fiction, review

The Shell Collector

36957532463_91281909daHope springs eternal, no matter what happens. Or, rather, no matter how little or even no possibility there is. The eight short—sometimes quite long—stories making a list in The Shell Collector drive home, instead, a bitter fact that it is often so pointless to have any hopes at all. Why? Because life is just the way it is and what actually happens is not what you want to happen. This is not pessimism. This is reality, in a way. The unpleasant one, though. What you should do is merely to get over it. Move on. Do something else, if you still have energy even to use your brain and think. Why does it sound so bad? Not really, if you succeed in moving on and having another hope to cling to.

Anthony Doerr’s 2002 collection will definitely shred the reader’s heart into pieces with its beautifully merciless pieces of prose. However, due to my incapability to summarize and tell all of the eight stories, I think I’ll settle for writing briefly three which could truly shake me personally. So Many Chances was the first among them. You could say it’s the most pessimistic one, especially when somewhere in the middle of the story a mother says:

“Life can turn out a million ways, Dorotea […] But the one way life will not turn out is the way you dream it. You can dream anything, but it’s never what will be. […] The only thing that can’t come true is your dream.”

It might sound so annoyingly hopeless, as if peope do not have to bother to hope at all. But the narrative gives readers the reason when Dorotea, the said mother’s daughter, is being let down by the fishboy she likes—and whom she thinks returning her immature feelings—as he’s gone without a word. She also has to feel the same disappointment when her father turns out to be working as a cleaning man in a boat as he has been before, and not the shipbuilder he has told her to be. Thus, their family’s moving to the seaside town is something pointless and obviously unnecessary.

The second to spin my head around was For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story. It seems to remind us of our jealousy toward others, when they appear to be a lot better than us, achieving bigger things than us, and doing something we can only dream about that we start to feel so small and useless. Rosemary is a short, rather fat girl who is absolutely nothing like her sister Griselda—tall, slim, having achieved big in volley. Her irritating envy drives her almost off the edge, not telling their mother when Griselda has gone without saying anything with the metal eater stopping by to hold an accentric show in their town. She doesn’t even say a word to their mom when Griselda sends postcards from around the world to tell them where she is and what she is doing with the metal eater. Rosemary doesn’t want their mother to know, not merely because she doesn’t want her to worry a bit about Griselda, but also because she’s angry that her sister can do as she please while she’s stuck in that town, doing nothing better than having a boring job and caring for their mother till the end of her life. Is life fair? Definitely, she thinks it’s not.

And the last one was July Fourth, a hilarious story unlike any other in the collection. It looks like it wants to tell the reader that there’s still hopes and optimism even if you’re doomed to failure in every direction you’re walking to, but not in an emotionally wrenching way. A group of British men challenge a group of Americans to fish and get the biggest fish possible in both continents. While the Brits have always been successful with their feat, the Americans do not get a single big fish, only bad luck and disappointment. But they do not give up. The deadline is the fourth of July, their own independence day, so they rush off. The determined efforts they’re making through the entire story can surely make readers both laugh at their innocent optimism and amazed by their unrelenting hard work.

Anthony Doerr has a unique style of storytelling. His sentences are not something ordinary, not only do they provoke profound emotions and melancholy, but are also capable of expressing the characters’ hidden feelings and thoughts in thorough detail. Even the plot of each story is extraordinarily structured, with complexity of a narrative full of agony and pessimism but also a voiced elaboration that urge the reader to be optimistic despite the little amount of it. All in all, this collection is about small miracles in the midst of difficulties and pain of life. And that storytelling style of Doerr’s can really represent this theme through and through. Reading it, readers will only get the feeling that life is just the way it is; sometimes there are too many troubles and unexpected things that it’s so pointless to have any hopes at all. Nevertheless, it’s also worthwhile to entertain a little bit of optimism inside our heart.

The Shell Collector might be a pretty heartbreaking bunch of stories. It dashes and raises your hopes at the same time. It’s beautiful and painful at the same time. And, either way, it’s still worth reading.

