fiction, review

Rahasia Salinem

It’s honestly not an easy book to make a review of, not because I’ve never heard of the writers before, nor is it because I wasn’t aware of its existence (I blame it on my lack of exposure to publishers other than the major ones). It’s simply because Rahasia Salinem is just too good to start to write about. Yes, this might have something to do with subjectivity (the cultural background being Javanese and the setting being in Sukoharjo, exactly where I live in), but on the other hand, and despite whatever identity the reader has and wherever they live, this book has one of the best stories I’ve ever read with one of the best (female) characters I’ve ever encountered. It’s not about choosing love over the other, it’s about choosing “what kind of love” you want to keep for the rest of your life.

Spanning three generations, the story starts in the present time when Salinem has just passed away and her children finally tell the third generation that she is not actually their grandmother. This early revelation is surely shocking to readers as much as to the main protagonist himself, but that’s not the point. Nor is it to find the background of the titular character, because, of course, her “children” have known it all along. The entire narrative basically seeks to tell her story and why she chose that life she had been living.

Throwing back to early 1920s, the two writers (Brilliant Yotenega and Wisnu Suryaning Adji) begin with how Salinem was born into a low labor family in Klaten and how she had to lose her mother at once. As a child, Salinem had been taken care of by different people―for her father had to make a living and couldn’t take her with him―and mainly stayed with her aunt, Daliyem, her mother’s younger sister. But her childhood had never been gloomy, because she was a lovely child and easy to get along with. She particularly got along very well with Sugiyo (who later became her first love) and Soeratmi, the youngest sister-in-law of the head of the district of Sukoharjo. She then moved with Soeratmi and her family to Surakarta and met Kartinah, and there the friendship of the three young girls was destined.

It was inevitable, however, that Sugiyo and Salinem had to be parted and couldn’t see each other often. They met once in a while, when Kartinah was married to Soekatmo and Salinem followed her as her servant and Sugiyo worked for Soeratmi. Sugiyo even learned how to read and write just to send her letters (which was a hilariously unsuccessful communication between them), and that’s just how they kept their heart aflame. Sadly, right after Sugiyo revealed his intention to marry her, he got shot in the middle of KNIL – Japan war in March 1942. And that’s when Salinem started to think carefully about what love she wanted to choose.

Meanwhile, in the present time, Tiyo, our main protagonist and Salinem’s “grandson”, seeks to reclaim his family’s old house in Prawit, something which he deems important in Salinem’s previous life. He also intends to open a restaurant selling pecel with Salinem’s secret recipe, but both do not seem to see any easy way out. His uncle is against his idea of buying the old house from their former neighbor, and getting Salinem’s original recipe for her famous pecel is just as difficult. But Tiyo persists, because Salinem―his blood-related grandmother or not―is an important figure in his life, in his family’s life, someone who had stuck them together so as not to break away and fall apart.

Rahasia Salinem has an engaging narrative structure, though not unusual, revealing the past up to the point where the present characters pick up the story and tell their own memories and restlessness. They are surprisingly (or not?) not overlapping one another, so it won’t be difficult for anyone to catch up with all the figures, storylines and historical facts being scattered here and there. And since Salinem is the main character this book wants to tell the reader about, it is just right that her love story is the main line to follow, despite all other characters’ own problems and predicaments, making hers stand out and most heart-wrenching with all the emotions, tears and difficult choices she has to make. However, those other characters (especially her best friends) help “shaping” her path into what she is taking then, into what we readers see at the end. And that’s not even the final.

And Salinem does not merely stand out in her storyline, but also in her characterization. Hers is truly one of the best (female) characters I’ve ever encountered in any fiction I’ve read. She’s not trying to defy Fate but following it with a clear mind and resolute heart; she knows her place and doesn’t try to be someone more, but she knows that she can do more; and she chooses devotion and loyalty over romantic love and never regrets it. She knows what she’s doing and doesn’t try to blame anything or anyone for everything that happens in her life. She stands up straight and strong for her beloved ones, people whom she calls “family”. If anyone should be called a strong woman, it’s her.

