fiction, review

The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die

Is it The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die, or is it the old tradition? In this novella by Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay it is, sadly, both. Translated from Bangla by Arunava Sinha and firstly appeared in English language in 2019, this book depicts a particular landlord family and the society they live in with all the traditions and patriarchal practices they’ve been performing through generations. It’s supposed to be funny, through the actions and voices of the characters, but as the plot progresses and we get deeper into it, it’s not funny anymore.

It opens with Somlata, a poor young girl of 18, being married off to an older man from an aristocrat family that’s already at the door of bankruptcy. They have nothing left but a facade, they even have to borrow money to pay for Somlata’s dowry. And while the family tries so hard to maintain their dignity, Somlata knows they can no longer survive without doing anything.

In the knowledge of this, Somlata stumbles upon the body of her husband’s aunt, whom she calls Pishima. When she finds her Pishima is already dead, and her ghost appears out of thin air. She asks Somlata to keep her box of jewelry and not to tell anyone in the family about it, much less letting them have it―even though they both know the family is in financial crisis. Somlata is so scared of the ghost but she does what she’s told, and does not admit her keeping the box although her sister-in-law clearly knows that she does.

The family’s financial crisis can no longer be ignored, and with Pishima’s box of jewelry Somlata might just save the entire family from falling further into poverty. But her fear of Pishima, and her ghost’s constant appearance and following Somlata everywhere remind her that she cannot break her silent promise. She therefore sells her own necklace and invites her husband to open a shop. Her husband’s reluctant, and the family, except for Somlata’s mother-in-law, is resolutely against the idea. They are a landlord, upper class family, they “don’t do trade” and they “don’t be a shopkeeper”. But Somlata’s husband finally agrees, and though their business often fails at first, they can eventually pass the storm.

Somlata’s persistent efforts can be seen as her act of kindness and loyalty to the family she’s married into, but on the other hand, it can also be considered as her act of rebel against its long-lived tradition. They are too busy preserving their dignity and refuse to do any labor to stay afloat, while Somlata sees no other way to survive than to do so. She’s insistent in the face of the family’s sneer and rejection and ridicule at the beginning, and her hard work and her husband’s willingness to follow her suggestion and guidance prove to be fruitful. But this is the only line that she’s determined to cross, and that’s certainly for the sake of the family.

As the second generation, her fate is actually no different (no better?) than Pishima’s, who had to conform to the patriarchal family tradition and suffer from it all her life through to her death. She was married at 7 and widowed at 12, and never allowed to remarry or even to enjoy a little bit of worldly pleasure after that. She’s doomed to be a miserable, unhappy, caged widow all her life and what she had left to keep is her box of jewelry―that’s why her ghost warns Somlata not to give her jewelry to their family, because she holds a deep grudge against them for all the sufferings they had put her through as a woman and a widow. She curses them all the time, wishes them all dead. She also teases Somlata to betray her husband and go seeing the handsome guy who’s been stalking her for days. But Somlata resists the temptation, because there is only one line she’s determined to cross.

Her daughter Boshon though, as the third generation, is the true rebel of the family. She refuses to submit to any social mores or family rules or patriarchal system which has held down her mother and her great-aunt. She doesn’t want to marry, and she doesn’t want to be loved merely for her looks because it’ so “empty” and pointless. She even sneers at her friend Priti who’s so mooning over her boyfriend.

The narrative says a lot about how the three women of different generations and different personalities and thoughts have to face the same problem: long-lived tradition, endless sexism, and familial system unfriendly to women. Somlata is the bridge between the heavily shackled Pishima and the more free Boshon, that’s pretty obvious; her situation is not as bad as Pishima, either, but she still restrains herself at the end, knowing that she has limit she cannot break. Pishima’s ghost appearance here and there at unexpected moments throws out all of her rage and anger toward all of those system and tradition, because she is dead and cannot do anything anymore to take her revenge on her family and society. Boshon’s freedom seems relieving, but let’s not forget the fact that she has privilege of being pampered by her family, that she’s entitled to do as she likes because she’s the only granddaughter of their family whose mother has successfully dragged them out of poverty. The sexism is still there, and she’s determined to fight against it.

Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay has certainly an engrossing, thought-provoking, yet funny style of storytelling in this book. Well, it’s not funny because it is funny, but because it’s ironic and it’s a mockery of the way and the condition that we live. It’s funny because it’s not supposed to be the life that we live. It’s funny because after three generations, old tradition and sexism are still lurking behind us, trying to catch us unguarded and put chains on us, though each in a slightly different way.

There are more and more books highlighting women’s problems we see being published every year, both in English or translated ones. And among those growing number there are still very few from South Asia, which is actually very rich and unique and has many things to tell the readers. Mukhopadhyay’s The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die might only be one among those few, but its poignancy is worth a spotlight.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Die, My Love

2020-05-29_10-39-06Being different is already difficult, much more being a different woman who doesn’t live up to everyone’s standards. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz is a blatant protest against these standards, and it never feels sorry about it. First published in 2017 by Charco Press (and co-translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), this short novel tries so hard to point out what is wrong with a marriage that obviously goes wrong in a patriarchal society which tends to see everything out of standards in a woman as wrong. You might want to prepare yourself, for this one is totally unapologetic.

The story begins with our (anonymous) protagonist imagining herself holding a knife in her hand, ready to kill her husband. Of course, it does not truly happen, but the desire to do so is there and never ceases to exist. What she never has a desire to do is having a baby, and yet there she is, with a six-month toddler to care for. Another problem wedged in her heart that surges immediately in her early narrative of stream of consciousness is the big question of why her husband picks and chooses her while there are so many other beautiful, attractive women out there. And readers might have their own big question in turn: if she doesn’t feel like it, why doesn’t she say no?

But, well, that probably is not the right question to ask, since the book is obviously not about the choices women could have, but what they have been trapped into. As the story progresses, readers can see that the protagonist is so out of place in her own world: she isn’t only unfit for marriage, but the entire household stuff, the neighborhood, the way the world “usually” works. She sees everything that is “normal” as imprisoning, a cage she’s yearning to get out of from. The only place she can feel free in is the forest next to her house, where she often sees a deer with a pair of warming eyes. It is the deer she considers her life partner instead of her demanding husband who always sees her as weird and unsettled and not the kind of wife he wants her to be. He even thinks her excessive sexual appetite annoying, not letting her get what she wants while he himself strays away and has sex with another woman.

And this is also where the problem lies. The protagonist’s husband never (or, never wants to) fulfill her huge, endless sexual needs that when she knows her married neighbor has his eyes on her, she directly jumps into an affair with him. Her husband flies into a rage, of course, but while you know unfaithfulness is never the right thing, you cannot blame her. You would demand faithfulness from the husband as well, and since he cannot give that, you would stand up for her.

But a secret affair is not the only problem wrecking their marriage. The protagonist’s unusual (if you want to call it “unusual”) sexual appetite has also created another one: the husband sends her to a mental facility. What then makes the reader feel unsettled is all the patients there are male, except her. This action by the husband can be interpreted by the reader as misogynistic, being based on an opinion that women with such sexual desire are “not normal”. Is that how the world sees them?

The entire narrative bottles up pressure and frustration, resulting in having unrestrained demons screaming for freedom inside oneself. This having demons doesn’t mean that women are evils, as misogynists might think, but that they are not liberated the way they want to be, or should be. If this book seems to be the total opposite of misogynistic, whatever you might call it, then it is. All male characters here do not seem to be a good man to the protagonist—not her husband, not her lover, and definitely not her father-in-law, who never loves his wife. It feels like the protagonist (or, the writer) wants to say that if “normal people” can be misogynistic, then why can’t we be the opposite? Die, My Love seems to want to demand justice for women, for “unusual women”, that is, in a very extreme way. And it just doesn’t care, it doesn’t want to pretend the other way around.

What might become a problem here is actually the protagonist herself. Not her demonic character, but her silence. Why does she keep silent in the entire story? Why, every time she and her husband have disagreements, she never argues or expresses her opinions? Why does she never say no? Because she never has a choice? Is that how the writer portrays all women in the world and the mentality that, sadly, get them fall under patriarchy: do as you’re told, keep quiet, don’t fight back. And if everything doesn’t go well or as you like it, turn to the backstreet, fight from the dark.

But perhaps that is just the case, and Die, My Love is the written proof of this sad situation, of all women’s frustration. And if this difficult premise is already hard enough to chew over, then readers might want to prepare themselves for the difficult writing style: no names, no quotation marks for conversations, no clear distinction between the past and the present. Everything is blended, everything is like in a daze, yet so strong and poignant and heart-tugging. And Harwicz doesn’t seem to want to give the reader a certain ending, only hope for freedom.