Rating: 4/5

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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

Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah

34626568873_cbefafc12d_oMembaca kumpulan cerpen Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah karya Danarto serasa seperti menyelami perkara keimanan di lautan yang tak nyata, seperti memetik buah kesadaran dari pohon yang tampak hanya bayang-bayang semata. Gagasan kisah-kisahnya boleh jadi nyata, begitu juga dengan latar belakang dan tokoh-tokohnya, tetapi tidak dengan narasi yang diolah oleh penulis. Di setiap tulisannya dalam buku ini, penulis seakan merancukan antara realitas dengan lawannya. Namun justru dari olahan narasi masing-masing cerita yang terasa tak nyata itulah muncul satu pesan yang dapat digenggam erat: bahwa agama dan keimanan bukanlah melulu soal ritual, simbol-simbol, dan atribut yang tampak oleh mata, tetapi juga, atau justru utamanya, adalah tentang penyerahan diri sepenuhnya kepada Tuhan, memaknai dunia dengan segala isi dan kejadian di dalamnya, rasa syukur, serta niat dan perbuatan baik. Singkat kata, spiritualitas.

Jika kita percaya bahwa segala perbuatan, baik maupun buruk, pasti ada balasannya dan bahwa niat baik sudah terhitung baik apa pun jadinya, maka cerpen berjudul Jejak Tanah dan Zamrud merupakan perwujudan dari gagasan ini. Dalam Jejak Tanah, diceritakan jenazah seorang pengusaha properti selalu keluar dari makamnya setelah dikebumikan dan seorang kiai berkata bahwa itu karena semasa hidupnya ia selalu memperjualbelikan tanah rakyat kecil tanpa keadilan. Bila dibaca sepintas, cerita pendek ini mengingatkan kita pada kisah-kisah horor “siksa kubur” yang biasa digunakan untuk menakut-nakuti orang tentang perbuatan dosa dan balasannya. Tetapi kisah racikan Danarto ini terkesan “lebih ringan” dan tidak menggurui, hanya terkesan absurd, terlebih ketika keluarga si pengusaha tidak merasa ketakutan melihat ada jenazah mengambang di depan pintu rumah mereka. Cerpen Zamrud juga tak kalah absurd, menceritakan tentang sebuah keluarga yang mengalami kecelakaan tapi tetap selamat berkat jasa seorang bapak tua yang misterius. Bapak tua tersebut bisa dibilang merupakan medium pertolongan dari Tuhan kepada seseorang yang di dalam hati memiliki niat yang baik, walaupun pada kenyataannya niat baik itu tidak pernah terwujud dan ia harus menerima hujatan dari orang-orang yang merasa dirugikan.

Perkara keimanan dalam artian kepasrahan penuh kepada Yang Maha Kuasa juga menjadi fokus dalam kumpulan cerpen Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah. Dua di antara delapan belas cerpen yang mengisi, Pantura dan Alhamdulillah, Masih Ada Dangdut dan Mi Instan, menunjukkan petuahnya dengan cukup jelas. Dalam Pantura, seorang pemuda harus mengarungi banjir yang tinggi demi mencari pertolongan untuk santri-santri yang kesurupan. Kepasrahannya di tengah keadaan yang serba sulit itu berbuah manis, bahkan lebih. Tidak hanya mendapatkan pertolongan yang dicari untuk para santri, tetapi juga pertolongan untuk keluarganya sendiri. Cerita berjudul Alhamdulillah, Masih Ada Dangdut dan Mi Instan, yang merupakan cerita pendek paling panjang dalam kumpulan ini, menggunakan latar belakang waktu dari zaman sebelum Indonesia merdeka sampai Orde Reformasi. Di sepanjang hidup Slamet Sukro, sang tokoh utama, ia telah berjumpa dan melihat para tokoh besar bangsa dari masa jaya sampai saat kejatuhan mereka. Namun bukan itu inti dari cerita ini. Semasa hidupnya itu, Slamet harus mengalami kesulitan yang tak henti-henti, mencicipi kekayaan hanya sekejap mata sebelum akhirnya kembali miskin dan tak punya apa-apa. Namun ia tetap berpasrah kepada Tuhan dan bersyukur karena ia masih punya grup dangdut dan bisa makan walau hanya mi instan.

