and published between 1998 and 2015. Quite different from Hujan Bulan Juni, his other book of selected poems released back in 2014, this one’s central theme is more of nature, God and spirituality, and old age. There is no so much as a hint of human love and romanticism in each and every one of the seventy five works contained in this book. But instead of being boring and lifeless, I found Melipat Jarak so heart-shredding and profound.

The collection opens with Catatan Masa Kecil, 4, a paragraphed poem about a little child who only knows of, and is so fond of, the number zero. It is intriguing how Mr. Damono, as an old man himself, explores the mind of a child and presents, if not writtenly imagines, that child’s take on numbers. The style may not be the prime quality for it’s not surprisingly new, but it is something that brings out the storytelling goal of the poem to the surface. Without it, the reader might not catch the reminiscent tone intended for them to sense; it would merely be verses and rhymes. And we won’t find this paragraphing in the opening poem only, but also in some others, like Sepasang Lampu Beca, which needs to bring up into view its “hidden narrative”.

In stark contrast to the first poem of the collection, many of Mr. Damono’s other works here talk about old-age life. Anyone already read his poetry books before must have been familiar with a piece entitled Ada Berita Apa Hari Ini, Den Sastro?, a nine-part poem telling of an old man who has been retired from his job and from everything else and the only thing he does everyday is reading newspapers at the terrace of his house without anyone, not even his own neighbors, paying attention to him. It emanates loneliness and elicits sadness, describing a kind of life where we will be only doing boring things, recalling the past, reading news and stories of other people on papers while totally ignored by those in reality, waiting for death to come to us. Reading this poem, the reader might get the feeling that it will happen to them one day, especially when there is no one beside us anymore. Interestingly, Mr. Damono describes this purgatory not only in one or two poems, but in many numbers, including Sebelum Fajar, which is very much heart-breaking, and Old Friends, a brief, funny poem about a lot of old people sitting in a wait for their turn at a hospital.

As I have mentioned earlier, many a poem in Melipat Jarak brings up the subjects of nature, God, and spirituality. They are so many that they seem to be the soul of the book. Sometimes these themes of God and nature are blended together into one, like what we find in the poem Surah Penghujan: Ayat 1-24. This isn’t so because of the title, nor the form that replicates the verses in the Koran, where God speaks to humans, but for it subtly describes the power of God transforming into changes of seasons which cannot be denied no matter how hard humans refuse them. In others, like the ones entitled Tiga Sajak Ringkas Tentang Cahaya (about the light of the moon and sun) and Sajak Tafsir (where every element of nature denies the way others describe its shape, name, and role in this world), Mr. Damono purely talks about the nature and how it works. Meanwhile, in poems like Sajak-sajak Kecil Tentang Cinta, Tentu. Kau Boleh, and Sajak dalam Sembilan Bagian, he channels out his creativity solely into the subject of God, spirituality, and how he interacts with the Almighty.

As engrossing as those poems mentioned above might seem, none of them bears uniqueness as attractive as Malin Kundang and Sudah Kubilang, Jangan Kamu ke Sana, which are meant to represent the “alternative narratives” of an Indonesian folklore, Malin Kundang, and a well-known Western fairy tale, Cinderella, respectively. It is not the only time for Mr. Damono to tinker with folklores, legends, or fairy tales for he has ever done it with the story of Ramayana in his 2-in-1 short story collection, Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah, but still they are fascinating creations. In Malin Kundang, the betraying son is not cursed into a stone, instead, people of his land warn him against coming back home so he can dodge the bullet. While Sudah Kubilang, Jangan Kamu ke Sana is a totally different take on the happily-ended, popular love story. There are, on the other hand, pieces of which uniqueness is more on the form than the content; some poems like Sunyi yang Lebat, Tiga Percakapan Telepon (something I’ve never discovered before), Sebilah Pisau Dapur yang Kaubeli Dari Penjaja yang Setidaknya Seminggu Sekali Muncul di Kompleks, yang Selalu Berjalan Menunduk dan Hanya Sesekali Menawarkan Dagangannya dengan Suara yang Kadang Terdengar Kadang Tidak, yang Kalau Ditanya Berapa Harganya Dikatakannya, “Terserah Situ Saja…”, Urat Daun, and Dialog yang Terhapus. Their meanings are somehow unfathomable, but the beauty of their verses and rhymes is undeniably fun and enjoyable.