I wouldn’t say that Harwicz’s Die, My Love is a super marvelous work of feminist literature, and reading it might give you a headache (literally), but it’s a screaming voice that we should consider for it’s own sake. It’s something different about someone different, and not a few people might be able to relate to it.

“It’s not that I’m assuming I want to slit his throat. I’m only saying that submission pisses me off.”

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Kumpulan Budak Setan

39891352403_a67d0e2216Kumpulan Budak Setan is some kind of a tribute to Indonesian horror fiction writer Abdullah Harahap. The three renowned contributing authors—Eka Kurniawan, Intan Paramaditha and Ugoran Prasad—have recreated and re-represented Harahap’s famous narrative in their own styles and with their own ideas. First published in 2010, the anthology delivers a total of twelve short stories bearing each writer’s typical character of storytelling.

Eka Kurniawan is the first to deliver his horror stories, starting with a mystery-wanna-be tale Penjaga Malam. The idea is actually there and pretty convincing, about four men on duty guarding their village in the middle of the night and later finding each of themselves vanishing without trace. The problem is, it seems to try so hard to emanate darkness and fright but fails halfway. It’s a mystery yet somehow unable to even say that it is mysterious. Strangely, or luckily, Riwayat Kesendirian, Kurniawan’s third contribution here, has more of that mysterious vibe to it. It may not have the best or the most unusual idea—a man being haunted by the ghost of a woman he had ever helped in the past—but it is definitely better written that it will surely make the reader’s hair stand on end. The last one of his part, Jimat Sero, relies much on our traditional superstition that we can entirely rely on a particular jimat to get luck. Unfortunately, this must be paid in return with something so dear to us.

Intan Paramaditha is the second to present her tales. As we know, she is apt to write stories centering on women and gender, so it is no wonder that all four of her contributions talk about women and their issues. The first horror story she tells us is about a dangdut singer. Generally speaking, (female) dangdut singers do not have a very good reputation, especially those entertaining the lower class. They are both loved and hated, admired and despised. But most of the time they are the scapegoat for men’s improper desire, for they are not only singing, they are dancing—in an erotic way, usually. So Salimah, a dangdut singer in the piece entitled Goyang Penasaran, has to find herself gotten rid of from her home village for making a man unable to control his desire while she is singing on stage. That’s not the real problem here, however. As she comes back years later, she knows how and whom she must take her revenge on—the one respectable, yet hypocritical, man who set his male gaze on her years before and let his lust show but still had the audacity to claim himself to be a religious man and condemn her profession.

“Tak ada iblis lebih ngeri dari yang menyaru sebagai nabi.”

(No evil more sinister than those wearing the mask of a prophet.)

And that’s not it. The last of Paramaditha’s contributions, Si Manis dan Lelaki Ketujuh, is even more sinister in every aspect. What’s so outrageous here, if we want to say so, is not the idea of having a man as a sex slave, but having a man as a sex slave to a super rich woman with a badly disfigured face and a penchant for sadomasochism. It challanges the beauty standard, reverses the power play, and questions the sexual, normal norm. And interestingly, Paramaditha doesn’t focus on how the ugly woman thinks or feels about their relationship (though she can be said to be the female/reverse version of any common male lead character of this type), but she displays—describes—ever so blatantly the man’s feelings and how they develop through the sequence of their sexual encounters. The man realizes that he’s been addicted and cannot let himself go off of the entanglement, that he’s sort of tempted to accept the woman’s offer to leave his wife and have an adventure together, living the life of folk tales and unimaginable stories.

Among the three contributing writers, Ugoran Prasad might prove to be the one with the most standout pieces of all. No, he doesn’t write about bloodshed, bloodshot ghosts with chilling diction to frighten readers. His stories are more profound than that. Two of them even ring with gender issues, or something like that. Hantu Nancy, where he talks about the aftermath of the murder of a beauty salon owner, subtly shows how a beauty standard can be as dangerous as the murder itself. Meanwhile, in Hidung Iblis, Prasad seems to want to employ a different angle to deliver a story on sexuality.