Dari sekian cerita pendek yang dihadirkan dalam kumcer ini, yang paling menantang pembaca untuk dapat menyelami rasa keimanan adalah cerita pendek berjudul Telaga Angsa dan Si Denok. Dalam kedua kisah ini Danarto seolah ingin mengonfrontasikan seni dan keindahan dengan moralitas yang menjadi lingkupan ajaran agama di hadapan pembaca. Telaga Angsa menggambarkan tarian balet dengan kostumnya yang ketat hingga “membentuk tubuh”, sementara Si Denok berkisah tentang Bung Karno yang menggemari dan mengoleksi patung-patung serta lukisan wanita telanjang. Yang menjadi pertanyaan pada kedua cerpen ini adalah, apakah dengan mempertontonkan bentuk tubuh di atas panggung dan memajang patung serta lukisan wanita telanjang, lantas kita bukanlah manusia yang bermoral? Apakah memang seni modern bertentangan dengan agama dan moralitas? Atau justru dengan mendalami keindahan seni, kita dapat menghargai dan mensyukuri keindahan dunia ciptaan Tuhan? Dengan membaca kedua cerpen tersebut, pembaca diajak untuk berpikir, tidak sekadar memihak salah satu karakter dengan segala pemikirannya.

Selain moralitas, Danarto juga mengajak pembaca untuk merenungi perkara rezeki dan bencana. Bagi orang pada umumnya, rezeki berarti keberuntungan dan bencana adalah kesialan. Tapi ada berapa orang yang sadar bahwa rezeki bisa jadi cobaan dan bencana mungkin saja sesuatu yang indah? Ada berapa orang yang menganggap kematian justru suatu berkah, sebagaimana narator dalam cerita Jantung Hati? Berapa orang yang mampu melihat bahwa bencana di suatu tempat, bisa jadi rezeki di tempat yang lain seperti yang tersirat dalam Lauk dari Langit?

Spiritualitas memang tampaknya menjadi fokus utama dari kumpulan cerpen Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah ini, tapi tidak berarti Danarto tidak mengajukan tema lainnya seperti alam, keluarga, peperangan di Timur Tegah, walaupun tetap dibalut dengan narasi absurd yang kadang-kadang berada di luar jangkauan pemahaman pembaca. Absurditas dari sebagian besar narasi tulisan Danarto di buku ini dibarengi dengan gaya berbahasa yang beragam: kadang puitis, kadang biasa saja, kadang penuh humor, kadang juga sendu dan penuh kalimat-kalimat perenungan. Kombinasi ini, pada akhirnya, membuat pembaca serasa mengawang-awang kala menikmati kedelapanbelas cerpen yang disuguhkan, serasa seperti menyelam di lautan yang tak nyata. Akan tetapi, di akhir penyelaman itu pembaca akan mendapatkan sesuatu yang, walaupun juga immateriel, lebih nyata digenggam.

Jika gagasan, latar belakang, serta tokoh-tokoh yang nyata dalam kumpulan cerpen ini dapat diibaratkan sisi fisik dari ajaran agama (pelaksanaan ritual, cara berpakaian, dan sebagainya), maka absurditas dari setiap narasi yang terbentuk bisa dibilang representasi dari spiritualitas yang tak kasat mata. Sesuatu yang hanya bisa diresapi dalam hati, tetapi lebih penting dalam penyatuan diri dengan Sang Pencipta. Saya rasa, menuliskan cerita-cerita pendek dalam kumpulan ini adalah cara penulis untuk menyampaikan pesan ini.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Tunnel

35065720642_3069d86cfb_oThere is this tunnel drawn by Ernesto Sabato which we might call a horrendous psychological novel. It follows a murderer, tried and already in prison, who attempts to justify what he has committed by describing his obsessive love and what’s inside his restless psyche. It relates his obsession, the danger of it, and his stormy mind where it somehow finds its comfortable home. First published in Spanish in 1948, this modern classic, The Tunnel, is definitely a quick read, as quick as the steps the narrator takes in recounting his story.

The book opens with the narrator’s introducing himself to the reader and telling forthrightly that he has murdered a woman by the name of María Iribarne. He, Juan Pablo Castel, doesn’t seem to regret what he has done. Instead, he keeps going on and on about his peculiar tendency, what he thinks about things, how he lives an isolated, solitary life until he eventually finds the only person who can understand him and, yes, kills her. Only after two chapters (which are, fortunately, very brief) does he truly start to relate how he meets María Iribarne, how they share the same view of life, how they are lonely persons, and how they start their somewhat secret love affair. María is reluctant at first, saying that she will only hurt him, but Castel is insistent. Not merely because he knows that only María in this whole world can understand him (proven by her appreciation of his painting Motherhood), but because he is obsessed with her. He must have her, he must possess not only her sole love but also her soul, he must be the only one for her, no room for other men even if they’re just a piece of memory of the past.