I cannot say I know much about poetry—the techniques, the figure of speech, the rhyme patterns and all that stuff—but overall I enjoyed Melipat Jarak so much. All the poems contained in this collection seemed to speak to me in every way, though it’s not to say that I could understand every one of them. Now I’ll close this review with some quote from one of my favorite numbers here, Dongeng Marsinah, a quote that is more powerful than that of Descartes:

“Ia suka berpikir,” kata Siapa,

(“She likes to think,” says Who)

“itu sangat berbahaya.”

(“that’s very dangerous.”)

Rating: 4/5

The Black Book

black-bookWe might be one of those people in this century whose favorite slogan is “Be Yourself” and who never hesitate to go to any lengths to prove that we are not afraid to show our “true” self. But how true is that self? Or, to be precise, the question should be, “Is it truly ourselves? Or is it someone else we imitate?” The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk may talk about the intense tension between the right and left wings preceding the military coup that took place in the mid 1980’s Turkey, but for the most part it daringly expresses Pamuk’s criticism, as always, of his country’s sense of self. Over the course of the 400-or-so-pages mystery novel, Pamuk doesn’t seem to be able to stop himself from describing how Turkish people, in the modern era, start to leave their “true self” behind and imitate some “other people”. And that, I think, is still relevant to this day, and to anybody on this planet.

Our protagonist here is a lawyer named Galip who lives with his wife and cousin Rüya in an apartment in Nişantaşı, Istanbul. One day he finds her gone, bringing only a few of her belongings and leaving a short letter saying that she will be back soon. But she never comes back, not a day after that, not even two or three days later. Galip starts to have a worrying suspicion that she’s running off to her ex-husband, a left-wing activist she met in her younger days. But then he doubts himself if it all is true and turns to think that perhaps his wife is hiding somewhere with Celâl, her half-brother and Galip’s much older cousin, for apparently Celâl is also missing. Unable to sit still, Galip sets out to go and find them, searching the entire city, following traces and clues, trying to decipher signs and letters while at the same time pointing out how the people of his city, of his nation, have changed their ways and gestures. Between Galip’s slow and meticulous investigation, Celâl’s pieces of writing will appear and tell readers (both of his columns and of the book itself) the way of his thinking and thus adding to all the clues and signs already mounted up to the highest peak. So instead of shedding some light on the case, they only succeed in getting the reader into a trap and making them all the more confused about the nature of mystery.

It is throughout this draining search for meaning of signs that Pamuk keeps hammering into us the importance of asking ourselves, “To be, or not to be, oneself?” The question haunts us every time we turn a page down from the first chapter up to the last. Like the one entitled Bedii Usta’s Children, for instance, where Pamuk, through the writing of Celâl, talks about a mannequin maker who insists on making mannequins in original Turkish poses and refuses to imitate European mannequins. It is less about mannequin making than it is about struggling to be oneself and be happy with it. In a chapter called The Eye, Celâl creates an imaginary eye and pretends that this eye is following and watching him being someone else, because he longs to do so, to be so. In I Must be Myself, a barber comes to the newspaper office and asks him a bothering question, “Is there a way a man can be only himself?”

And this mysterious question doesn’t stop within the personal range, it widens into the range of nationality and nationalism. At some point, a certain character will say, “To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else.” By this line, Pamuk appears to intend to make a mockery of the state of his country: defeated at the World War I, scrabbled around for a “new country”, a “new self” under the rule of secularism and Westernization just so they can restore their pride and dignity as a nation but without, as it is clearly seen, caring if they have to pay it with their true identity. To make this shame even worse, in a chapter Pamuk writes that “…it was because they had failed to find a way to be themselves that whole peoples had dragged in slavery, whole races into degeneracy, and entire nations into nothingness, nothingness.” It’s as if he wants to give some kind of warning that once a people loses their identity, they will be buried under other civilizations of the world and cease to exist at all.

With The Black Book, Pamuk seems to want to make fun of popular Western detective novels which, to him, serve no purpose but to please only the authors and have an already definite ending without truly complicated clues. This may sound so cocky but I have to say that The Black Book is indeed a mystery novel not like any other. The structure is very different from those usually in the genre. By means of Pamuk’s signature narrative style—a long, winding one—the mystery the story proposes appears to multiply uncontrollably, overlap each other, and then overflow that the deeper we get into it, the more we’re lost in it. The pursuit of clues and the large number of signs scattered along the storyline do not even result in useful information nor lead to the looked-for answer, instead, they give us a glimpse of something that might, or might not, be the motivation of the crime. Even as the book is drawing to a close, the mystery isn’t still revealed and the answer is not fully satisfying, thus producing a much unsettling conclusion.