In this last piece of the book, Sujatmoko, the main male character, appears to point out that all men with “normal” genitals (and thus normal sexual desire) are evils prowling innocent women. Trying to “protect” his wife from those evils, he is then intent on a killing spree. Readers might think he’s just doing it for having his manly pride hurt and merely to vent his anger on other, “normal” men. They might also think that he’s such an arrogant prick seeing a wife as a property hence the need for protection. And he might really be. But what’s so intriguing, and probably important, is the fact that his wife is not what he thinks she is. She’s beyond that. She doesn’t need protection, because “danger” is something she actually ventures into, something that she likes.

On the outside, Kumpulan Budak Setan appears to be a collection of horror stories. But while that might be true, there is something more to it than merely tales of ghosts, murders, or even love and sexual slavery. Deeper, it might be a series of elaborations of how we, humans, are actually the slaves of evils (just as the book title literally translates)—we rely so much on them, we do what they say, and we are even addicted to them and the sly tricks they play on us. We apparently cannot live without evils beside us. Maybe it’s just the human nature. So it can be pretty understandable that the writing styles employed by those three contributors do not exude horrific vibe or fright or anything that will make the reader so much as believe what they give us are horror stories. They are probably not at all.

Though a little bit disappointing in some aspects (i.e. the lack of fright some readers might seek for), Kumpulan Budak Setan is basically not a bad anthology. The writings are profoundly good, the ideas are not cliché, and the characters are all deeply dug up. It is some sort of proof that the three contributors—Kurniawan, Paramaditha and Prasad—are truly great writers we have today. If only it could be a little bit more frightening, that would be better.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Malam Terakhir

Although it’s the third book by Leila S. Chudori I read, Malam Terakhir was actually her first work ever published. I didn’t have any expectations of this one, I didn’t dare to, since I’ve read the other two and been left quite disappointed. Chudori is a talented storyteller, I can say that, but I always have a problem with her language and (judgmental) tone. And this short story collection is no exception. It’s peopled with black-and-white characters (though Chudori tries hard to make them gray), and written with language too poetic to be real. What’s worse, of all the nine pieces contained in the book, only three that quite impressed me.

The first is entitled Air Suci Sita, a story based on Hinduism-rooted Javanese wayang tale, Ramayana. Like what Sapardi Djoko Damono does in his own retelling, Dongeng Rama-Sita, which is included in his double short story collection, Pada Suatu Hari Nanti/Malam Wabah, Chudori uses the idea of said tale to alter the whole narrative. However, instead of making the main female character choose her own way the way Mr. Damono does, Chudori doesn’t change the “female faithfulness” in her own version of Sita. Her Sita doesn’t dare to, even if love and desire have invaded her entire mind and being. She shuts them all and stays faithful to her fiancé. But this is the point where Chudori cleverly shows the reader what is wrong with our gender idealism. Why is it so normal for women to be/stay faithful to their men, and for men to betray them? Through this story, Chudori seems to want to slam the society for their injustice and male chauvinism. That’s said, Chudori doesn’t let the reader think she can’t be harsh in showing where she stands.

In Keats, my second favorite story of the book where the female character imagines herself talking to John Keats, Chudori takes action and makes her turn back and pursue her true love, instead of listening to her family and fulfilling the society’s expectation. The last of my favorite stories in Malam Terakhir, Sepasang Mata Menatap Rain, does not talk about gender/women’s problem at all. Far away from that, it tells of the experience of a two-year-old girl named Rain where she comes to know the harsh reality of life for the very first time: poverty, hunger, a little girl just a bit older than her playing music on the street only to get a scrap of money. What she doesn’t see is what’s behind all those things: the beggar mafia, the cruelty of war. And it is not so easy for parents/adults to explain it to an innocent girl like her. And when they try to do it, the result is a clash between pure sympathy and political views.

As I’ve mentioned in my introduction, the characters of almost all the short stories in Malam Terakhir are portrayed black-and-white, no matter how hard Chudori tries to make them look gray through her narratives. And so sadly, Chudori seems to make two strict divisions: fathers are white, and mothers are black. What is wrong with mothers, anyway? Are mothers always that bad? I thought, as a woman herself, Chudori will champion the position of mothers. What is the point, then, of talking gloriously about gender issues if she doesn’t have any intention to make even the slightest description of a good mother? A mother doesn’t always have to be likeable, of course, for they are only human. But, at the very least, you don’t have to make them that horrible. Women have already had too many problems without being described as awful. Besides the characters, the language also doesn’t work for me. It’s too poetic and figurative to my liking. Thank God she doesn’t mix it with slang language the way she does in 9 dari Nadira and Pulang, which results in an awkward feeling during the reading. The only thing about Malam Terakhir that I can give some honest applause is the way Chudori arranges all the nine plots. They are all very neat and clean, so much so that they feel deceitful, in a good way, thankfully. Paris, Juni 1988 has the best storyline of all, no doubt about that. And it’s unique, too.