Their relationship is a very complex one, as Castel is making it so. His mind never sits still and forever questions María’s love for him, her faithfulness, her past, the nature of her marriage to Allende, her true character, and so on and so forth. And those unbearable, never-ending questions do not stay put in his brain, he lets them out and fires them ceaselessly at her. He never believes whatever she says, and he gets mad every time she shuts her mouth in protest at his rude attitude and cruel words. He is repressive, too, though God knows why he thinks it’s in the name of love, always making her do this and do that—including making love—which, in the end, only manages to put her off. But the thing is, María is also an enigmatic person. Everything about her is a mystery. Probably, the reason is that the entire story is told from Castel’s point of view, hence no room for her to explain anything or to express what she has in mind. It’s so muddling between them, and Castel keeps pushing her to the corner until she has no choice but to dodge him and run away. It’s also frustratingly unfair, not solely because it’s a one-sided narrative but because Castel has already set his mind on the idea that María is a dishonest woman so thus he cannot trust her, which in turn bars him from willing to stop to ponder everything from her viewpoint.

However depressing The Tunnel is, at the end we will be left marveled at how Ernesto Sabato constructs the whole narrative out of a single, solid point of view. This very view takes us readers along the tunnel inside Juan Pablo Castel’s unsettling mind, a tunnel which is so dark, narrow, twisting, so full of “I shouldn’t do that but I’m doing it now.” It is this tunnel which makes up the story we read and inevitably hate. And, because Castel’s mind is a stormy, ever-moving one, Sabato is so right to write such short chapters and put them together into a disturbing, short novel. The atmosphere is so tense, the scenes are cut into pieces like those in movies, the dialogues are never too long and very convincing that you want to slap Castel in the face. It would be safe to say that the tunnel, Castel’s tunnel, is the point of the entire story. Devouring this book means walking into that dark tunnel and forever trapped there, reading what he thinks. Even worse, because his is a male point of view, we might find it quite chauvinist, if not, rudely saying, misogynist. Women are deemed untrustworthy when they have several lovers, women are deemed liars when they refuse (or, do not have a chance) to say anything, and they are easily judged unfaithful when you don’t know what actually happens to and around them. This is the thing that makes an excellent prose like The Tunnel an unbearable read.

Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel is wonderfully enjoyable in one way and cruelly devastating in another. You want to love it but you despise it, too. It’s such a grand idea to display horrific psychological sides of humans, because by that we can recognize the sordid weaknesses that we all have (except for the bravery to refuse to act hypocritically like what Castel has, maybe). However, it is also saddening to have women pictured as ones who lie a lot and keep quiet when they can say a lot, too. All in all, it is a maddening thing to make any judgment on this book.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Negeri Kabut

34833186645_41dae51100Seno Gumira Ajidarma is one of the big names in Indonesia’s literary world, many of his works have gained critical acclaim. Negeri Kabut, first published in 1996, is one of them, having been awarded the 1997 Indonesian Literary Prize for the best short-story collection. To “celebrate the passion for reading of the new generation,” last October the publisher has decided to reissue it with a new, unfortunately disappointing, cover. Not to worry, though, the contents are still of a very high quality.

There are twelve short stories in the collection, most of which bear the typical writing style of the writer—surreal, beautifully poetic, yet so critically biting—pretty much like what you would find in stories of Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku. The book opens with the titular story, Negeri Kabut, a dreamily written account of someone’s journey to find the so-called land of mists (the title in English has two versions, The Land of Mists in 1997 and The Foggy Lands in 2003). The land might truly exist, or it might not, but the man on the trip has been determined to find and see it with his own eyes. He doesn’t mind all the mountains, all the hills he has to climb and climb again, all the long walks through the thick mists and silence and green forest. He keeps going and going until he sets foot on a mysterious village which appears to pop out of nowhere and is full of mists. Everything is like a sweet dream there, too happy, too peaceful, too serene that the man—who has been so used to all the hullabaloo of the world—feels unsettled instead.

