fiction, review

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

fiction, review

Dream of Ding Village

A book could serve as a satirical picture or sharp allegory, especially when it has no intention to be discreet about what it is actually picturing. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, first published in English in 2011, is this very kind of book. Being said to be a biting satire on the blood-contamination scandal in Henan, it is, oddly enough, describing mostly how capitalist mentality is gradually seeping into and gnawing away at the heart of the communist China.

Once upon a time in China, in an imaginary place called Ding Village, scandalous blood contamination spread and brought about HIV epidemic. The villagers were persuaded by the government to sell their blood for a certain amount of money, and after so much disbelieving and resisting, they agreed to do as they’re told. But that was not the end of it, as procedural malpractice done by the blood merchants shadowed the running of the blood trade. More often than not, those tricky merchants—including Ding Hui, the eldest son of the village’s substitute teacher Ding Shuiyang—would use the same needles and cotton wipes for several times and drew blood more than they should in exchange for a lesser amount of money supposed to be given, leaving the villagers with an incurable fever no one knew the remedy. Through this “dirty business”, Ding Hui got rich and could afford to build a new, bigger house than those the average villagers had. That, along with the fever, triggered envy, grudge and hatred in the heart of people of Ding Village. And so, someone among them killed his little son Ding Qiang, and it was from the point of view of this boy’s ghost that the entire story unfolded: the villagers’ move to the village school to spend the rest of their lives, their forbidden love affair, their act of stealing things, and the takeover of the school by Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, those who hate Ding Hui most.

I don’t think Dream of Ding Village talks about the blood-contamination scandal happened in Henan, China, as it is described throughout the book. I believe it’s more about the moral vacuum that comes along with capitalist mentality piercing through the country. It is clearly reflected in the character of Ding Hui, the one set to be the antagonist of the story, in the way he tricks the villagers for money, in his belief that money is everything and can buy everything (including honor and dignity), and in the current conditions of big cities in that communist country—cities which have been more modern, richer, and more sophisticated. But the capitalist value sharply projected by all these features doesn’t immediately kill off the true communist character of China, of its people and government. The equal amount of food supplies for all the sick villagers and the same coffins for all the dead villagers from the government are examples of how communism still stands firmly there in spite of the rampant economic development brought by capitalism. This makes China, as described in the book, a country of stark contrast.

What made me so lost during my reading was the reason those villagers had to sell their blood. Frankly speaking, I never heard of the scandal and the book offers no explanation of why Chinese government seems so insistent that the villagers of Henan province should sell their blood. I couldn’t get deep into the story and understand the core of the issue. This book seems only to try to criticize the government’s decision to trade its people’s blood and the aftermath of the dirty business, nothing else. The narrative doesn’t help, either. It holds no appeal it needs to catch the reader’s attention amidst all the sharp criticism and satire, leaving them bored going around and around in an inconsistent pace and weak structure. It has also to be interrupted by a not-so-important forbidden-love story, which is, ironically, more interesting than what the writer intends to put forward. What’s worse, the entire story is told from a twelve-year-old child’s point of view. I know a boy at that age is not that innocent (he might have known about sex and all), but I don’t think he’s already that mature to know or understand adults’ way of thinking, their evil minds, their schemes, their hatred, their anger as he is not supposed to only serve as an observer, but also a narrator who tells the tale, who understands all the details. The only good thing about this book is its ending—it’s shocking, it’s unbelievable, and yet it surprisingly feels right.

In conclusion, Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke just didn’t work for me. I might have liked it if it gave me even a little explanation of the issue, or provided me with a captivating narrative that could make me forget about the issue.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

Cantik Itu Luka

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

Beauty is a wound, beauty is a curse. That’s pretty much the after-reading impression of Cantik Itu Luka, Eka Kurniawan’s beautifully-crafted, painfully-punchy feminist novel. Or is it more appropriate, though, to call it a fictional summary of the modern history of Indonesia? Either way, Kurniawan has truly managed to weave strands of events of the past, in a humorously sinister way, and philosophical views on women’s beauty into a magical story about a family that is doomed from the start.

The semi-surrealistic tale starts with the resurrection of Dewi Ayu, a native woman of Dutch descent, after twenty-one years of her death. Upon finding out that her youngest daughter Cantik, an unfortunately very ugly girl, is pregnant with a child of nobody knows who, the storyline immediately brings us travelling to the past where the curse begins. Ted Stammler, a landlord in the Dutch colonization era, takes away a poor local woman named Ma Iyang and makes her his mistress. From this affair, Ted begets a bastard whom then he takes as his legal child. But neither his wife nor Ted himself know that his crucial decision will one day cause total chaos when their son and the illegitimate daughter fall in love with each other and bear another bastard that is Dewi Ayu. No time for mourning over the fact, however, because the time flies by and soon comes the period of wars: the German invasion of European countries, the looming of the second World War, and the coming of the Japanese to Indonesia. In the middle of it all, readers will see moments when Dewi Ayu is forced to be a prostitute by the Japanese and has to live that life for years afterward, even after the independence. And as the history keeps shifting from one period to another, even to the time when communism is at its glory, the plot unfolds complicated love stories between Dewi Ayu’s startlingly beautiful illegitimate daughters and the three men who represent the historical events being narrated. But theirs are not the romantic ones we can describe as sweet and tender, for they demand blood, tears, heartache, revenge, hatred and leave those women’s lives as bitter as the history they have to endure.