I have read quite a number of Indonesian literary works, but only a few of them can really touch my heart, and Rahasia Salinem is one of those. Perhaps it is because of its cultural aspect, subjectively speaking (as some of Sapardi Djoko Damono’s fiction did to me), or perhaps Yotenega and Suryaning Adji were genius enough to depict Salinem’s character that I could truly feel her, that every time I read her it was as if I read myself. As for the background setting, Suryaning Adji didn’t even claim that it’s historically accurate, but somehow it made me feel like home. I didn’t live in 1940s’ Sukoharjo, of course, but when I read the book, I felt that I was there, speaking in own language with my own people. This book really, really felt close to me.

At the end, Rahasia Salinem is one of the best books I’ve ever read for all the subjective reasons there are. But the story itself is very engrossing, and the main character will definitely leave a very deep impression on any reader.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Teh dan Pengkhianat

2020-05-29_10-38-57Never or rarely do we have histories written by the opposite side of a war or, to be precise, by the enemies. There might be some, but they do not see the entire event from the opposite point of view. Historians tend to write them from their own. But that’s not what Iksaka Banu dares to do. He writes short stories about the hundreds of years of Dutch colonization of Indonesia entirely from the viewpoint of the Dutch themselves. Teh dan Pengkhianat is one of his collections that gives affirmation to this. First published in 2019, it has thirteen short pieces on what the Dutch might have thought about the colonization, the land they had been occupying, the people they had been living with, and should they have just gone away when the time had finally come.

Among those thirteen short stories, some seem to have similar specific themes. Tegak Dunia and Variola are the first pair to talk about the same thing: science versus religion. For those who endlessly witness the tiring debates about whether the earth is a globe or flat, Tegak Dunia might be an interesting narrative piece. Jan van de Vlek is an orphan of Dutch origin raised in an orphanage in the East Indies. His late father wanted him to be a sailor and his uncle spares no effort to realize it. But Jan is reluctant, being told by his priest that sailors are liars, that it is impossible for people to sail because the world is, according to the Bible, flat, not a globe as they confidently state. Meanwhile, Variola is a story very relevant to today’s society everywhere which is mostly skeptical about vaccines. To stop the spread of smallpox in Bali, Dr. Jan Veldart suggests doing vaccination as quick as possible. But it is 1871 and vaccination is not a process as easy as clicking one’s fingers. He needs ten healthy children (with willing parents) to become the media, and Mr. Adriaan Geest tries his best to acquire them, difficult as it might be. He manages to obtain six, and goes to an orphanage to see if he can get another four. But here lies the obstacle: a priest named Van Kijkscharp, who condemns vaccination like it is a grave sin. To him, vaccination means stopping the destiny from actually happen, namely the death determined by God. In short, doing vaccination is against God’s will.

The second to deliver a common idea are Di Atas Kereta Angin and Belenggu Emas. Both imply the unavoidable, unbearable white supremacy in the time of colonization, where the Dutch really think that they are way superior to the natives and therefore not to be “too kind” to or get in touch “too much” with them. But Belenggu Emas generally talks more about women’s emancipation, in which Cornelia, our protagonist, is put in a “cage” by her husband Theo, not only because she is a woman, but also because she is a European, someone who’s supposed to give examples to the “uneducated” natives, and not imitate them instead.

The third and the last pair, Tawanan and Indonesia Memanggil, show the reader what it is like when the Dutch is on the opposite end in this entire colonization. The narrative doesn’t tell readers about what they had been through in the second World War, but it points out blatantly that what they’ve been doing to Indonesian people is nothing different, if not worse. The Dutch protagonists in both stories seem to try to make their fellows see that if they do not like what the Germans did to them, they should’ve not done the same to Indonesians.