Semuanya terasa menyejukkan, tapi aku tidak merasa tenteram. Aku sudah terlalu akrab dengan pertentangan, ketegangan, dan kesulitan. Betapa celaka.

As poetically written as the stories contained in this book might be, Ajidarma never lets himself speak only of beauty. He seems to deem it his duty to observe and to criticize, especially the greedy nature of people, the unstoppable desire to own one thing and another, and another, and another. It implicitly shows in Long Puh, the third story on the list. On the outside, it looks like a very short, restless story about a man in fever who was wandering around the hinterland of East Borneo and carries the memory of it along with him when he’s already out. But after a brief, last scene where a foreign man finds gold and gets crazy over it, it becomes pretty clear that it’s a criticism of human greed. Greed of people who don’t care about anything but wealth while some people far away in the middle of back country are still living in poverty and backwardness. But Long Puh is so subtle, not as flagrant as Rembulan Terapung di Kolam Renang, where Ajidarma doesn’t shy away from describing vividly a man of greed who thinks he deserves all that he’s got, whatever the way or trick he employs to get them. No remorse, no sorry. He only fears that common, poor people will get angry at him for his greediness and revolt. And revolt they all. But they do it in the same greedy way, plundering everything from his house, eating the moon floating on his swimming pool. While this story was actually written long before the economic crisis happened in 1998, what Ajidarma describes there reminded me of the event where President Soeharto, who was deemed as corrupt, stepped down as people rioting and looting items in stores everywhere.

Some people of older generation might have already known the story of Panji Tengkorak, written and drawn for comic books by Hans Jaladara back in the 1960s. Here, Seno Gumira Ajidarma is kind enough to provide the reader with his prose adaptation, albeit only a small fraction of some part. Entitled Panji Tengkorak Menyeret Peti, the narrative focuses on the complicated love affair surrounding the hero, Panji Tengkorak himself. The bitter tale tells us how he hates his wife Nesia so much but has to drag around her casket (with her dead body inside it) everywhere he goes, how he loves Mariani but has to bury his dream to be with her, how his first love Murni has to die before he can marry her, and how Andini has to die for him. All this tragic romance, and the fact that Panji Tengkorak is basically a martial arts story, reminded me of Chinese martial arts novels which have been adapted into both small and big screens so many times. But, of course, Panji Tengkorak has local flavor to it that might suit Indonesian readers better. Putting aside all the characteristics, though, Panji Tengkorak Menyeret Peti is a painfully heartbreaking love story of a pugilistic hero who thinks his life is done and over. And Ajidarma has successfully represented it with his excellent prose.

It can be said that the martial arts short story is the only one that strays away from the surrealistic path and almost bumps itself into somewhat realism, since numbers like Ada Kupu-kupu, Ada Tamu; Di Tepi Sungai Parfum; and Ratri & Burung Bangau still bear the characteristics of so-called surrealism. After two or three pages you’ll realize that you’ve been tricked into a narrative world that’s mostly beyond anything you can imagine. They are so confusing that they seem like posing questions without any will to reveal the answers. That said, they are not the most absurd. Perahu yang Muncul dari Balik Kabut has to be the one, so much so that it looks more like a painting than a prose, one with twisting lines and twirling brushes. And these strokes are done repeatedly, powerfully, beautifully. As it is clearly told in the title, the story tells of a boat coming out of morning mists on a twisting river. This has occured for years and years and people who have been following the event always stand there by the river and wait for the boat to come, carrying a dancing, eternally young woman and an old man playing a stringed instrument. The whole narrative appears to only bring out beauty and melancholy, without telling anything nor carrying any meaning whatsoever. Funnily enough, Perahu yang Muncul dari Balik Kabut is the longest short story among others in the collection.

