fiction, review

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WITMonth 2017

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

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

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

fiction, review

The Gathering

Indonesian edition’s cover

When we delve into the past we’ll often find anger somewhere inside it, as being heavily implied in Anne Enright’s The Gathering. We can rarely make peace with our past, holding it responsible for what happens to us in the present. It might need forever for a particular event to ooze out of our bad memory and lead us to the lane directing our actions, but it will one day finally happen, and we’ll never like it. Enright, through the story of an Irish family torn apart by secrets and the choices they make, deftly presents to readers this idea of dealing with the past and all the heartache accompanying it.

The sudden death of her brother Liam means that Veronica has to break the news to her somewhat mentally unstable mother, a bitter fact she has to carry on her shoulders along with the realization that she’s the only one among her many siblings reliable enough to do it. But if you think dealing with the task and bringing Liam’s body back to Ireland are not hard enough for her, then you haven’t seen all. She has also to discover the shocking, heart-shattering fact behind her beloved brother’s death: that he’s actually committed suicide. It immediately brings back deep-buried, saddening memories she has almost forgotten, memories involving her grandparents and their landlord, Lamb Nugent. Of course, these memories are not ones which are so real as Veronica seems only to imagine everything. But there are some about her and her brother, about the life they live in their grandparents’ house that wouldn’t spring to her mind if Liam didn’t drown himself. These vaguely-recalled, real recollections then break open their family’s secrets: their uncle’s mental illness, the constant absence of their grandfather, the mysterious, continuous presence of Lamb Nugent in their grandparents’ house, the death of their brother Stevie when he is still a baby, Liam’s drinking habit, and the horrible incident that might be the reason why Liam decides to die.

Through The Gathering, Anne Enright uncovers the unavoidable nature of having and being in a family. It seems like she peels every single layer of that nature and force the core of it on the reader so they’ll see the fact: that no family is a normal family. It’s no exaggeration to say that all families are dysfunctional, in their own ways. More or less, Veronica has made a correct statement that being part of a family is the most tormenting way of living. And having secrets is what’s most tormenting about it. People have secrets, family keep secrets. But to what extent does it affect their condition? One secret of the past can torture someone for their entire life and lead them to an action their own relatives won’t understand. Once again, Enright chooses the right means to deliver this whole idea of dysfunctionality. Throughout the narrative, she appears to say that not every member of our family can understand us, completely or not. Sometimes we just keep ourselves too much to ourselves, sometimes our family are just too much busy with themselves to get involved in our lives. And when something terrible happens, it’s already too late for them to try and understand the reason. There’s even no point in revealing the secret anymore.

The Gathering has a very strong narrative and the plot is ever so carefully, neatly organized that the reader can feel its cover peel off little by little and reveal everything within. At the beginning, it feels a bit hard to get into the introductory chapters, as they feel more imaginary than real and are difficult to catch up. Thankfully, as the next ones unfold, readers can eventually sense the power of the story Enright has woven, especially the voice of Veronica as the narrator. Through her, Enright breaks open one by one what becomes the secrets of the family she describes, along with all the emotions bottled up between her lines: sadness, anger, revenge, regret, and hatred Veronica has for her family, which, to her, only makes her life more miserable than already is. The language Enright uses to write all of those feels too much difficult to stomach at times, rendering our “burden” while reading the whole book doubled. However, it also somehow manages to drag us into a whirlpool that is Veronica’s mind, and lets us see what flares up within. The core idea, which is the breakdown of a family, might not be as exceptional as anyone would think, but Enright has a brilliant way to develop it into a heart-tuggingly engaging tale, forcing us to recognize its beauty and excellence.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is not a masterpiece, in my opinion—despite its winning the Man Booker Prize—but it is truly a huge work of contemporary literature. It seeps through our mind and gets us thinking: are our family just fine? Do we really love them? What influence do they have on us? This book can be thought of as the antithesis of romance, posing a question we wouldn’t dare to ask ourselves: is there really something called “living happily ever after”? After marrying the one we love, will everything end just there?

Rating: 3.5/5


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 White Queen

Beauty can be a double-edge weapon, as being implied in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, the first in The Cousins’ War series. It is as much about wars between kinsmen over the throne of England as it is about the invisible power of women which is embodied in the figure of Elizabeth Woodville, or Lady Elizabeth Grey, who later becomes the Queen of England. Disliked for her status and alleged witchcraft, the former widow has to witness endless bloodshed King Edward IV goes through to save his crown, and keep her position and family safe from those who want to see her fall.