Basically, all the stories in Malam Terakhir have some really great ideas, especially Paris, Juni 1988, Air Suci Sita, Sehelai Pakaian Hitam, and Sepasang Mata Menatap Rain. Such a shame they are not manufactured in the best way they can be. Despite talking mostly about freedom, all those stories are not written in a free way that they look so stiff. I don’t think readers will feel that they can get right into their hearts, that they can move something inside them.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

Suti

Can a woman ever choose? Can a woman ever be powerful enough to say no to the fate life has forced on them? Suti, Sapardi Djoko Damono’s recently published novel, reflects these questions and their possible answers. Set in 1960s’ Solo, the book largely describes Javanese society with all their local customs and habits, typical characters and behaviors. Nothing typical about Suti, though, as Mr. Damono has intended for all the readers to see.

Suti, a very young woman living on the outskirts of Solo, is married off by her mother to a middle-aged man with no particular permanent job just for the sake of shutting people up over her inability to find a husband. Suti is in no position to refuse. So there she is, leading an empty, unhappy married life with her husband Sarno. Nothing seems to change, until one day come the Sastros, a noble family of the lowest rank from Ngadijayan, to their village Tungkal. Suti instantly admires Mr. Sastro, the head of the family she likens to Kresna in a famous wayang story, and wins Mrs. Sastro’s maternal affection as she helps her do everyday household chores at their home. It is at this point that Suti’s life starts to change, becoming complicated and all the more so when she realizes she’s fallen in love with Kunto, Mr. and Mrs. Sastro’s elder son. She never knows, and can only guess at it, if Kunto has the same feeling as her. He never says nor does anything to show it, and his cryptic attitude toward her only leaves her muddled. After living an empty marriage without ever having any chance to feel love, now Suti has to choose between real admiration and seduction, or love she might never reach.

Mr. Damono has made it clear throughout the plot that Suti is about traditional society in the past, and it’s so marvelous of him that he creates such an unusual character like her. She is not a woman you would imagine living in the 1960s’ Solo. Being only a servant, Suti is remarkably smart and full of curiosity, daring and talkative, has no qualms about getting along with bad boys, and loves reading and watching movies. It is her who plays the key role in stirring the entire narrative, and also who eventually raises questions in our heads: Will she, a daring and intelligent woman, be able to jump out of the line of her customs and traditions and get the love she’s been craving all along? Or will she just give up and shift her aim to fulfilling her secret desire? Will she, as a daring and intelligent young woman, just stay silent without even trying to say something to the one she loves? The character of Suti, and all the stories Mr. Damono weaves around her, show us what position a woman can have in traditional society, what they can and cannot do when tied to an unhappy marriage and local customs no one dares to even think to break.

There is one more character I still cannot get out of my mind. It is none other than Mrs. Sastro. She is not just another woman, she is a woman with strength of her own. She can be strong just by being quiet and taking any challenge coming to her way, and when she is angry, she can spill it out with immense dignity. She may not be as interesting as Suti, and she may be just a typical married Javanese woman anyone would expect, but it was her willingness to go through every storm in her life that fascinated me. How many women are there in today’s society who will keep fighting in unfaithfulness and face so many trials and tribulations? Once again, Mr. Damono shows us what it feels to be a woman, especially when our society doesn’t let us be free to break the rules and customs.

The outstanding features of Mr. Damono’s fiction works—his brilliant ideas, his riveting narrative knits, his usually against-the-tide view of the world—are easily seen in Suti. His writing style is like already a trademark anyone can guess. But Suti is not a boring heap of sentences. It’s tightly plotted, steadily paced, and to the point. Everything is so neat and dense that you could say Mr. Damono doesn’t waste any space here. As for the character, I have to say I very much marveled at how real and vivid Mr. Damono is in describing all of them. They are so human, so gray. It is them who render this story alive and down-to-earth, effective and gripping without being “fantastical”. One problem, though: there are too many typos and double words that I start to suspect that the manuscript was not edited at all. Such a shame. It could have been a perfect book otherwise.