As it is in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku, here in Negeri Kabut Seno Gumira Ajidarma aims his gun at human nature, firing ceaselessly and mercilessly. He talks about greediness, never-ending searching, boundless dissatisfaction, fear of death, desire to die, gender and female stereotypes. And he does it ever so subtly, as if he merely writes pages and pages of prose without meaning, wearing mask or hiding in plain sight. But it’s been his typical style, alongside surrealistic narratives and poetic language. He is one of few writers I know who can combine beautiful writing, marvelous ideas, and biting criticism. If he likes to tell stories about greedy people who always search and never feel satisfied, then I would say that I’m always satisfied with his works (including the Mahabharata-based novel Drupadi). I feel lucky that I could have a chance to read them, and I will certainly look for more.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Vegetarian

34023328233_df89591553_oWhat is our body? A bunch of flesh and blood? A soulless entity? An empty creature devoid of civilization? Whatever you think of your body, it is yours and it is yours to do anything with. At the very least, this is a message that The Vegetarian, a short novel by Han Kang which has drawn an enormous amount of attention in the literary world, seems to intend to deliver. Quite vividly, here Han Kang lays emphasis on the idea that “yours to do anything with” includes harming that body of ours—that if you think harming is not actually harmful—when our traumatic experience leads us to anger and self-hatred resulting in the urge to destroy ourselves.

So many people seems to have already read this book, so let’s be brief. Upon having a horrible dream where she’s got blood all over her hands and mouth, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat and turn herself into a vegetarian. It bothers her family and society, for eating meat has been an inseparable tradition in their culture, and hence their insistence on her getting back to it. But her will is so much stronger than theirs, so she continues with her own way and eats nothing but vegetables and fruits. It costs her everything: her job, her marriage, her family. She doesn’t care, though, and is persistent, even if putting an end to eating meat doesn’t really stop that dream from hunting her nights over and over. Only when her brother-in-law paints flowers on her skin does she stop having such a dream, but that doesn’t mean everything turns the better for her (that if you think so). After a shocking incident involving her brother-in-law, her older sister In-hye is forced to put Yeong-hye into a mental hospital. And there, she starts to refuse to eat at all, because she thinks a tree doesn’t need to.

“I’m not an animal anymore.”

Yeong-hye apparently believes that she is an animal merely because she eats meat. But, are we? Does eating meat make us some kind of carnivore, a cannibal? Does it make us a horrible creature who has the heart to take the lives of other living creatures without mercy? Do you think, really, really think that by being a vegetarian, only eating vegetables, you’re not a killer? Do you not think that plants are also alive, breathing, growing, and breeding? Do you not think that when you eat them it means you kill them, too? Forget about blood, you’ve certainly taken the lives of others. In any way, being a vegetarian is not an answer to the question of our humanity, or will challenge our nature as human beings. Unless you stop eating at all and kill yourself slowly like Yeong-hye, that is.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

The broader your point of view on the story, however, the more you will realize that this is not only about being a vegetarian. This is about our body, about oppression imposed on our body. What happens to Yeong-hye—her psychological disturbance—seems to date back to when she received violent behavior from her father. She was weak and didn’t fight it, and was therefore left wounded physically and mentally. In a father-daughter relationship, where the father has more power over his children, more often than not, in any culture, this domestic violence practices occur. And when this happens, it always feels like we don’t own our body, like our body belongs to someone else. Some children cannot endure it, but continue to live with it, with the memory of it. So, eventually, Yeong-hye fights back and seeks revenge for what her body must have suffered from. But then, is it worth it? Does it really solve the problem of physical/emotional violence? Does it stop violence at all? But, of course, a book is sometimes not about finding an answer.

The Vegetarian is composed of three separate novellas, so it somehow reads incoherently. Luckily, Han Kang seems to mean it as one unity, making the next installment the next chapter to explain the aftermath of the previous event. And we can enjoy it thoroughly and easily, what with the smooth translation by Deborah Smith and no particular, skillful writing style. What makes this novel appear more extraordinary than it might actually be is how incredible Han Kang is (supported by Smith, of course) in using diction to build the atmosphere the story needs and in describing her characters. The narrative feels so simple to read yet so artfully created. It brings out a sense of horror in the reader and manages to make them feel as if they plunge into the horrendous world Yeong-hye is living in and witness the psychological torture she has to deal with. Readers will also be able to feel what In-hye feels, see what she sees and follow where her thoughts wander. It is a quite great prose.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang might work for so many people, but it is not for me. Technically, it doesn’t have the writing style I would call genius, and essentially, I have so many disagreements with it. It challenges my thoughts, yes, but not in a way that will change my mind.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

Dijual: Keajaiban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Old Man and The Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

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

Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel

At a time when racial/religious intolerance toward others has rapidly become a daily spectacle almost everywhere, we totally need to sit down and read something thought-provoking like Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel, the prose version of a widely popular poem with the same title by one of the most famous senior Indonesian writers, Sapardi Djoko Damono. Some readers with little perception might merely find the novel a cheesy romantic love story, and failed to see the criticism of people’s common narrow-mindedness Mr. Damono throws at almost everybody in his almost every page. It’s not only about race/tribe, or religion, it’s also about our (Indonesian) deeply rooted idea: in marriage, love only will not be enough.