2015 English edition’s cover

Cantik Itu Luka seems to come up with some ideas, materialized in its subplots and lines of narration. Women’s beauty, for instance, is being described as a power which can conquer and has to be conquered by the power of men, the brutal power of physicality. Alamanda, one of Dewi Ayu’s illegitimate daughters, affirms this paradoxical fact when she points out that before the independence men “use” beautiful women to heal the mental wound they have to suffer in the middle of wars, while after the independence beautiful women “use” their physical quality to play with men. But that’s not all. The narrative can also be considered bearing the writer’s criticism of the history of Indonesia. With his dark humor and satire, Kurniawan mocks the inevitable historical fact that after hundreds of years fighting against the colonizers, namely the Dutch and the Japanese, the fighters of Indonesian independence did not get the win they deserved on the battle field but had to live with the idea that everything was done on the negotiation table instead. He symbolizes it with the Shodancho’s remark:

“Bagaikan pemancing yang menanti dengan penuh kesabaran

diberi kado sekeranjang ikan segar oleh seseorang.”

Kurniawan also talks about the massacre of 1965 here. But instead of glorifying it like any other writers, he chooses to explain why and how communism boomed in the newly liberated, poor Indonesia. He doesn’t take sides, too, in my opinion, for he tells openly about the horrible things communists could do—getting rock-and-roll music lovers into jails and killing the high-profile generals—without any tendentious, judgmental tone on it.

Cantik Itu Luka is a rich novel with a layered narrative and complicated structure, very blunt and explicit in its telling. It is a good thing, but sometimes Kurniawan is just too vulgar and crude, especially in narrating the sex scenes. It feels unpretentious that way, though, daring to give itself a bad name for being so honest in everything, not only in its telling people what the writer has on his mind but also the way he says it. Thank God the humor helps, although more often than not the reader has to endure his stark satire. What’s so powerful and sharp about this book is undoubtedly its characters. Every single person making appearance here is very well portrayed and elaborated, not only through their narrated descriptions of physiques, emotions, and also behaviors and attitudes but through their dialogues, too. Kurniawan has truly done a great job on that, looking at how many characters he creates to people this book with. If I have something to complain, then it is the feeling I got that it’s too “Latin American”, with its magical realism formula. The (Indonesian) grammar is also a problem, with incorrect marks and horrible sentence arrangements. Not that it matters too much, though. Some readers might not even notice them.

Overall, Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka is a fabulous work, despite its few weaknesses. It summerizes our bitter history in a surrealistic, satiric way some people might not be capable of doing, and provokes our thoughts on women’s physical beauty. It triggers our (cynical) laughs, without (actually) trying to be funny. And it gets us thinking, without (really) trying to be serious.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Trilogi Soekram

Trilogi Soekram is a collection of novellas by Sapardi Djoko Damono, a senior Indonesian poet, essayist, and fiction writer. First published as one in 2015, it contains three separate, unrelated stories which only appear to read in continuity like a series, barely connected by the main character. Surprisingly, when read as one, they become an engrossing, compelling unity.

In the first story, Pengarang Telah Mati (which was first published in 2001), the reader immediately meets the main character himself, Soekram, who addresses them directly from the page he is written and lives. He complains about his current situation in which he is left hanging with no certainty over his fate after the death of his creator. The unnamed writer, who’s supposed to finish the story of Soekram, dies and leaves his last work in separate files in his computer. Anxious and upset about the run and ending of his story, Soekram then “jumps” out of the page and meets the writer’s friend, asking said friend to find those files and edit the contents so that his story can be finished the way he wants it to be. However, when readers come to the beginning of Pengarang Belum Mati (first appeared in 2011), it turns out that the writer is still alive. In a way so much like Soekram, his invented character, the writer complains about people thinking him dead already, and the way Soekram spreads the false news to everyone and manipulates the run and ending of his story. He comes to his friend and asks him to publish the finished book of his version. The friend’s so astounded that he cannot think of anything to say but that he is sure the writer has died. At first he is reluctant to do what the writer tells him to, but then he sees an opportunity in publishing two different versions of a story at almost the same time. The last number, Pengarang Tak Pernah Mati, seems so disconnected from the other two. Soekram, now “the master of his own destiny”, creates a story of his own where he lives with his “fellow characters”. The story he relates strays so far away from the core idea and involves figures well-known to Indonesian readers, both factual and fictional. The funny thing is, those figures start to do and behave uncontrollably on their own, leaving Soekram reeling and confused over what has happened to his story despite the fact that he is the one writing it.