That flaw aside, I still loved Suti. It’s already the third time I read Mr. Damono’s fiction work and this book has made me love him even more. Suti is an embodiment of thought on gender and women’s issues, and it is so amazing for me to see that we have a male author who has no doubt to stand by females and show people what is wrong with our (traditional) society.

Rating: 3.5/5

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

Layar Terkembang

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

9 dari Nadira

It was the second time I read Leila S. Chudori’s work, after Pulang, and the second time I felt quite disappointed with her narrative tone. First published in 2009, 9 dari Nadira is a short story collection meant to read like a novel. The contents were written at different periods of time, and some of them had been subjected to revisions in order, I assume, to synchronize them with the entire plot. They are all great stories, and I marvel at their capability to have dragged me along the book without even blinking and held me hostage to the last page. If only Chudori weren’t too judgmental.

All the nine stories are intertwined with each other and tell of one main idea, focusing on one figure, Nadira Suwandi, a journalist born and raised in a troubled, tortured family. Through each title we will see the course of her life in a particular order: the death of her mother (Mencari Seikat Seruni); the hatred her older sister Nina has for her and their inharmonious relationship (Nina dan Nadira); the familial responsibility she has to shoulder on her own (Melukis Langit); married to the wrong man and unaware of it (Ciuman Terpanjang); filing for divorce (Kirana); and finally realizing her true love when it’s almost too late (At Pedder Bay). But my favorite is definitely Tasbih, in which Chudori elaborates on Nadira’s character through an encounter with a psychopathic psychiatrist, a serial killer she has to interview for her crime report. Just a few seconds after they sit face to face in the prison, Mr. X, the psychopath, can figure her out completely. He can even guess what happens in her family, how her mother dies and why, and what her relationship with her sister is like. It sort of freaks her out and rises her temper, and I guess the reader would feel the same. But to me that is the most engrossing moment, the best story of all nine, because Chudori somehow shows us not only that Mr. X can understand Nadira, but that they are in the same state of mind.

And that is what I love most about Leila S. Chudori, the way she describes her characters. She seems to excel in opening up layers of a person and making them appear so normal albeit a little bit unsettling. Among so many characters in this collection, I think Nadira and Nina are the most intriguing ones. Nadira is described as a smart woman, a bookworm, so introvert and full of grief and sadness. Everything about her is told in great detail: her complex nature, her mourning, what’s inside her heart, her choice of life, and her saddening psychological condition. Chudori doesn’t put it word by word, but everything is there. Chudori lays her character bare throughout all the nine related stories for all the readers to see. The same applied to Nina. Despite her brief appearance in a few titles, Nina’s character is so vivid that we can see clearly her anger, her jealousy and her bitterness alongside her sense of responsibility and burden. Readers may find her so hateful, but I can understand her conflict inside. It might be hard to be Nadira, but being Nina is even harder.

Unfortunately, while Chudori succeeds in putting her created characters into the “gray area”, she doesn’t seem to feel it’s necessary to do the same with her tone, which tends to be judgmental. It’s like all people involved in the New Order are bad guys, all rich people are corrupt, all members of Indonesian Communist Party are innocents, and all journalists are angels. All of a sudden the narratives become a set of fairy tales for kids where all we get is merely black vs white, good vs bad, and all people are classified and put into boxes that, consciously or not, she creates a certain stereotype in the eye of the reader. The second most disturbing flaw I found in this book, much like in the novel Pulang, was the grammar. Chudori mixes both slang and formal/poetic language that sometimes the reader will find an inappropriate word in an inopportune sentence and the whole writing reads so awkwardly. Be that as it may, this book is not without some pluses. All the stories might have been written randomly (looking at the date put at the end of every piece), but the plot is nicely put and arranged, allowing the reader to enjoy it without being periodically misguided. And all the narratives, or rather the entire narrative is surprisingly strong, absorbing and quite sensible (though I believe there is a miss within one story). What I found so interesting about 9 dari Nadira was its main ideas: trauma, emotional wound, unrequited love, and a very, very exhaustingly complicated romance and family conflict.