I cannot say that The Black Book is the best work of Orhan Pamuk, nor can I declare it to be the best one I’ve ever read. During my reading, I felt stuck at times, didn’t know where one point of the plot would take me to, or if it would take me to anywhere at all. But I have to say it’s very interesting, captivating at some point, and, with its rather cliffhanger, very curious to me. And, the best point of this book is I can relate to it, as Pamuk’s works have always made me feel.

Rating: 4/5

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?

The Mussel Feast

The Mussel Feast, written by the German author Birgit Vanderbeke just before 1989, may or may not be a reliable account of living in a divided Germany back when the Berlin Wall was still up and sturdy, but it definitely showcases the life of a family that lives a dangerously double life under a patriarchal tyranny. Telling from a first person point of view, the narrator without the least hesitancy pulls the reader deep into her monologue so they can get an insight into what her family is actually like. Unfortunately, this firm attitude is not followed by a certainty in what the main issue is.

The narrator, the daughter of said family, welcomes the reader to her home when it’s already the time to make preparation for their special dinner. It is special because they will be celebrating her father’s promotion at the office, which is virtually in the bag. And every time there is something to celebrate they will have a mussel feast, for mussels are her father’s favorite dish, though none of the other family members care for them much. However, it’s quite unlikely that he will be home any time soon, because even after the exact dinner time, which is six on the dot, he doesn’t show up. He is never late, they never have dinner late, except when he is away on business. This is very rare, and the three of them—the mother, the son, and the narrator—have to wait until he comes home for there is no way they will have dinner without him. The waiting drags terribly on and on, and still the father doesn’t show up. It is at this point then that the narrator starts to lay bare everything about her family: her mother’s habit of switching to “wifey mode” when her father is nearly or already at home and why she would do that, the story of their move from the East Germany to the West, their usually failed attempt to become a proper family according to the father’s ideals. And finally, as they are getting tired of waiting, the narrator hints at her family’s tiredness in dealing with the father’s controlling attitude; and when the waiting seems to almost come to an end, the narrator cannot tell whether her family is happy and looking forward to his arrival.

Through her brief, dense, no-holds-barred monologue, the narrator describes each character of her family members. But mostly, along her continuous ramblings, she tries to make it clear for us to see that her father is a tyrannical, chauvinist, haughty man who cannot take no as an answer and is attempting very hard to make his family impossibly perfect in every way. This horrendous nature alone has already rendered the father dominant both in his family and the narrative, and it’s made all the more unbearable by the narrator’s unrelenting depiction of him, so much so that he seems to overshadow all other characters, even the bold, stubborn, rebellious, smart narrator herself. That’s not what particularly draws me to it, though. It is the way the narrator appears to allude to communism, the nature of East Germany, by giving the portrayal of her father. At first it is only vague, but then it’s nearly vivid as the narrator and her mother and brother look almost relieved when the father is not coming back, because what’s the West fears of most is anything related to the USSR.

And that’s the point where The Mussel Feast is perilously ambiguous in the issue it wants to deliver. In one way, looking at the already-laid-bare character of the father, the book seems to intend to display the characteristics of something, some idealism, that people see as terrifying and thus are happy to be separated from (imagine the narrator and her mother and brother are freedom-loving people of the West in opposition to the always-controlling, dictatorial father). In the other way, however, it looks like Vanderbeke wants to put forward some gender issue. It is perfectly clear in the sexist way the father look down on his “repellent”, physically ungirlish daughter and in the hope that his son will become the manly, smart boy he deems “normal”. It is also showed in the way the mother always switches to her “wifey mode” every time the father is coming home, and the fact that she is the one who does the housekeeping stuff because it is not the father’s “thing”. A cry for feminism is practically echoing throughout the narrative, so loudly that we cannot help but hear the sound more clearly than the issue of warring isms that kept dividing the Deutchland before it finally was united again. Well, that’s said, Vanderbeke has really it in her to create an engrossing writing. The ramblings might only look like a bunch of uncontrolled recollections, but it actually is a focused monolog delivered by the narrator not to tell readers about her family, but to show them the kind of life she lives back when her country is severely divided by isms and the silly desire to self-claim what’s the best to implement. The premise is pretty brilliant, and it has a flowing plot and sarcastically hilarious tone, even when the narrator has to tell of her hard times. All the characters are vividly drawn, too, making us able to see that this is the “real” family, a family that is so naturally pretentious and secretly troubled.