As a whole, Trilogi Soekram implies the fundamental relationship between a writer and their work, the question about the eternity of a writer and the long-lastingness of their work. Which one will exist longer than life? Is it the writer whose name will never cease even when their physiques are deceased and gone, or is it their work of which pages will always be printed, read, and living in readers’ shelves and minds? As I read through the pages, the question of who controls the entire writing process also emerged. The efforts Soekram makes to gain control of his story and the way he tells his own story by going back to the past, where he lets his “fellow characters” do as they please and sometimes get him reeling at his own plot, show the reader the true core of writing: that a writer’s imaginations cannot be controlled nor limited, and that what’s important in writing is to let the story go with the flow.

The thing that’s very intriguing about Soekram is that he is not an apolitical character, even if he seems so. Instead, he is described siding with nationalism. Nevertheless, it is the point where he is perilously questioning his participation and his own ideas: is he really with those nationalists, or does he only believe what his father tells him to believe? In Pengarang Telah Mati, Soekram even questions the 1998 reformation movement and the violent way the young generation took at that time to take down the then-current government, instead of glorifying them. He also questions democracy, the implementation of foreign ideologies in our country, religions, God, and ethnicity. His mind can’t never seem to sit still and idle, and he never seems to be sure about anything. He can’t even force himself to be attached to anything or anyone, and that’s why he’s also described as unfaithful to his wife, or any woman he is with, for that matter.

I found Trilogi Soekram a unique unity, very close to rare. Readers do not have to read it or even think of it as a trilogy, but I’m sure the connection drawn by the character of Soekram is enough to make it one. The writing is exceptional, too. Every line has a poetic quality to it, making us feel as if we’re reading poems in narration. The prose style is one that will make readers gasp in awe: at first it feels just real, but then it strongly feels surreal. I immensely enjoyed the book, despite the annoying, overwhelming use of the suffix “-nya” and the word “itu” in every sentence, which often disrupted my reading. Trilogi Soekram is truly a beautiful book, almost everything about it is stunning.

Rating: 4/5


Seperti Membaca Diri Sendiri

Pada tanggal 29 Juli lalu saya menghadiri sebuah diskusi terbuka mengenai Orhan Pamuk, salah satu penulis favorit saya, yang diadakan oleh komunitas Pawon. Diskusi tersebut membuka beberapa bahasan menarik dan kemudian mengingatkan saya akan kesan yang saya tangkap dari karya-karya beliau dan alasan mengapa saya menggemari beliau.

Pertama kali saya mengenal Orhan Pamuk adalah ketika saya membaca My Name is Red edisi terjemahan bahasa Indonesia yang diterbitkan oleh Penerbit Serambi. Saya langsung terkesan dengan ide cerita serta gaya penuturan narasinya. Mungkin ini akibat pengalaman baca saya yang masih sangat kurang, tetapi saya merasa bahwa gaya bercerita Pamuk dalam novel tersebut sangatlah unik di mana kisahnya dituturkan dari sudut pandang pertama bukan hanya semua orang/tokoh tetapi juga semua benda, bahkan warna dan kematian. Walaupun plotnya sangat panjang dan kadang-kadang terasa melelahkan, gagasan mengenai tarik-menarik antara paham Islam yang dianut kekaisaran Ustmaniyah dan paham Barat yang mulai menyusup masuk serta konflik yang terjadi kemudian memicu berbagai pemikiran di kepala saya.

Gagasan mengenai tarik-menarik antar dua paham inilah yang membuat saya menggemari Orhan Pamuk. Tema seputar pertentangan antara Barat dan Timur, modernitas dan tradisi, sekularisme dan Islam terasa dekat dengan kondisi masyarakat yang saya kenal. Setiap kali membaca karya-karya Pamuk, saya selalu merasa bahwa Turki dan Indonesia adalah dua negara yang berbeda namun dengan karakter bangsa yang sama: sama-sama sekuler (tidak berdasarkan hukum agama) tetapi sama-sama sebagian besar berpenduduk Muslim; sama-sama kuat memegang tradisi tetapi juga sama-sama memimpikan modernitas hingga tak pernah ragu “berkiblat ke Barat”. Masyarakat kita selalu menganggap bahwa yang bagus dan yang hebat adalah yang “Barat”. Saya ingat dalam novel The Museum of Innocence diceritakan bahwa begitu inginnya seseorang dianggap modern dan fashionable “layaknya” orang Barat sampai tak malu memakai produk-produk branded palsu (karena gengsi lebih besar daripada kesanggupan membeli yang asli). Hal ini, saya amati, juga terjadi di tengah masyarakat kita.