Those pairs of common-themed pieces might appear pretty engrossing, but the titular story is not less appealing. Teh dan Pengkhianat (or, in English it would be Tea and the Traitor) will grab the reader’s attention not only for its interesting premise, but also its thought-provoking quality. Back then, there were a lot of Chinese labor from Macau working in tea plantations of Wanayasa and Sindangkasih. They were going out on a rebellion for the unfair payment they got from the Dutch. Captain Simon Vastebonden was being tasked with quelling them, something that he found very hard not for the task itself, but for the partner chosen to work with him. Alibasah Sentot Prawirodirjo was a native who had once fought against the Dutch alongside Diponegoro, but then he had switched side and was now working for the colonists. This had made Vastebonden raise a doubt in himself: could he trust him? The man who betrayed his own motherland for money? And now given a chance to prove his loyalty to the Dutch by quelling the Chinese labor rebellion? What kind of man doing that?

But basically this short story collection in its entirety is talking about traitors, if we see the native-supporting Dutch people as traitors to their own nation. Except that from the native point of view, they are the kind-hearted, considerate persons who take pity on the people of East Indies and disagree with their own. In fact, the way we see it, the traitorous Dutch in each of the story does not agree with colonization and does not see Indonesians as inferior to them. This quality is, of course, considered good in the eyes of the colonized, but what about their fellowmen?

Every piece in Teh dan Pengkhianat is an insight into what colonization is, what it means to the land and the nation being colonized. But they mainly, as I have mentioned above, try to depict what the colonists think or feel about what they have been doing for hundreds of years. Some might say this is too ambitious, because, as part of the nation being colonized back then by the Dutch, how could Iksaka Banu be sure that what he describes here is exactly what some of the Dutch did think and feel about their nation occupying the East Indies? What right does he have?

It’s not that the entire collection is a bad idea, it’s merely highly questionable. And what becomes more of a problem is actually how Mr. Banu tells the stories. His writing style is, sadly, not engaging enough to make the reader stay awake till midnight and stomach what he’s trying to say. All the premises are pretty interesting, but how they are executed is quite far away from impressive. It lacks the soul, the grippingness of a powerful narrative. It’s as if it’s merely telling you something, and not exactly describing to you something.

Overall, Teh dan Pengkhianat by Iksaka Banu is a pretty good collection. It tries to push the “national” boundary and depict the run of the history from the “enemy’s” point of view. Whether it fails or succeeds, it’s up to the reader. Whether he’s right or wrong to do so, it’s also up to the reader.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Raden Mandasia Si Pencuri Daging Sapi

26645719467_57e1339154It is not uncommon for us to enjoy adventure/fantasy books, but perhaps it’s pretty hard to find the real gem here in Indonesia, much less the historical one with a grand journey and multiple characters and truly enjoyable narrative that sucks the reader right up from the very first page. Raden Mandasia Si Pencuri Daging Sapi by Yusi Avianto Pareanom is certainly such a one. Pareanom really has it in him to do just that: making his reader sit tight in their chair while devouring his rich tale till the end. It wouldn’t be proper to call Raden Mandasia vastly extravagant for its lack of thorough descriptions here and there, but it has its own charm that strike almost everyone in awe.

Long before embarking on a grand voyage to the barely heard of yet widely famous for its ethereally beautiful princess Kingdom of Gerbang Agung, Sungu Lembu has held a grudge against the Kingdom of Gilingwesi for what it did to his land and family back in the past. He’s sworn that he’d do anything to take his revenge on his prime enemy King Watugunung, even if it seems so impossible. Hence the need for going on the long, unpredictable journey in which he’s following Raden Mandasia, the twelfth prince of Gilingwesi with a rather eccentric hobby of stealing beef whom he accidentally met in a gambling house, on the equally impossible mission to stop an impending war. Together, they are going through an adventure that both exciting and challenging yet sometimes inexplicably absurd: fighting pirates, bumping into a Chinese man who cannot speak their language but insists on engaging them in conversation, watching a holy messenger being swallowed by a monstrous whale, meeting a conceited cook who has been serving roast pork to his master everyday for ten whole years, running from a stormy wind in the desert as they lose their horses, entering the tightly guarded palace of a princess in a eunuch’s skin (yes, skin), only to see their aim crumbling all around them along with Gerbang Agung’s city wall the soldiers of Gilingwesi break down and the fall of dead people from the sky. The result of the unavoidable war is so far from being decided. And, not unlike the mission Raden Mandasia was carrying, Sungu Lembu’s heartfelt hatred is starting to turn the different path.

