Tag: general fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mussel Feast

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5/5

Man Tiger

English edition's cover
English edition’s cover

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

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

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

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

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

Botchan

2009 Indonesian edition’s cover

People anywhere in the world these days would not want to be told what is right and what is wrong, or to have some literary works showing the moral standards they deem old-fashioned pushed under their nose. But just in case you forget how this world somehow works and how to be true to yourselves, the Japanese classic Botchan by the prominent, highly praised author Natsume Sōseki might be the tool to remind you of the way. First published in 1906, this Indonesian edition firstly appeared in 2009 with the same title, the humorous book is one of Sōseki’s notable works that brings to the reader not only a good (though not strong enough) story, but also a character that is so honest and appealing.

Botchan, actually a term of endearment for the son of an employer in Japanese, is our leading character and narrator. The story begins with him telling the reader of his grim childhood as an unwanted child: deemed useless by his father, unloved by his mother, cheated constantly by his older brother. But lucky him, his devoted servant Kiyo loves him so much and often spoils him. As the story moves forward, we’ll see Botchan loses both of his parents and his brother sells everything they have, giving him his share of 600 yen which he then uses to enroll in a school of physics and study mathematics. After graduation, he accepts an offer to teach math in a small town’s middle school in Shikoku Island. It is there, subsequently, that he gets to see a wider world than he ever saw before and experience the unpleasant life of a rural area. Aside from a bunch of naughty, troublesome students—which is not unpredictable for a teacher to handle—Botchan has to face a failed education system which is so far away from educative, and an unwise principal who always seems to humiliate him. Worse still, he has to deal with two deceitful teachers, whom he calls the Red Shirt and the Clown, trying always to discredit him and play him off against another teacher.

“Kalau orang jujur tidak bisa menang

di dunia ini, siapa lagi yang bisa?”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan gets through it all with his steadfast honesty, outspokenness, and unwavering stand on justice. It is this character which is the main attraction of the book, not really the story. Throughout the narrative, Sōseki looks like he wants to make Botchan’s characterization stick out above any other aspect so that the reader can see what he means to show us: that a good character, no matter what we think about right or wrong, is all that we have to navigate this rotten world. Botchan is not an embodiment of high moral principles or an angel, since he has some flaws—impatient, emotional, hot-blooded—which shows that he is just a human being like any other. But his keeping a tight grip on honesty and justice at least teaches us how having integrity is something worthwhile and that’s what we should do, not littering this old, tired world with our evil deed.

“Kalau dipikir-pikir, sebagian besar masyarakat malah

mendorongmu bertindak jahat. Mereka seolah percaya

tanpanya, kau tidak akan bisa sukses dalam kehidupan.

Pada kesempatan-kesempatan yang langka, ketika me-

reka melihat seseorang yang berbicara terus terang &

jujur, mereka meremehkannya dan menyebutnya hijau,

tidak lebih daripada anak-anak.”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan is an engrossing story, such a page-turner. From the beginning to the end, the book appears to intend to drown the reader without mercy into its depth of narrative. It really has something about it that drags you along so that you’ll forget everything but everything in it, particularly the character aspect. The thing that I found lacking is its untidy storyline from which Sōseki often brings out sudden conflicts, of which solutions seem unclear until much later, and out-of-the-blue statements about the characters—for example, when Botchan suddenly says he has huge respect for Koga, the English teacher. But these few flaws are made up for by the humor scattered in many places. You’d think a novel about honesty and justice would feel or at least sound so serious, but this one is not. You’d either giggle or laugh, no less. Some of you will perhaps even read it as a satire criticizing the world and how rotten it is, especially looking at the way Botchan innocently narrates his story and speaks out his mind. This feature is helped very much by the fast pace and the nice flow of the plot. I have to admit the mess of it is pretty annoying, but during my reading I couldn’t help but feel like I was lost in the flow, reading on and on without wanting to stop, even though I knew my eyes had already been weary and watery.

All things considered, Botchan by Natsume Sōseki is one of my best reads so far this year, and definitely one of the best Japanese literary works I’ve read to this day. And thanks to Indah Santi Pratidina for translating it from whatever language it is so I could have fun reading it. It’s a recommended fiction work for you who have forgotten how to say the truth.

Rating: 4/5

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

Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku

Early 2016 edition’s cover

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5