Overall, I can say that I liked 9 dari Nadira. It’s just I had a problem with the tone, and I couldn’t stop myself from frowning at the sentences the whole time I was reading it. It’s great, but with great minuses, too.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Hotel Iris

newest Vintage edition’s cover

Once again, Yōko Ogawa has mesmerized me with her simple yet wondrously enigmatic narrative. Reading Hotel Iris, I couldn’t help but let myself drowning in its every line that I wasn’t capable of just passing through the plot without scrutinizing what actually happened. I honestly didn’t think Ogawa set the atmosphere to be so nuanced on purpose, and yet it managed to flip my emotion endlessly from down flat and calm to violently churning and disgusted. Ogawa really has it in her to create a story which gets the reader reeling and thinking even when they don’t realize it.

Set in a seaside little town, the story of Hotel Iris begins as Mari, a 17-year-old girl, recounts the first time she meets a strange old man whom she knows to be, and henceforth calls, the translator. It is just a day before the summer arrives and the translator takes a lodging at the title hotel apparently to spend the night with a prostitute. But things go wrong as suddenly the middle-aged loose woman starts shouting and screaming names at the translator, leaving him to bear the shame and pay the rent and more. Mari should be afraid of him, or at least disgusted by the sight, but she feels none of those. Instead, she feels attracted and enchanted by the voice of the translator, which radiates dominance and power yet so soft and deep that she finds it lulling. At this point the reader must be starting to think that there is something wrong with Mari, for from then on we can see the girl and the translator forge a complicated, inexplicable relationship nobody nor nothing can explain. They meet in secret, with Mari stealing times between her grueling duties at her family-owned hotel, and involve in lurid actions of unusual, bondage kind of sex. But what they have together doesn’t only go as far as physical intimacy, for there are also affection and “otherworldly” love. Somehow Mari knows that they cannot stay together the way they want it, but she also realizes that there is definitely no way out for their situation.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that both Mari and the translator are particularly unique characters I’ve never encountered in any fiction books before. But they do have complexity of their own, one that gets the reader wondering, “There must be something wrong with them, but what?” It is not my first time having a taste of something about bondage sex with layered characters, but these ones created by Ogawa are really mind-boggling because she doesn’t seem to present them to the reader deliberately as troubled persons. Reading them through, we will only think that they are just ordinary people, a young girl and an old man we see everyday in the street. However, once they shift to their secluded world, they sort of change all of a sudden into people we do not recognize anymore, people with totally opposite natures. It is not merely about a quiet, obedient girl versus a sexually inexperienced virgin eager for some humiliating, thrilling sex; nor is it merely about an awkward, seems-so-normal old man versus an anger-ridden dominant. There is something more to their characterizations, something more than meets the eye, and it is trapped in the shore road they tread on every time they feel like bringing their intricate love to the territory of pain and pleasure.

Though not as cryptic and eerie as all novellas in The Diving Pool, Hotel Iris is still surprising in some ways, especially when Yōko Ogawa shows Mari’s daring to pursue what becomes her heart’s desire and indulge her passion for commanding love behind her pitiful helplessness. The narrative is just as simple, and doesn’t really have any twists nor turns, but shocking all the same. On the surface, it seems so smooth without so much as a bump that the reader can read it easily and enjoyably, but when we look at it more closely, there are more unpleasant moments than we actually want to know. Ogawa seems to want the reader to see, even though not understand completely, the nature of Mari and the translator’s relationship—what happens between them and what they have together—through the melancholy narration voiced by Mari herself and the gloomy love letters written by the translator, which in turn compile the whole storyline. The sex scenes might be a bit disturbing for those who never read anything like this before, and way too horrible for those who find BDSM thing quite abnormal. Be that as it may, I think Ogawa can handle them pretty elegantly that they don’t look too much vulgar nor terrible to my liking, and feel rather saddening instead. The way to the ending is too short in my opinion, but to be fair, it’s only a novella so no one would expect Ogawa to prolong it in any way. Besides, the conclusion is what I expect from a story like this.