At a glimpse Raden Mandasia looks like an adventure story following two young men who are making journey together with respective missions of their own, one to save a kingdom and the other to destroy it in secret. Others may look at it as an historical martial arts novel, since in some senses it quite resembles those written by Jin Yong, with historical backgrounds strewed everywhere (albeit very vaguely blurred), training and practice of martial arts being performed by the main character, and fighting scenes littered so many parts of the book. But it might actually be an historical fantasy fiction, a form of made-up tale set in the past complete with based-on-true-tradition kingdoms, otherwise fictitious kings and queens, princes and princesses, wars, though minus weird creatures, mystery or myth, and magic. It might be a blend of those three, however, considering the so many various elements making up this wonderful, exciting, vulgarly funny fictional creation. It’s so hard to decide what kind of book this actually is, but for sure it’s not an out-and-out story of physical adventure, despite the writer’s insistence on throwing the characters from one place to another, from one experience to another, from one out-of-this-world event to another, from encountering one interesting person to another, etc. It’s a quest for an answer, the true answer, to what is war and what is the act of revenge (or is it truly worth it), to what is important and what will be in vain, what is true and what is false (much like the nature of the tale itself) and where the thin line lies.

Yusi Avianto Pareanom has truly showed his writing prowess with Raden Mandasia, its subplots are excellently and carefully structured, its characters are all gray but not without conscience, the historical, cultural and geographical backgrounds are veiled ever so cleverly that they leave the reader guessing: where is it? who is it? what is it? At some point in the story I found myself trying so hard to uncover where is it actually the Kingdom of Gerbang Agung until I realized that it actually is the place I’ve been wanting to go to. From front to back Pareanom presents a very neat storyline in which he takes upon himself to become both the narrator and the protagonist, telling his tale precariously from the first person’s point of view, where he has to relies upon encountering and listening to other characters’ stories to gather and arrange all installments of the entire narrative. It’s surely not an easy task for an author not to get caught in a trap of writing using this kind of POV, but Pareanom nailed it. And he did it with hilarious tone and an unadorned, vulgar style of telling that have readers staying in their seats while laughing and cursing just like the narrator does. Raden Mandasia is an extensive work without being grueling nor boring, complicated without being confusing, it’s a masterpiece without asking to be so. Such a shame, however, that even with its strong climax and trying-to-be-epic battle scenes, its ending fails to conclude the story elaborately and satisfyingly, seeming to run too fast instead. It is understandable if the writer wanted to end it as briefly as possible without having to prolong it anymore, but still.

At the end, Raden Mandasia Si Pencuri Daging Sapi is a very rare work of fiction. We might have had this kind of adventure tale somewhere in our contemporary period of literature, but this novel by Yusi Avianto Pareanom is absolutely one of a kind. Despite its lack of detailed descriptions of almost everything and fast-foward ending, it’s still an engrossing book everyone can and should enjoy.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Bajak Laut & Purnama Terakhir: Sebuah Komedi Sejarah

40500774525_b90bc2836fKetika mendengar kata pahlawan, mungkin yang terpikir oleh kita adalah sifat-sifat seperti gagah berani, berbudi pekerti luhur, kuat secara fisik, cerdas, serta rela berkorban untuk membela kebenaran dan membasmi kejahatan demi kepentingan orang banyak.