Though ambiguous in some ways, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is a light yet very thought-provoking story. The narrative is wearing sometimes, especially when we have to follow wherever the narrator’s recollections take us to, but it’s not boring. It’s simple and nice, and if you have time, you can finish it in one sit.

Rating: 3.5/5

Man Tiger

English edition's cover
English edition’s cover

Man Tiger (or Lelaki Harimau in its original title) is Eka Kurniawan’s second novel and his second work to be translated into English. Longlisted for 2016 Man Booker International Prize, it concerns the life of the lower class and disintegration of family values caused by complexities in human beings. Here, as in Beauty Is A Wound (Cantik Itu Luka), Kurniawan leans on magical realism—a fact proven by his use of a white tigress resided in the body of a young man—to help embellish his realistic narrative. Unlike his previous book, though, Man Tiger is less complicated and less attention-gripping, to my thinking. It’s rather simple, in its prose style if not in its idea.

The story opens with news of Margio, a young man of 20 years old, committing a murder. The victim is Anwar Sadat, a figure of the village well-known for his promiscuous behavior. But since the first time the reader has been dimly convinced that it’s not the reason Margio sinks his teeth into and rips at the middle-aged man’s jugular to his death. The loose morals of his art-loving neighbor is barely Margio’s concern. He even often helps him at home, doing odd jobs for extra cash just as youngsters usually do. So it’s very obvious that there is no reason at all for him to suddenly kill Anwar Sadat. But he’s done it. Not less shocking, and appalling, is the way he does the killing. It’s not the way any human murderer will choose to end their victim’s life. His reminds everyone of the way a beast, here particularly a tiger, attacks its prey and finishes it off. It especially bewilders Major Sadrah, who has for some time seen Margio carrying an old, rusty samurai sword everywhere, to see the young man eventually puts aside his newly-found Japanese weapon and goes the wild way. So the mystery now revolves around two questions: Why the biting? And why Anwar Sadat, not his father, the one he hates most?

One look at the first pages, which elaborately describe the land and neighborhood of a village that will be the setting of the whole story, and the reader will quickly get that this would be about the lower-class people. The way Kurniawan tells of how the land is found and later how the neighborhood is built on it is not far from harsh criticism focusing on the problems those people often have to deal with: the poor living conditions, the dispute over land ownership, the low incomes, fighting against the wicked capitalists. As the story moves forward, the descriptions are narrowing to the poor conditions of Margio’s family, and this is the point where Kurniawan gets really sharp. Margio’s family is the true embodiment of poverty, of a reality where so many villagers with big dreams coming to big cities only to find themselves trapped in high unemployment and finally have to content themselves with low-income, unskilled jobs. Even worse, they are almost homeless, in a sense, building temporary houses on a disputed land just to have a roof over their heads. And once you live in poverty, there will definitely be a possibility of domestic violence. It’s like something you cannot run away from. And from domestic violence springs another problem: norms deviation and disintegration of family values. People with conventional thoughts will expect faithfulness and familial togetherness. But life is complex and humans are even more so. There is not a certain answer for what’s right and what’s wrong when it has come to this.

Man Tiger is not as extraordinary as Beauty Is A Wound, in my opinion, although it has rather neater narrative. Kurniawan cleverly makes the plot layered in a string of subplots to reveal the mysteries one by one, intending perhaps to present the whole story as some kind of whydunit fiction. It’s so seamless, the way he arranges it all, and very shrewd, too. So shrewd it is that he manages to keep the answer of the why till the end of the story. Admittedly, the element of surprise really works here. It is not, however, a grand creation in its entirety. Perhaps it’s because the premise is somewhat unexceptional: domestic violence spurred by the shattered dreams of prosperity. Or perhaps, it is the development of the premise that prevents it from becoming something more than this. It is pretty boring, too, at the opening, a bit stretching too long for an explanation of everything but the background of Margio’s family, which Kurniawan puts later after the half of the book. And that is not all. If there is one thing which is as bothering, it is the holes I found in some parts. One or two holes at least, and one of them is where Major Sadrah seems to recall seeing Margio carrying a samurai sword some time before the young man kills Anwar Sadat, but then there is no further explanation about the weapon. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or if Kurniawan really forgets about it after all.