Pingkan and Sarwono love each other, so much so that you might be sick of them. But there are doubts, and hindrances. Sarwono is a Javanese Muslim, while Pingkan is a Christian, of Manado descent. When they don’t talk about jazz and poems they talk about their identity, which is a dangerous topic everyone should talk about in a hush, at least in this country of ours. But they are not some bigoted people who get so much as a twitch in their eyes when someone says something about their religion or tribe. They talk about it in an open, hilariously smart way that you won’t think they’re trying to offend each other. Their love is stronger than anyone’s attempt to put people into boxes labeled with their identities. Even stronger than Pingkan’s extended family’s secret evil plan to separate them and make her marry another man with the same background as her. Still, Sarwono has his doubts, not about their future but Pingkan’s faithful heart. He’s always in doubt. He’s jealous and melancholic and writing poems for newspapers just so she can read his helpless love for her. When Pingkan, a lecturer in Japanese, is sent to study in Kyoto by her department, Sarwono can’t help but feel sad and jealous of other men in Japan who might get her attention.

Hujan Bulan Juni is indeed a romantic book, mostly describing how deep Sarwono’s and Pingkan’s love for each other is and how jealous and hopelessly melancholic he can be, but that doesn’t mean it’s short of sting to shock readers and make them see. As hinted earlier, Mr. Damono uses tribal/racial and religious issues a lot as the background of the story and cannot stop rambling about them throughout the book. He even makes Sarwono a lecturer in anthropology who endlessly does research on tribal and religious conflicts in the east part of Indonesia where it’s not such an unusual thing for those kinds of conflicts to happen, and what he finds out is predictably unpleasant. Through Sarwono’s voice, Mr. Damono seems to want to say that all these conflicts are obviously so pointless. Nothing will we get from them but more and more conflicts and disintegration. Idealists always say something about keeping our unity and tolerance, but in reality, under the perfect surface, most of us still see people of different tribe, race, and religion as liyan (the word for others in Javanese), and we secretly do not want “us” and “them” to become one. And the identity problem doesn’t stop there. Pingkan, described as only half Javanese and a Christian, never thinks that she belongs to any tribe, often confused about who she really is. When other people think it’s hard to accept the unity inside the country, she feels it’s very difficult to accept the unity inside herself. Unity, it seems, is a very slippery thing.

The novel is told from a third person’s point of view, although we might occasionally sense Mr. Damono taking more of Sarwono’s side when it comes to expressing emotional thoughts, making the book sound more male and lose the balanced voice it could have had. I don’t mind, though, because I love the critical, romantic tone he sets for the story. It’s just what I’d prefer to get when reading a novel. And the humor is brilliant, too, it’s truly clever and I could really get it like it was my own joke. I don’t mean to sound boastful, but I have been for a long time suspecting that Mr. Damono and I are actually of the same mind. That’s probably the reason why I always subjectively love his works. Speaking of his works, Hujan Bulan Juni also has the same short, dense, effectively punching narrative as his other ones. It’s briefly elaborate, with five chapters only: some of them are quite long while others only go so far as one or two page. It’s safe to say that it has the economy of a short story because even though you can finish it in a blink it still has an effect on you. What I found lacking about it is the editing. Always the editing. I can never understand what it is with Mr. Damono’s books and editing. Every time I read his fiction work it’s always poorly edited—the sentences, the spellings, almost everything. And this time I had to deal with some missing sentences and paragraphs that sometimes the prose read incoherently. Other thing I found a bit depressing was its lack of focus. I have to say that Mr. Damono seems to not really know where to put his emphasis on: the racial/religious issues, or Sarwono’s acute jealousy?

Be that as it may, Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel is still a marvelous work. I will never regret making it one of my best reads this year, and also one of my favorite books ever, along with Mr. Damono’s Trilogi Soekram, of course.

Rating: 4/5