Pahlawan adalah panutan, contoh, idola, sosok manusia tanpa cela yang “didewakan” dan dipuja-puja. Karena itulah seorang pahlawan selalu dijadikan protagonis atau tokoh utama dalam kisah-kisah klasik maupun dalam kisah-kisah masa kini yang masih memakai patokan lama demi menyampaikan moral cerita kepada pembaca dengan lebih mudah dan gamblang, mengingat pahlawan selalu putih dan penjahat selalu hitam.

Namun bagaimana jika karakter yang dipasang sebagai protagonis memiliki sifat-sifat ambigu? Tidak hitam, tetapi juga tidak putih? Bagaimana jika alih-alih kepentingan orang banyak, sang protagonis hanya memikirkan diri sendiri? Bagaimana jika alih-alih berdecak kagum, sang protagonis justru membuat pembaca muak?

Di zaman modern, formula tokoh protagonis sudah banyak bergeser, tokoh-tokoh dengan karakter ambigu semakin banyak dipasang sebagai pemeran utama. Adhitya Mulya pun menghadirkan formula modern yang sama dalam karya terbarunya, Bajak Laut & Purnama Terakhir: Sebuah Komedi Sejarah.

Berlatar tahun 1667 pada masa kekuasaan V.O.C. (perlu diketahui bahwa pada saat itu Nusantara belum diduduki oleh negeri Belanda, karena V.O.C. merupakan perusahaan swasta berskala multinasional), Bajak Laut & Purnama Terakhir bercerita tentang pencarian pusaka sakti peninggalan kerajaan Majapahit nyaris 400 tahun sebelumnya.

Lantaran berpotensi bencana, para arya (yang dulu merupakan pengikut setia Raden Wijaya) dan keturunan mereka diwajibkan untuk mengembalikan pusaka sakti tersebut ke tempat asalnya sebelum genap 4200 purnama. Setelah melewati ratusan tahun dan banyaknya arya serta keturunan mereka yang berguguran, delapan dari sepuluh pusaka berhasil dikembalikan ke tempatnya di Pulau Sangeang. Akan tetapi, ketika pusaka kesembilan dan kesepuluh hendak diambil untuk “diantarkan pulang” oleh ketiga keturunan arya yang tersisa, mereka harus berebut dengan seorang admiral V.O.C. yang licik dan ambisius, yang terang-terang memiliki segala sumber daya untuk merenggut pusaka tersebut demi mimpi meraih kuasa lebih.

Jika pembaca mengira tokoh protagonis di sini adalah ketiga keturunan arya yang tersisa—yang berjiwa kesatria, pandai bela diri, dan rela berkorban apa pun demi menjalankan tugas mulia—ia salah, walaupun bukan pula sang admiral yang jelas-jelas berhati kotor. Di antara kedua belah pihak, sang protagonis adalah bajak laut bernama Jaka Kelana, yang digambarkan bukan orang baik-baik (lantaran profesinya), sering kali konyol, kadang kala tolol, pengecut dan tidak memiliki ilmu bela diri apa pun, suka memuji diri sendiri (mungkin pembaca akan lelah dengan omong kosongnya bahwa dia ganteng, padahal menurut deskripsi tidak), dan telah melakukan berbagai macam tindak kriminal mulai dari perampokan bersenjata, pencurian, penculikan, sampai pembunuhan.

Di tengah perebutan pusaka antara ketiga arya dan sang admiral, Jaka Kelana muncul sebagai “pahlawan”, yang membantu ketiga arya mengembalikan pusaka sakti terakhir ke tempatnya dan dengan segala daya upaya menumpas makhluk misterius yang hendak menghancurkan seluruh keturunan Raden Wijaya (makhluk yang bisa jadi mengingatkan pembaca pada naga tidur dalam The Hobbit). Orang macam Jaka Kelana-lah yang kemudian rela berkorban demi menuntaskan misi yang mulia, meskipun dia berbuat demikian lebih karena insting daripada niat menyelamatkan orang banyak.