Overall, Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa is a truly marvelous work. I wouldn’t say that it’s flawless, but it’s up there. By this book, Ogawa has really made me fall in love with her, not because she is a brave author who dares to write something disturbing, but because she can do it with clever elegance.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Burial Rites

Indonesian edition’s cover

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is perhaps not the only historical novel I have read so far which puts its center figure into an area of ambiguity in an attempt to coax readers out of being judgmental toward whatever there is in the history. But I can tell it has a stronger narrative than any other to convince them that the history hasn’t often done justice to women. Hence the need for this fictionalization, where Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the center figure here, has a huge possibility and opportunity to somewhat retell everything from her own point of view, even if only to defend her action.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, an orphaned domestic servant with no clear parentage despite her surname (Magnúsdóttir means “the daughter of Magnús” in Icelandic), has to face a death sentence for evidently killing Natan Ketilsson and another man by the name of Pétur Jonsson one night in an isolated farmland of Illugastadir. She is not alone during the incident, for she’s in company with Sigrídur Gudmundsdottir and her boyfriend Fridrik Sigurdsson. But she seems to be the only one who has to take all the blame and heavier hit, mostly because of her alleged practice of witchcraft and people’s rushed conclusion on what seems to happen. Before her execution, she is transferred to Kornsá and forced to live with the family there, or should I say, the family there is forced to take her into their custody while the certain date for the penalty has yet to be set. The family, of course, cannot accept easily her presence in their tiny farmhouse, cannot bear the very idea of having to sleep under the same roof with a murderer, a criminal soon to be sentenced. But that does not become her concern, at least not anymore after Assistant Priest Thorvardur “Tóti” Jónsson comes to help her prepare for her execution, mainly guiding her back to “morality” and the path of God. But Agnes doesn’t want any assistance, nor guidance for that matter. She wants to be heard, she needs to be heard. And so Tóti, who has more compassion than any other people do in that place at that time, sits with her and listens to everything she has to say—about her childhood, her family, her earlier life, and what actually happens.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir is a real figure in the past. And while Burial Rites may not be a completely true story, it is historically true that her character is portrayed with a very little respect and a lot of judgement; that she is a murderer, a witch, and a daughter of nobody knows who. The narrative developed by the writer seems to show how the society of Iceland back in late 1820s mistreats an illegitimate girl and accuses her of being a witch merely because of her high intelligence and broad knowledge, giving me the impression that to them a well-read woman literally is a dangerous creature. It feels equally unfair that the apparatus of justice of said society has more mercy on a woman with beautiful looks like Sigga than on a woman with brain like Agnes, as if she really is an old, ugly, cunning witch flying on a broomstick. In short, Agnes’ image and reputation in the history are so unjustly bad that, in this book, Kent feels an obligation to drag her character into the gray area so that she can be free of people’s judgement and defend her unforgivable action.

Through her fictionalized account, Kent also tries to show how the old Icelandic society treats women, generally, in a humiliating, second-sex kind of way; how they seem duty-bound to put off men’s shoes, be compliant and resign themselves to being the objects of their masters’ sexual desires unless they want to lose their job and what little money they can get from it, how they are discouraged from learning and studying and knowing anything. However, on the other hand, there is this woman, Rosa the poet, who seems so smart in the art of language and so confident and doesn’t even feel the slightest shame nor guilt about having an affair with another man while she’s under her husband’s roof. Well, since the whole story focuses on Agnes and what she has to go through, it is the oppression toward women that takes the main spot for all the readers to see.

Burial Rites is a tightly-plotted, convincing story, despite its being half fiction. I have to give some credit to Hannah Kent for giving the reader such a detailed account of what happened in a faraway land in a period of which society and its system were more patriarchal than today’s, even if it means including some interjecting documents and historical reports. The opening narration voiced by Agnes is compelling enough to urge the reader to read on and endure the flipping way of storytelling, especially because it is done in both first and third points of view, between beautifully crafted sentences of Agnes and matter-of-factly written ones of others. Once again, in spite of its being only half true, the whole narrative of Burial Rites succeeds in casting a spell on readers that they will find themselves believing the entire story told by Agnes and feeling sympathy for her. But then again, I think that is the purpose of this book. I myself have to admit that I felt heartbroken knowing how everything turned out and what actually laid behind Agnes’ decision, at least in this fictionalized version.

All in all, Burial Rites is truly a brilliant work of historical fiction. Everything about this book is absorbing, really sending us reeling a bit after closing the last page. I found myself wishing it could have a different ending, but I reckon its decided conclusion is the best way to end all the mess. Moreover, by having otherwise, it would only ruin the history altogether.

Rating: 4/5