At the beginning of the book, Gregory brings the reader directly to the year 1464, when the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster ends with Yorkists being the winning side, despite the still ongoing fights against the usurper king, Edward IV. As a true Lancastrian, Elizabeth Woodville would never think of the new ruler as anything but her enemy, and the son of her enemy, but her widowhood and the loss of her dowry lands force her to ask for his help to guarantee her sons’ future and inheritance. Enchanted by her charms, King Edward grants Elizabeth her request and, predictably so, seduces her into becoming his mistress. But Elizabeth would not sell herself so short, and determines that the only way for them to be together is by marriage. So they marry in hasty, in secret with only a few people witnessing the ceremony. Edward has allegedly secret marriages with several women and bears legitimate children, but it is his marriage with Elizabeth that he officially declares to the public and brings to court, a marriage that sparks anger and rebellion from both his most trusted man, Warwick the Kingmaker, and his own younger brother, George of Clarence. But the worst comes when Edward dies and his youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, tries and snatches up the throne of England from the legal heir, his own nephew, Edward V. This betrayal is what leads people to the famous story of the missing princes in the Tower.

Elizabeth Woodville, the then Queen of England, as the central figure of the story, can be said to be a very interesting, attention-gripping character. Described as strikingly beautiful and the descendant of Melusina, the goddess of water, Elizabeth is secretly practicing witchcraft as her mother does, as many people accuse her of doing. Though that’s not exactly why, or how, Edward IV is so enchanted by her, as the narrative suggests, it is what she wields as a weapon against her enemies. She doesn’t seem to be a strong woman at first, relying much on her mother and her brother, Anthony, to give her advice and political help. However, over the course of the story, her character evolves into someone more determined and more decisive, especially when it comes to spinning conspiracies, beating her enemies, and handling her husband’s promiscuous behavior. At some point in the book, the reader will find her becoming stronger and more ambitious, even more hateful and vengeful after the death of the king. She becomes the sly and shrewd dowager Queen who has to plot with her enemies against her own kinsman in order to safely put her son on his rightful throne.

As standout as Elizabeth Woodville seems to be, other figures of history in The White Queen do not just fall behind her. They’re not depicted in silhouette, they’re vividly described; especially Elizabeth’s mother, Lady Rivers, and her brother, Anthony, who, looking at their constant presence in her support, indubitably have the most carefully-handled portrayals of all and rooms to show them. So unfortunately, the supposed-to-be-highlighted figure in this story of Wars of the Roses, King Edward IV, is not told much and given many scenes to showcase his role. He is described waging wars—against the Lancastrian, Warwick, and his own brother George—wars which are, thankfully, pictured pretty well by Gregory, but his appearance is so brief and, before the conflicts even start to get more complicated, he’s dead. But that’s not something to bemoan, though, for the first-person point of view Gregory uses to tell the narrative already poses a problem. It is fine when Elizabeth is involved in the plot being told, but when the plot jumps to those involving other characters in other lines of time, the narrator’s voice sounds so vague and it doesn’t seem like it is told from Elizabeth’s perspective anymore. All that makes the sometimes-awkward narration excusable is the smooth pace. It doesn’t matter if the story is too long to follow, or if the conflicts seem to never end and even get more intense and intricate in the last 1/3 of the book, because the pace set by Gregory keeps it enjoyable to read on. The cliffhanger ending might become a problem for those who want a definite end to the journey of Queen Elizabeth of York, or an answer to the case of the missing princes, but I’m sure Gregory has a particular reason to end it with an open conclusion.

All in all, The White Queen is a fabulous story, a great read for historical fiction fans: full of conflicts, multicolored characters, meanderings of a plot, and a tense yet easy atmosphere. Though not quite satisfying in its use of viewpoint, it is still hugely impressive and a page-turner.

Rating: 4/5

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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

fiction, review

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s next novel after she took her Harry Potter series to its end. It’s the first publicly known work of hers to dwell outside the world of Hogwarts, and wizards, and magic, and children. Rowling seems to want to get rid of the long-shadowing image of children’s books writer and prove herself to be a versatile author capable of writing any kind of fictional narrative. People appear to have such high expectations, as I understand, and this particular book is said to fail to meet them. However, putting aside people’s general opinion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a great work and I am gladly satisfied with it. It’s a witness to Rowling’s established literary talent for absorbing, observantly, social conditions prevailing around her and putting them into words.