Jaka Kelana merupakan sosok antihero, protagonis abu-abu dengan karakter yang ambigu. Dia sama sekali bukan sosok idola yang patut dicontoh, apalagi memiliki sifat kepahlawanan sebagaimana lazimnya. Namun dia dirancang sebagai tokoh yang menonjol dan menggerakkan cerita, juga yang menyelesaikannya. Dialah sang pemecah kebuntuan dan “pembasmi kejahatan”. Selain itu, Jaka Kelana juga bukannya tanpa karakter yang (sedikit) mulia. Selain setia kawan, Jaka seseorang yang dapat diandalkan dan sopan (bahkan begitu sopannya hingga terlihat konyol). Sifat-sifat inilah yang menjadikannya bernuansa hitam dan putih sekaligus.

Namun jika kita mau melihat lebih jauh ke belakang pada sejarah (sejarah dalam konteks buku ini, tentunya), Jaka tidak sendiri.

Dalam kisah Bajak Laut (yang tentu saja hanya fiksi belaka), tokoh Raden Wijaya yang selama ini kita kenang (atau kita kenal) sebagai kesatria pendiri sebuah kerajaan digambarkan sebagai sosok yang gila kekuasaan dan rela menghabisi pengikut setianya karena tak ingin kehilangan kekuasaan itu (yang ada hubungannya dengan pusaka sakti yang mesti dikembalikan). Sang raja pertama Majapahit pun dikisahkan tidak ragu-ragu memalsukan catatan sejarah agar generasi yang akan datang hanya mengetahui kehebatan dan kejayaannya, dan bahwa para pengikutnya telah berkhianat dan memberontak, walau sebenarnya tidak demikian.

Bajak Laut & Purnama Terakhir memang hanya kisah rekaan berlatar sejarah masa lalu yang ditulis dengan gaya komedi demi mengundang tawa. Tetapi pembaca tidak hanya dapat mentertawakan kekonyolan adegan dan dialog tokoh-tokohnya, karena tindakan yang diambil oleh Raden Wijaya dalam kisah ini juga dapat menjadi bahan lelucon.

Apa lagi yang lebih lucu dari seorang penguasa, yang demi menjaga kekuasaan dan nama baiknya, tanpa rasa bersalah memutarbalikkan fakta sehingga mengacaukan keaslian sejarah? Apa lagi yang lebih lucu dari kenyataan bahwa kita tidak akan pernah tahu sejarah yang sebenarnya karena bisa jadi ada banyak orang seperti tokoh Raden Wijaya dalam kisah ini? Bahwa apa yang fiksi dan nonfiksi hanya dipisahkan oleh satu garis tipis? Jika memang demikian, bukankah kisah sejarah benar-benar telah menjadi komedi? Jika memang demikian, bukankah sejatinya setiap pahlawan bukanlah pahlawan, layaknya Jaka Kelana dan Raden Wijaya?

Bajak Laut & Purnama Terakhir mungkin bukanlah karya yang dirancang untuk menjadi bacaan yang serius, tetapi justru karya seperti inilah yang seharusnya dianggap serius.

N.B.: resensi ini pernah ditayangkan sebelumnya di Jurnal Ruang.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Halaman Terakhir

“It is good to be an important person, but it is more important to be a good person,” reads the front cover. People may find it morally impossible in the world that is so full of burning ambitions to be a person of importance rather than a person of good morals. People can and will do anything and everything to get what they want and think that “what’s right what’s not” is only for fairy tale goers who don’t know how this world works. But that’s what Halaman Terakhir wants to set up straight. This historical crime drama novel by Yudhi Herwibowo doesn’t only talk about Hoegeng, the legendary Indonesian police commissioner, but also the possibility of being a good person and doing the right thing.