Ada yang mengatakan bahwa sebagai seorang penulis Turki beliau sangat “Barat”, namun dalam berkarya beliau selalu berusaha obyektif dan berimbang mengisahkan pertentangan antar paham. Kalaupun beliau memang sangat “Barat” seperti yang dikatakan orang-orang, tidak serta merta beliau berat sebelah dan membenarkan tindakan serta perilaku masyarakat Turki yang suka meniru-niru orang Barat—seperti yang disindirkan beliau dalam The Museum of Innocence dan yang tersirat dalam The White Castle. Namun begitu, di sisi lain, beliau juga sangat menyayangkan piciknya masyarakat tradisional Muslim di Turki yang seolah-olah sangat anti modernitas dan kemajuan—layaknya yang tersirat dalam My Name is Red (yang bercerita tentang pembunuhan terhadap seorang pelukis yang meniru gaya Barat dan “melanggar” aturan pembuatan gambar ilustrasi gaya Islam Turki), Silent House (yang tokoh utamanya, Fatma, digambarkan sangat kolot dan membenci modernitas karena dianggapnya sangat jauh dari ajaran agama dan memicu dosa), juga The New Life (di mana diceritakan bahwa mereka yang membaca buku yang membawa kehidupan baru alias “pembaharuan” dibunuh dan mati satu per satu). Obyektivitas Pamuk dalam menulis juga terlihat dari karya populer beliau yang berjudul Snow, di mana beliau menceritakan tentang tertekannya kaum Muslim Turki—terutama para pelajar wanita yang pada era novel tersebut dikisahkan masih dilarang memakai kerudung/hijab—sehingga memicu aksi bunuh diri dan terorisme.

Meski tema pertentangan selalu berulang-ulang dalam setiap novelnya (saya sudah membaca hampir semua karya fiksi Pamuk, baik dalam terjemahan bahasa Indonesia maupun bahasa Inggris, terkecuali The Black Book) saya tidak pernah bosan, karena Pamuk selalu menghadirkan tema tersebut dalam bungkusan narasi yang apik dan unik. Walaupun sering kali narasi Pamuk terasa membosankan (terutama bagi mereka yang tidak terbiasa membaca buku-buku beliau), bagi saya tetaplah menakjubkan. Pamuk sering kali membangun cerita dari berbagai sudut pandang tokoh-tokohnya sehingga pertentangan nilai-nilai dan paham-paham yang ingin beliau sampaikan terlihat sangat jelas, karena penceritaan dari berbagai sudut pandang itu kemudian memunculkan pesan/isi mengenai pertentangan itu sendiri.

Pesan/isi inilah yang membuat saya setia membaca karya-karya beliau. Sekali lagi, kedekatan karakter, meskipun tidak sepenuhnya, antara masyarakat Turki (seperti yang tertuang dalam novel-novel beliau) dan masyarakat Indonesia selalu membuat saya merasa seperti membaca diri sendiri.

fiction, review

Silent House

It’s been a very long time since I read Orhan Pamuk, and the last time only left me a bitter memory of deep disappointment. I went into Silent House, the 2012 English translation of the Nobel laureate’s 1983 Sessiz Ev, with a feeling of cautiousness, bracing myself for another dull narrative I’ve had to bear in The Museum of Innocence. It seemed likely that I would experience the same thing, especially after several first pages, until finally the long, winding road took me to the ideological conflict banging loudly from behind the silent lines.

As anyone might expect, Pamuk brings out the recurring theme that always swirls in his every novel: the tug of war between the East and the West, traditions and modernity, Islam and secularism. A bit to my surprise, the issues of communism, anti-communism and nationalism also emerge from this book. All those clashes of isms are told so subtly through the silence of a family of which members hold different ideas, also in the occasional interaction between said family and the outsiders forming their neighborhood. Fatma, a ninety-year-old woman, lives alone in her old, almost crumbling house in Cennethisar with a dwarf of a servant, Recep, who is actually the bastard son of her dead husband Selâhattin. In the summer, as usual, her three orphaned grandchildren come to spend some time of the holidays. However, instead of taking care of and accompanying their grandmother through the days, they’re busy doing their own business: Faruk struggling to accomplish his history project, Nilgün swimming and reading communist newspapers, and Metin having fun with his upper-class, “society” friends. All these daily repetitions continue to weave the narrative the whole time while a gang of extreme nationalists lurking among them, represented mainly by Hasan, Recep’s nephew. It is this young, zealous, big-dreaming boy who stirs the storyline with his enthusiasm for nationalism and his love, tragically, for the leftist Nilgün. Being in a right-wing extremist gang, who are determined to spread their political ideas by writing slogans on the walls, Hasan can’t help but feel conflicted. And so, in the throes of confusion over his stance and of his unrequited love, he unconsciously does what the reader might, or might not, expect him to do.