Despite it all, Man Tiger is still the work of Eka Kurniawan that I know, with its explicit sex scenes and dark, subtle humor. It’s quite disappointing on the one hand, but also relieving on the other. So it’s pretty hard to decide whether this work is good or not. But it’s definitely not as good as Kurniawan’s first novel.
Rating: 3.5/5

Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku

Early 2016 edition’s cover

Add a poetic style to surrealism and you’ll get beautiful narratives contained in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku. First published in 2002, and then later in a new edition in 2016, this book by senior Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma brings to the reader a whole new reading experience like nothing else. It’s not only a collection of short stories meant to read as one composition, and it’s not only a pack of gorgeous writings with deep meanings, but as a whole it’s a vibrant literary work with an almost perfect quality in every aspect. By the time you finish it, you will want nothing more than enjoying your reading hangover.

The collection is divided into three parts, each of them contains several loosely interlinked stories with various themes. The first part is Trilogi Alina, of which opener is the already well-known Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku (has been translated into English with the title A Slice of Sunset for My Sweetheart by Michael H. Bodden). It tells the story of a man who is so crazily in love with a woman that he will do anything for her, and in this case it’s slicing sunset above the seashore. Literally. He then sends the slice in an envelope to said woman as a proof of his love for her. The short story is written in the form of a love letter, and some people may read it as one, but deep inside it lies a criticism of the emptiness of life where beauty is something rare to see and to find that someone has to snatch it up from nature. The second number in this first set of short stories, Jawaban Alina (translated into English as Alina’s Reply by Michael H. Bodden) is a letter the woman referred to in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku writes in reply to it. However, opposed to what readers might expect, the woman doesn’t reply in a loving manner. With angry tone, she firmly states that she doesn’t love him and doesn’t expect him to do such a stupid thing as cropping sunset for her. She even condemns him for damaging nature that later ends up in environmental disaster. The last installment of the trilogy, Tukang Pos dalam Amplop (or The Postman in the Envelope in English, translated by Michael H. Bodden), is quite straying from the main path but still in the same theme. It’s about the postman who delivers the love letter from Sukab (the crazily-in-love man sending a slice of sunset) to the woman living at the top of Himalaya. In accord with the woman, the postman laments the destruction of nature at the hands of people. His rather strange experience as a fish shows the reader an awakening view on knowledge and the destructive behavior it provokes in humans.

While in the first part Ajidarma implicitly talks about the destruction of the earth, in the second one he focuses more on humans and humanity. In the story entitled Jezebel, for instance, he describes the slaughter of people in a large number which, ironically, becomes something of an art: beautiful and invoking a sense of drama. Another example that supports this theme of severely damaged humanity is Kunang-kunang Mandarin (The Mandarin Fireflies in English, translated by Wawan Eko Yulianto) which is an account of the dark days of modern Indonesian history where many Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent were massacred in the 1965’s communist hunt. Ajidarma doesn’t give an explicit description of the historically known tragedy, but conceals it in a story of a man who breeds fireflies born of the nails of the slaughtered Chinese people. Ironically, it is on this firefly breeding business that the natives of the setting town build their economy. Now you must have guessed what Ajidarma tries to imply.

Some other short stories in the second part, like Rumah Panggung di Tepi Pantai and Senja Hitam Putih, particularly examines how most of people view the world. The former tells of a man who refuses the traditional way and builds his house facing the seashore (so that he can enjoy the sunset), hence being called crazy. While in the later, which has been translated into English with the title Twilight in Black and White by John MacDougall, Ajidarma criticizes how most people often see the world they’re living in as something black and white, when everything has different colors. The rest of the second part, along with the third, Atas Nama Senja, explore the theme of reality. What is reality? Perhaps that’s what stories like Senja di Pulau Tanpa Nama, Perahu Nelayan Melintas Cakrawala, and Senja di Kaca Spion want to ask us as readers. When something real is unreal, and vice versa, nothing is certain about our existence, about anything in the world. And then we will ask ourselves: is something there? Or not? One of my favorite quotes from the book is the question posed by the narrator of Perahu Nelayan Melintas Cakrawala, “Apalah yang kita ketahui tentang dunia ini?” (What do we know about this world? —my translation). To my thinking, the entire third part is not only surreal but also very thought-provoking.