The book begins with a cut-down scene showing Hoegeng hesitating over reading the assignment letter which will send him off to Belgium as an ambassador. The message is clear: he is actually not given the honor of representing his country abroad, but is discreetly sacked from his job. He knows it, and he knows why. As the next chapters unfold in flashback, readers will see that he is in the middle of investigating two cases which, slowly but surely, gain nationwide attention for allegedly involving people of great importance and many high-ranking government officials. He cannot just sit there and idle while an innocent girl is raped and left running in circles because the local police do not do anything but trying hard to prevent the real culprits from being found. He cannot just be quiet while smuggled fancy cars running around the capital city without anyone knowing how and where they are coming from. Hoegeng knows his job and won’t let anything nor anyone get in his way. But he also knows he is not the one who has control over the country, and thus has no control over the tricky cases. The moment he tries to do the right thing, that’s when the power so much greater than him takes over and banishes him from his post.

Halaman Terakhir might be a historical novel about Hoegeng Iman Santoso, the legendary police commissioner who is known for his honesty, modesty, integrity, and firmness in doing his job the right way. However, on a closer look, it is not only about the legend fighting for justice in an era full of corrupt government officials and media shutdowns, but also about justice itself. This idea is largely represented, or rather, brought out, by the “supporting” characters making appearances in and driving the entire story. Characters like journalist Djaba Kresna, police officers Jati Kusuma and Wulan Sari, and also lawyer Setiaji Darsono are ones who, aside from Hoegeng, project strong moral principles of justice and integrity. It is them, rather than Hoegeng, in my opinion, who manage to bring out what this book intends to tell the reader, which is to keep standing up for what is right whatever the pressure put upon us. At times, they can even steal the show with their actions and dialogues more than Hoegeng should. It is really such a shame that the character of Hoegeng, despite his greater portion of appearance, is in fact shining dimmer than the others. His portrayal doesn’t show strongly enough for him to be the central character, and only gives the impression of being a passing-by actor.

Be that as it may, Yudhi Herwibowo manages to impress me this time. Halaman Terakhir is a truly wonderful combination of inspiring story, flowing, thorough narrative, and simple yet gripping style of writing. All those show that Herwibowo is indeed an experienced writer. The dialogues he uses feel quite natural, though I’m still uncomfortable with the use of the word “engkau”, which I deem too poetic. But that’s beside the point. It’s just one minor weakness I’m willing to forget in the face of his excellent way of narrating. What’s more, his use of Javanese language, which is necessary for the sake of the story background, is just in the right dose. He doesn’t only give the meaning and/or explanation on footnotes, but also cleverly blends them with the sentences so that readers can understand them then and there. It renders the narrative flowing and effective, as his storytelling is. The entire plot can really flow constantly and smoothly: no holes, no bumps, no inconsistent pace. In short, it’s totally enjoyable and riveting. Each case is elaborated in clever detail, even in every twist and turn Herwibowo manages to overcome all the obstacles that might hinder the reader from having satisfying excitement. Even Hoegeng’s background story, needed to build the foundation on which this book is based, can blend perfectly together with the fictional characters and subplots that develop the whole story. And that’s not the only interesting feature of this book. Despite showing the New Order with its pesky, controlling government and corrupt officials, Herwibowo doesn’t give the impression of unfairly judging or casting aspersions on them. Instead, like most of his characters here, Herwibowo appears to be pretty fair in presenting the so-called “dark times of the modern Indonesian history”. You could say he’s very objective, proving that not all government officials of that era were as vile as most of people/modern writers think. It’s like fresh air in the middle of today’s stinking literature.

All in all, Halaman Terakhir by Yudhi Herwibowo is a massive work. In spite of some flaws in the presentation of characters and the use of one awkward word, this book can be counted as a successful work of fiction. Inspiring, objective, and entertaining.

Rating: 4/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, review

Cantik Itu Luka

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

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

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

2015 English edition’s cover

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

“Bagaikan pemancing yang menanti dengan penuh kesabaran

diberi kado sekeranjang ikan segar oleh seseorang.”