Much like in My Name is Red, here Pamuk elaborates each of his characters’ viewpoints through a certain chapter, where those characters tell the story the way they see their lives. So unfortunately, the character of Selâhattin, who represents the ideas of Westernization and secularism, and Nilgün, who represents communism, do not get the same treatment as the others do. While Selâhattin appears only in the vivid memories of the old Fatma, Nilgün is merely told in bits from Recep’s and, mostly, Hasan’s points of view. On the other hand, as much as Recep, Faruk, Metin, and Hasan might be drawing much of the reader’s attention with their stream of consciousness, it is Fatma whom I think of as the central character of the book. She is portrayed so silent and introvert throughout the story, so traditional, so afraid of God and the threat of sins, so unwilling to say so much as a word, much less fight the horrible things she despises. And yet, at some point, she can be so narrow-minded and cruel, so unforgiving. In some ways, I saw her as a representation of the centuries-old Turkey as a whole, the one that I know Pamuk always perceives in his mind, and channels through his stories. The silent conflict between the religious, conservative Fatma and her secular husband who messes up religious teaching in the name of modernity and development of his country behind the closed door of their inharmonious marriage more or less depicts the tug of war which has been wrecking for years and years the seemingly quiet yet continuously rioting nation.

Readers of Orhan Pamuk must have known, I believe, that scrutinizing his long-plotted, winding narratives needs patience and willingness to read on no matter how unbelievably tiring they might be. Devouring this one is no exception. It is not for a complicated, nonsensical storyline just as the case with The Museum of Innocence, though, because Silent House has a surprisingly simple one, but for the elaborateness of all thoughts and behaviors and actions of the characters in each chapter. Through all these can readers see the whole picture of what is being told, and Pamuk has expertly accomplished the mission of delivering it to us. The main tools of this story to unfold itself to the reader are obviously the thoughts and memories narrated by the main characters, and although the annoying unquoted past-time dialogues got in my way of enjoying every each one of them, I still think this kind of storytelling is quite riveting. The most appealing about this book, however, are the slow-burning climax, which is so emotionally grueling and obnoxious at some point, and the way Pamuk puts the entire story to an end, which is a bit shocking and cliffhanging. The translation is also well done, thanks to Robert Finn, it helped me tackle the general difficulty in reading this book.

Overall, Silent House is so much more satisfying than the latest Orhan Pamuk’s work I’ve read. Despite some flaws, it lives up to my expectation and more. It has a great idea, a tiring yet beguiling narrative, strong characterizations, also a proper ending. It’s just mesmerizing the way it is.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The 100-year-old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

“It’s never too late to start over,” reads the front cover of the book. The world is too old and tired now to endure another war, so we might as well stop seeking any cause for making one. The 20th century had seen so many wars with weapons and bombs taking ridiculously innumerable lives, so many clashing ideologies and thoughts and maniacal egos. First published in English in 2012, Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-year-old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared cleverly, and packedly, summarizes the unpleasant international political history of the 1900s in a form of comically satirical fiction. Using an unbelievably old man character to represent the world we’ve been living in, the book brazenly makes fun of all those people and nations involved in the hideous, long-running war over isms and suggests that this old planet cannot bear it any longer, and that we should stop and start a new life altogether.

The story starts on May 2, 2005, when Allan Karlsson turns 100 but is all reluctant to celebrate his birthday. Without anyone knowing it, he climbs out his Old Folks’ Home’s room window and lands on the bed of flowers. Quite impulsively, he decides to go and walk to the local church, where his close friend is buried under its deserted yard. After a moment of life-pondering, which includes some wonder about his unbearably old age, Allan climbs an impossibly-high-for-an-old-man wall and sets off, determined to go to any place he can set his foot on. He already knows it, I suspect, that this time his sudden journey will be quite adventurous although not, of course, as grand as his long, explosive journey around the warring world in his young age, where he has to face and insincerely involves in the turbulence of then ideologies: fascism, socialism, communism, capitalism. Fate, or rather the ever-happening war, takes Allan from one country to another, and with his expertise in explosion he helps the world’s leaders plan and execute their battle against their enemies. He, as a forever apolitical person, does that not to gain any advantage, but rather just to save his own skin, to pay his debt, and sometimes because he is already sick and tired of killing innocent people.

Through its alternating back-and-forth narrative, The 100-year-old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is blatantly trying to show the reader the folly and the blunder of 20th century’s wars taking place in almost every corner of the world: the World War I and II, the Spanish Civil War, the Chinese communists against the Kuomintang, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War. Almost along the 1900s the world was never at peace, restless and ruthless in its inhabitants’ attempts to fly their ideological flags and get hold of the whole globe. And sadly, as it unfolds along the plot, flying flags was not enough, and so making bombs was in order. In fact, only bombs would do. However, it is plain to see in this Jonasson’s debut novel that it was awfully useless to wage a war over political views and ideologies, wasting so many innocent lives while we already knew who would win it, namely the fittest one (if you know what I mean). And now, the world is growing old and tired, as if wanting to die on its doomsday after witnessing countless deaths on its blood-flooded land. It’s time to stop, and it’s time to start a new day with a new hope.