The elegant prose of each number, rendered so by the poetic, surrealistic style, is the key point of the book’s grandness. And the main theme of every part only strengthens the already profound effect the book has on the reader. The only weakness, and it won’t appear until you scrutinize the whole text, is the spelling system. To be honest, I have doubt about the spelling of some words because it’s not the standard one I know. Nevertheless, in general, Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku by Seno Gumira Ajidarma is a big work of literary fiction. It’s a rare gem, and it’s really, really shining bright from its pages.

Rating: 4/5

All She Was Worth

Indonesian edition’s cover

“Case solved” is always what people would expect from a crime novel. But, what if it doesn’t work that way? All She Was Worth, a work of Japanese crime fiction by Miyuki Miyabe, provides us with an alternative. Taking a different route from others in the same genre, the book combines the thing that you call “whodunit” with “whydunit” to form a twisted narrative which will take you to nowhere near a solution. Forget about the not-so-extraordinary premise, at the end of the game you will only find yourselves asking, “Will the culprit ever give up?”

Set in the early 90s’ Japan, the story starts when Shunsuke Honma, a detective on leave upon getting injured on his last duty, gets a visit from his wife’s cousin’s son, Jun Kurisaka. The young banker never cares about the Honmas, he doesn’t even come up when his aunt dies, so it’s only obvious that now he comes with a problem: his fiancée has gone missing. Honma is told that they are about to get married, but suddenly, after an argument over making a credit card, she disappeared. There’s no telling whether Shoko Sekine, the girl in question, is being kidnapped or not, but Honma has a suspicion that she ran away for fear of being found out on something. True enough, the first investigation step Honma takes leads him to the fact that Sekine has been declared bankrupt in the court for her inability to pay her debts. The thing is, Kurisaka knows nothing about this, not because Sekine never tells him, but because the girl who is his fiancée never knows that she has been bankrupt. How could it be? What actually happens? The winding path of further investigation brings Honma to a confusing discovery that the Shoko Sekine Kurisaka thinks he knows is not the real Shoko Sekine. So, who is she? Why is it that she seems to be someone who is not her?

All She Was Worth is not a mystery novel in which everything is kept secret till the last page. Somehow the questions of who and why dunit have been solved at the last 1/3 of the book. The novel itself is not actually about mystery, on the whole. It’s about crime, and whether the perpetrator will do it again, just to save her life. So anyone looking for a conventional crime fiction book with usual features and plot will definitely be disappointed. There is a thrill, of course, and it steadily lasts till the end. But the thrill itself is not something readers would usually expect from this kind of book. It’s not a thrill of suspense, it’s a thrill of tracking and investigating. As unusual as it is, though, All She Was Worth doesn’t have an out-of-this-world idea, what with the murder case and stolen identity and all. That’s said, there is a message buried deep under the narrative. It’s something to ponder about: how we live in consumerism, greed, stifling credit system, deceitful capitalism, and how people tend to imagine their dreams and happiness come true in the form of worldly goods. Our endless desire for more has turned us into mentally weak people and plunged us into deep hole of debts. And the next thing we know, we start to kill each other in cold blood.

What makes All She Was Worth a fascinating, enjoyable read is how meticulous Miyabe is in arranging every detail so that they develop into a sturdy body of plot. And it’s a tricky one. At first, I found myself baffling as to why Miyabe woud reveal “everything” just after the first investigation she makes Honma do. But then the storyline brought me to further discovery and more shocking facts, even more and more questions for me to try to find out the answers. There are more twists and turns than you’d think and, strangely enough, they won’t make you scratch your head during your reading. You could say that Miyabe is very careful with the way she lays her tricks and sets the pace into a fast, steady one. What’s more interesting is that Miyabe weaves together every detail and fact found at every step of investigation into a vivid character of the culprit. At the end of the story, we will be able to see clearly what kind of person she is, although not quite clearly what she will do, or what will happen to her, next. Every aspect of the novel is well constructed and carefully written. And Miyabe doesn’t try to waste our time with too much drama or too long explanation of each characterization. She cleverly elaborates every character through their actions, ways of thinking, and brief dialogues without being too much about it.

Overall, All She Was Worth is a work of crime fiction I’d expect to be, or at least the kind I’d prefer to read, case solved or not. Not too much drama, compact, exciting, and enjoyable. The thing that becomes my complaint here is the translation. Not that it’s bad or something. It’s just, in my opinion, there are some translated sentences that are not carefully considered, and thus become quite literal in their meanings. But that’s not really a problem, though, because it’s not so bad that it will ruin your reading. It’s still a crime novel I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone fond of the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

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

Go Set A Watchman

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5