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Remains of the Day

I first discovered Kazuo Ishiguro when I stumbled upon Never Let Me Go and was spurred to read it. The surreal, dystopian novel was the only work of Ishiguro I’ve read, and I never thought it was really my thing. In fact, I didn’t think I would read any works by him again, ever. But that was until I got to read several reviews on The Remains of the Day. I got intrigued, and was determined then and there to hunt the book. First published in 1989, The Remains of the Day was a Man Booker Prize winner of the same year, and, despite the simply written narrative, what it brings out from within assured me in some ways that it deserved the award.

Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall, is going on a long journey to the West Country after accepting an offer to have some vacation from the present owner of the noble house. At first Stevens feels reluctant and doubtful about his new employer’s invitation, but then arrives a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall with whom he’s worked about 20 or so years ago, so he eventually changes his mind. On the road to Little Compton, he is swept by a wave of nostalgic memories, ones of his much younger time when he’s served Lord Darlington, the original owner of Darlington Hall, and when all eyes are on Germany. It is the time when he’s performed his duties at best, had his loyalty to his lordship more than anything, and when he’s witnessed the turmoil of the European politics with quietness of a very devoted butler. His devotion is not limited only to his services, but beyond that. He seems to defend his employer’s opinions on everything, however wrong they might be, and unaware of his lordship’s political mistakes.

Throughout the story, we can see that Stevens is described as rigid, work-minded, loyal, devoted, insensitive, and rather unwilling to enjoy his life. He portrays himself as having this particular thing he calls “dignity”, something that every gentleman has to have. Most of the time he is so frustrating that the reader might want to scream at him, knocking some sense into him that life is not only about work and professional attitude. However, as much as Stevens’s personality is quite annoyingly gripping, at some point I found my attention drifted to that of Lord Darlington. He is one of those old-fashioned English lords, questioning the essence and practicality of democracy that the common people hail.

“If your house is on fire, you don’t call the staff into the drawing room and discuss the best method of escape for an hour, do you?”

— Lord Darlington

That quote above might seem so silly for some people/readers, serving only as a defense of aristocracy and feudalism and dictatorship, but I see it differently. It is true that Lord Darlington’s ideas and doubts on democracy won’t certainly be relevant anywhere, especially in today’s world that demands absolute freedom of everything. But I imagine there must be some situations in which “strong leadership”, as Lord Darlington puts it, is urgently, totally needed. How can you listen to so many people with different ideas while you’re in such chaotic situations?

The entire narrative of The Remains of the Day seems to me to be pretty simple and bear nothing of extraordinary nor unusual. With its series of flashbacks, the plot runs very smoothly without so much as a bump and is very enjoyable to follow. Even the subtle conflicts (of dignity and politics) did not trigger off much tension in me while reading it. Perhaps it’s the way Ishiguro’s writing that drowned me without me even realizing it, or maybe it was just me. The story is told from Stevens’s point of view, which lets us know what’s inside his head and how he perceives everything. Uniquely, it is from this viewpoint of his that the reader can see what Stevens himself cannot: Miss Kenton’s feelings for him and Doctor Carlisle’s prejudice against him. Only at that failure, instead of the political turmoil, could I feel the most blazing of a fire of the whole storyline and wake up from my slumber of smooth reading. Be that as it may, I think it’s the political views and English gentlemen’s character entangling with said views which are the true core of the story. The portrayal of Stevens and his lord employer elaborates the stance on democracy and Germany and shows how it then brings his lordship to the fall of his politics and aristocracy. More or less, in general, this story seems to want to criticize and blame old-fashionedness for the English weak and brittle position in war. On the other hand, it also shows that there is still tomorrow and that there’s always a chance to change direction into something or someone better, at least that’s what Stevens implies.

Finally, I have to say that I quite liked The Remains of the Day. It is a very simple read yet subtly provokes so much thought, although not so much tension and excitement. I can only say that it is a grand story in its own way.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Silent House

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Burial Rites

Indonesian edition’s cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The White Queen

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5