The 100-year-old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is written in a layered narrative, alternating the past with the present. The two distinct plots are not made intertwining, but neatly revealed in separate chapters. The stories of the history run as smooth as silk, no blotches, no creases, no holes, taking us readers along with Allan in a ride throughout the chaotic world. The flow of the present events, on the other hand, is a little bit in a mess and awkward at some point, making the reader question the writer’s judgement. But it’s still nice to follow, proving his capability to capture the reader’s attention with his charming ideas and humor despite the rutted storyline. On the whole, the narrative is relentlessly gripping, with its moves steady and never leaving the plotted path, even though it seems to be overlong, presumably to accommodate the many events in the history being told. I can tell that it is fast-pace and keeps the reader so far away from unnecessary boredom with its witty, implicitly sarcastic, satirical humor which I found achingly hilarious and, to be honest, sometimes annoying. In a way so fictional that no one should believe it, the book describes the world’s top influencing leaders of the 20th century behaving in a silly manner and doing fabricatedly unbelievable things. Yet I, somehow, find those made-up narrations quite representative, looking at how the world went back then. Unfortunately, I cannot say that any of the characters making appearance here is extraordinary or something, even the extraordinarily old Allan Karlsson. I just wish that more people have the same tendency to be apolitical as he does, and maybe this world won’t be so noisy with bombs. And frankly speaking, I quite like the way Jonasson pokes fun at those political leaders he’s chosen to describe, but not really the way he implies that Indonesian people are “dumb and corrupt”. Thank you for reminding us about that, Sir, though I don’t believe that we are too blind to see it.

Last words: The 100-year-old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is definitely an exceptional novel, no doubt about that. The road to the ending and how Jonasson executes it are a bit groggy, but that’s the funny peculiar thing about this book. All I can say is that it’s not merely a comedy. It’s a comedy with wit, critique, and hopes for a better future.

Rating: 4/5

review, travel writing

Titik Nol

Why do people go on a long journey? Some of us have this perverse obsession with far away places, somewhere beyond our reach. We want to travel, we want to get out of the box and experience something odd. But at the end, after so many miles done and covered, what is our final, real destination? In his latest travel book, Titik Nol, Agustinus Wibowo invites us readers not only to once again glimpse what’s beyond distant countries out there, but also to see the true meaning of a journey. He seems to ask us to follow him going in full circle and then decide what the nature of our journey is.

Unlike his two previous books, Selimut Debu and Garis Batas, Agustinus Wibowo’s Titik Nol tells about how he begins his long, adventurous journey and ends it in the very starting point. He starts it in Indonesia, from where he departs for Beijing, China, to take his undergraduate study in computing. After four years being embedded in the land of his ancestors, he decides that he won’t come back to his home country, but pursue his long, deep-rooted dream: travelling around the world down to the zero point, South Africa. Abandoning all the benefits and privileges of a settled life and higher education, Wibowo sets foot in Tibet to see Mount Kailash, the holy place of Indian Hindu people which is not, in fact, located in India, for some borderline annexation reason. After going up and down that highest mountain in the world, where you can virtually touch the sky, he continues his journey to Nepal, and finds a heaven for all the backpackers stopping by: cheap motels and stuff, discotheque, Western food, enjoyment, everything. Kathmandu is a place for tired backpackers to boost up their energy once more. But while it offers a heaven on earth, boredom seems to be the nature of its existence. Soon, Wibowo finds himself ready to go on and arrive in India. It’s one of the biggest countries in the world, no doubt about that, with one of the biggest populations to boot. Along with its developing economy, there are poverty and crashed dreams of its people who are forced to accept the unfairness of the caste system. It’s full of deceit, manipulation, liars, uncivilized behaviors. But when he faces its “opposite twin”, Pakistan, things couldn’t be worse. Contradiction, hypocricy, wars and riots in the name of religion, it’s all there. Pakistan might not be as growing as India, but its two-face nature is no different. But the worst view presented in this book is, of course, the face of Afghanistan. Nothing precious but wars, nothing cheap but humans’ lives.

In Titik Nol, quite unfortunately for me, Wibowo gets more personal and brings up his family matter, alongside his stories of stopping by and staying in China and South Asian countries. The experiences of his adventures mingle seamlessly with the miserable memories of sitting beside his mother’s sickbed he narrates. I found it too dramatic, too sentimental, and too gloomy that at one point I fell into suspicion that he has abandoned his particular writing style, of which hilarity and witty are the characteristics. But it turned out that I didn’t have to worry. All his personal woe and widely opened family problems do not prevent him from writing the way he usually does: funny, smart, objective, critical, and unjudgemental. The plot is in a very good pace, too. The switching narrative unfolding Wibowo’s story of his journey and his mother’s dilemma in the sickbed seems so fused and produces meaningful life lesson, if you want to take it in.