Set in Yarvil, where Pagford—and Fields—are parts of the district, the book shockingly starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of its councillors, right in the evening of his wedding anniversary. It leaves one seat vacant in the Pagford Parish Council, beckoning purposeful people to vie for it. Howard Mollison, always aiming for the removal of Fields from Pagford’s official map, needs an ally that he can trust completely and sets his son, Miles Mollison, to run for the local election. This meets a serious challenge as Colin Wall, the local school’s deputy headmaster and a close friend of Fairbrother, tries to fill the dead man’s shoes and makes his dreams come true. Clumsy and anxious as he is, Wall seems to have more support from Fairbrother’s old, loyal ally, Parminder Jawanda, and from the social worker who has much concern for the drug addict living in their area. But the competition doesn’t stop there. Simon Price, a dishonest employee of some local printworks, voluntarily will himself to run in the hope that one day when he gains the seat, or so he sees his future will be, he can take full advantage of his position and make more and more money. As the story progresses, the reader can see quite clearly what motivates each of the candidates, what provides the basis for their politically wicked actions that at some strange point the reader can feel some understanding, though not pretty much approval nor sympathy, toward what they do and how they do it.

The Casual Vacancy has numerous characters without a single leading role. It feels as if the vacant seat left by Barry Fairbrother marks the non-existence of the said role, giving the supporting roles and even some fleeting appearances plenty of space to show up and get their characters under the light. Rowling, as an author, seems to have determined to create characters as natural and human as she can. And that’s what I saw here as I perused each of them through the beguiling narrative. On the outside, judging from a wider scale, Barry Fairbrother looks like a perfect character, kind, funny, fighting for the poor. But once we look at him more closely, from the perspective of his mourning, inwardly disappointed widow, we will find a slightly disappointing man with faults that make his ideal personality seem blurred and questionable. The same naturalness also applies to Fats Wall. Well, it is undeniable that Krystal Weedon is the center of all attention ever since the first part of the book that she seems to drown other teenage characters into shadows, but I found Fats Wall’s character more compelling. He is the epitome of the real teenager, restless, rebellious, obnoxious, careless, reckless, disrespectful, yet inside he is still searching for something, some direction which is very vague before his eyes. What Fats thinks he wants to do is live the real life, the real, harsh life. However, as obnoxious as he is, he’s still nothing compared to Shirley Mollison, the character I hate most. She’s the most hypocritical of all. She likes to be pitied, loved, admired and thought of as pure and an angel. And, what’s worse, she’s willing to do everything to have all those.

All the characterizations in this book show Rowling’s remarkable skill in creating and developing characters, no matter how many they are and despite the absence of the character itself, as is the case of Barry Fairbrother. She’s definitely succeeded in describing each one from other characters’ viewpoints and let the reader decide whether or not the way they see each other is correct. The core idea of the story is, I can say, very interesting and how Rowling executes it is very mouth-gaping as well, but the pace is so draggingly slow that I honestly was bored when I first went into it. It moves like a snail at the beginning, steady at the middle, and then seems to run hell for leather at the last several pages. Very fortunately though, the theme is new to me, and the development of the narrative seems so luxurious. It might be quite simple in some senses, but it’s very rich, like an expensive yet simply cut dress. Rowling always has it in her to provoke conflicts through humans’ deepest, darkest characters. She describes the conflict prevailing in each family forming the society in the book in such great detail. Reading The Casual Vacancy was like being viciously forced to face the bitter, painful reality of life that sometimes I was so unwilling to continue it, but then its appeal won my heart and got me back to it. The ending is pretty cliffhanging, and I’m sure it’s not what the reader wants. Be that as it may, to me it’s just the right ending to conclude the story and Rowling is so smart about it. The plot is unpredictable and strays away from its own long-running path. Rowling’s amazing style of storytelling need not to be questioned anymore, I think, for it’s already there and anybody can see it. What truly fascinates me is her ability to immerse herself in every character and come up with speech so typical of them.

Overall, The Casual Vacancy is a fabulous work of general fiction I always crave for. It has a weakness in its pace, but it doesn’t matter because all other factors can cover it. I really think that this is a great novel of J.K. Rowling, one that you should not feel disappointed about.

Rating: 4/5

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