Personally, to be honest, I don’t like how Titik Nol turns out much. I didn’t expect it to be too personal the way it is. I’m sorry for being rude, but I never want to know others’ personal business, which is here being revealed for all the world to see. I am a firm believer in “your business is yours, my business is mine”. I don’t think it is wise, for whatever reason, to wash your dirty linen in public. What I want from a travel book is a sense of experience that I cannot have because of my own limit, new knowledge and insights that I can only have by reading books. Knowing others’ family affairs is never my goal in reading, much less in reading a book like this. I am a little bit disappointed with this book, despite the fact that Wibowo originally intended to present it to his mother.

Overall, Titik Nol by Agustinus Wibowo is a package of “personal” experiences, both on the journey and beside the sickbed of his parent. I still quite like it, though not as much as I expected to, thanks to the knowledge and cultural insights Wibowo brings out to the readers aside from his personal woe and misery.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review


Indonesian edition’s cover

There are times when we look at our society, we feel that we are actually imprisoned in our own home, a place where we’re supposed to be safe. Bliss by Zülfü Livaneli, a remarkable work of Turkish literary fiction, reflects accurately the notion. Set across the land of Anatolia and Istanbul, it unfolds the bitter fact of social oppression in a secular country where, in truth, religious belief and modernity stand side by side, merely separated by a very thin, transparent line. Livaneli manages to set up an atmosphere so pulling that the reader can feel the restlessness of people living in a traditional, social jail.

Cleverly told in two separate parts overlapping in one whole narrative, Bliss talks about three people who have to deal with what their society wants them to do and to be. Meryem is found losing her virginity and deemed dirty by her family and surroundings. The leader of the village, her own uncle, decides that she has to be executed. She has two options, committing suicide, or having one of her male family members kill her. Unable to end her own life, she is sent to Istanbul to face her death penalty in the city. Cemal, her cousin who has just returned from war, is appointed to do the dirty job. Emotionally damaged after killing his own best friend, Cemal feels nothing but numbness and a sense of responsibility toward his father. So he takes Meryem to Istanbul, with mixed feelings of disgust and compassion for his future victim.

On the way, they meet Irfan, a prominent university professor who suffers severe depression and is running away from the so-called normal life. Their encounter changes everything in them, and especially the way they see things. Irfan, who always tries to hide his true self inside, looks at Meryem and decides that there must be something wrong with her. She is too timid and shy for a bright girl, and seems to keep something awful. Irfan attempts to make her open up to him, revealing what she fears and what she’s doing in Istanbul with her cousin. Until one night, something horrendously shocking happens and eventually tears her secret open. Later after that night, Meryem has to decide on her own the life path she is going to take in the future.

Bliss presents to us such intricate characters laced with depression, trauma, confusion, feeling of lost. The three of them are the result of the social molding who feel uncertain about themselves. Meryem, born and raised in a traditional, strict, religiously fanatical family of East Anatolia, gamely and determinedly refuses to commit suicide for a sin that people are not supposed to blame on her. She’s innocent, yes, but she’s mostly described as strong and brave. Meanwhile, Cemal is just her opposite. Nationalist and brutally faithful to his religion, he looks so arrogant, patriarchal, tough and so able to bear anything while inside his heart, where nobody can see, he’s always uncertain, anxious, and afraid of his father. And among them, Irfan is the most complicated one. A self-proclaimed atheist, he is cynical and unhappy in the cocoon of his pretentious life. He is escaping because he is afraid of death, but mostly, he is afraid of dying without leaving any legacies. He’s so wrecked inside, so damaged and emotionally hurt. But, aside from his inner conditions, he is a kind and generous man.

Bliss is, on the whole, a very riveting novel. Every sentence, every narration, every description of character, and every elaboration of social background are very much capturing. The narrative is not perfect, I must say, for it flows a little bit slow at the beginning, having to introduce the three characters one by one with their elaborated backgrounds and respective problems. What’s more, Livaneli seems a bit hasty in putting the conclusion at the ending, although it doesn’t disrupt the entire beauty of the story and the enjoyment of reading it. However, the overall plot is very nice to follow, captivating even. Slowly but surely, it streams forward and feels steady, despite being inserted with a shocking flashback in the middle. Along the book, Livaneli serves the reader with social upheaval, dilemma, and problems of Turkey of which cultures, traditions, and religious understandings dangerously vary. We can see that they hold nationalism very tightly, so tightly that they erase the significance of their inherited religion. They have a problem, a crisis of identity, but they keep quiet and ignore it. Their unfair treatment toward women keeps prevailing and there’s no one even feeling moved to change it. Through the story of Meryem, Cemal, and Irfan, Livaneli shows the reader the true social, cultural, religious color of his country. Livaneli is so blatant and flagrant in telling his story, so careful and clever in overlapping the pieces of his narrative, so down to earth and argumentative in putting forward the issue he deems important.

Bliss by Zülfü Livaneli is a very beautiful, very astounding, very brave and brazen novel. It’s not only wonderfully written in narrative and characterization aspects, but also in its content and message. Livaneli is definitely a brilliant writer, and I dare say so even though this is his only book I’ve ever read so far.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

The Rug Merchant

Indonesian edition’s cover

To separate culture from religion is such a hard thing, and to read a book about how both collide in an emotional struggle is even harder. Meg Mullins’ The Rug Merchant is the book in question. Set in modern America, it’s a story about loneliness, unconditional love, and how people try to live a different life in a different place. Its quietly depressing atmosphere seems to follow the narrative everywhere it twists and turns, along with the presence of the main character and his deep-rooted sadness.

Told from Ushman’s point of view, The Rug Merchant invites the reader to see how a man of a foreign world has to deal with living thousands of miles away from his other half and the loneliness he feels in turn. Ushman flies to America to pursue a better life—good money, great living—to share with his wife, Farak, who’s staying in Iran. But it turns out that Farak doesn’t want any of those things her husband provides for her. She only wants one thing, one thing her husband can never give her: a baby. On that basis, Farak files for divorce, which is impossible unless she has a very good damning reason. So she makes up a false story about Ushman betraying her, gets their divorce fait accompli, and leaves for Istanbul with a Turkish man who can give her what she wishes most.

Ushman is broken-hearted, that’s for sure. Now he doesn’t know what all his hard work is for anymore. He’s been so engulfed in loneliness and sadness, and now he has no one but his hypocritical cousin and a loyal customer who’s not after his rugs, but his heart. But then he meets Stella, a young, similarly lonely girl, and feels something different about her. The feeling is not unrequited, for Stella openly shows how she feels about him. They try to brush aside everything getting in their way, religion, age, family background, and, most of all, culture, to be together. But at what cost?

Ushman is not just another lonely man. He is rather a complicated character with complicated thoughts and feelings, about his religion and culture, about his dilemmatic acceptance of America, about his love and affection for Stella continuously battling with his memories of Farak. He seems to deal with all of them in silence, without saying much although, we can’t deny it, his emotions are warring inside. He’s not a faithful Muslim in some ways, too. After setting foot in America, he seems to forget all the religious principles he should hold in a firm grip, forget how to do his prayer, forget, or rather overlook, the God’s law against having sex out of marriage. His heart, his mind, and even his view are blurred by his lonesome presence, ruining his identity and the nature of himself at the end.

And this character created by Mullins is something I’d really love to peruse and scrutinize. I always believe that most people confuse religion with culture, and vice versa, cannot really determine what is demanded by God and what is demanded by society. And, apparently, my thought is reflected in the character of Ushman and the narrative that follows. By her narration, Mullins seems to want to state that Islam teaching only works in the Arab world, and that you won’t need it, or any teaching at all for that matter, in a free country like America. There is one particular part in the book when Ushman thinks that getting laid with a woman who’s not his wife is just okay because he is in America, not in Iran. Not that I am a religion snob and think that I’m better than anyone, but I personally despise that kind of thought. It’s not about culture, it’s about religion. It’s not about what your surrounding society wants you to do, it’s about what God dictates to you. It’s not about where you live and what culture you hold, it’s about whether you understand or not the core of the rules of your God.

It is such a crying shame that The Rug Merchant implies the very idea I completely disagree with, for it’s actually a very wonderful, very stunning, very touching work of fiction. It’s beautifully written, with a strongly poignant narrative that will sadden anyone who reads it. Every scene Mullins elaborates, every dialogue she attaches, every character she describes are so gripping and stinging that I could feel my heart caught while reading it. The plot is also cleverly arranged, so even though it’s short and densely packed, it doesn’t seem like it’s a complete nonsense. It draws your every attention and although you’d hate some parts of it, or even a character or two, you’ll stick around and will not let it go unfinished. And the ending is nicely executed to boot. As a whole, technically speaking, The Rug Merchant is a very great work, and I won’t deny that. Had it not contained some false idea, in my opinion, I would’ve praised it more.

I have to say that I have mixed feelings about The Rug Merchant. I cannot refuse the fact that it is really a great book, something I would choose as my favorite kind of read. But, on the other hand, I personally disagree with the author’s point of view, which she embodies in the character of Ushman and her narrative. I can only say that I would have liked it a lot more if only it hadn’t contrasted sharply with my personal opinion.

Rating: 3.5/5