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

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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

Ikan-ikan dari Laut Merah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Negeri Kabut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas

34135013895_b46a7651dc_oKita hidup di tengah budaya patriarki di mana sering kali perempuan dipandang sebagai obyek seks semata sehingga kekerasan maupun pelecehan seksual terhadap wanita (diam-diam) dianggap wajar saja. Dan jika memang karya sastra merupakan refleksi dari kehidupan nyata, maka sepertinya itulah yang hendak disampaikan Eka Kurniawan dalam novelnya Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas. Dengan mengambil latar belakang masyarakat kelas menengah ke bawah yang gemar kekerasan, buku ini seolah ingin menunjukkan bahwa hal yang dianggap “wajar” ini sesungguhnya justru tidaklah wajar.

Kisah dimulai ketika Ajo Kawir dan sahabatnya, Si Tokek, masih berusia awal belasan tahun. Suatu malam, tanpa sengaja mereka melihat Rona Merah, seorang perempuan gila di kampung mereka, diperkosa dua orang polisi. Akibat rasa terguncang saat menyaksikan peristiwa ini, kemaluan Ajo Kawir, atau yang ia panggil si Burung, jadi tidak bisa ngaceng alias berdiri. Ajo Kawir berusaha keras membangunkan si Burung dari “tidurnya”, mulai dengan cara yang paling menggelikan sampai yang paling menyedihkan. Tapi si Burung tetap tak mau bangun, tidur nyenyak bak seekor beruang kutub yang terlelap di musim dingin dan memimpikan hujan salju. Masalah bertambah runyam bagi Ajo Kawir ketika ia berjumpa dan jatuh cinta pada Iteung, gadis cantik dari sebuah perguruan silat, karena bagaimana mungkin ia dapat membahagiakan seorang gadis dengan kemaluan yang tidak bisa ngaceng? Tahun demi tahun Ajo Kawir lewati dengan menanggung penderitaan ini, sementara satu-satunya cara untuk menuntaskannya adalah dengan menghabisi kedua polisi yang telah memerkosa Rona Merah.

Tidak seperti Cantik Itu Luka maupun Lelaki Harimau yang sangat mengandalkan realisme magis dalam menyampaikan ide ceritanya, novel Eka Kurniawan kali ini lebih berpegang pada realisme. Namun realisme yang maskulin. Maskulin dan sovinis. Hampir di sepanjang jalan cerita terdapat adegan-adegan brutal di mana adu jotos (dan membunuh dengan tangan kosong) adalah cara yang biasa digunakan untuk menyelesaikan masalah. Akan tetapi, yang paling menonjol di sini adalah kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan. Hal yang menimpa Ajo Kawir, yang menjadi sorotan dalam novel ini, berawal dari aksi pemerkosaan yang dilakukan oleh dua orang polisi biadab terhadap seorang perempuan gila. Dari sini dapat dilihat bahwa dua orang lelaki, yang berfisik dan bermental lebih kuat dari si perempuan gila, dengan demikian memiliki kuasa lebih, dapat memaksakan kehendak mereka secara semena-mena terhadap wanita yang lebih lemah. Hal nahas serupa juga dialami Iteung di masa kecilnya, ketika ia masih seorang gadis polos dan dilecehkan oleh guru sekaligus wali kelasnya sendiri. Tapi tentu saja tidak ada tempat untuk mengadu. Si perempuan gila hanya diam saja sampai ia mati seusai diperkosa, begitu pula dengan Iteung yang memilih jalannya sendiri untuk menyudahi pelecehan yang dialaminya. Karena, pada umumnya, yang berkuasalah yang akan selalu menang dan yang lemah (baik secara fisik, mental, maupun kedudukan) akan selalu kalah. Maka mengadu kepada siapa pun hanya akan menjadi jalan keluar yang sia-sia.

“Kau pikir perempuan barang, bisa dibeli di Pasar Tanah Abang?”

Namun dengan narasi yang teramat maskulin dan sovinis inilah Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas justru mengolok-olok seksisme dan kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan yang dianggap lazim di masyarakat. Si Burung yang tidur lelap bisa dibilang merupakan kiasan dari sesuatu yang tidak wajar, berlawanan dengan tindak pemerkosaan (sebagai penyebabnya) yang diam-diam dan sering kali dipandang wajar dan sambil lalu. Dan seperti yang disiratkan oleh kisahnya sendiri, ketidakwajaran yang diderita Ajo Kawir hanya akan sembuh jika kewajaran yang dilakukan oleh kedua polisi biadab tersebut dihapuskan secara nyata, bagaimana pun caranya. Tampaknya, bagi Eka Kurniawan, memandang wajar seksisme dan kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan adalah hal yang konyol dan patut ditertawakan, maka dari itu ia melawan gagasan ini dengan kiasan burung (kemaluan lelaki) yang tertidur. Eka juga melakukan perlawanan dengan menciptakan tokoh Iteung yang kuat baik secara fisik maupun mental, yang mampu melawan lelaki dengan tangannya dan memilih jalannya sendiri dan melakukan apa pun yang dikehendakinya.

Sebagaimana sudah menjadi tipikal Eka Kurniawan, novel Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas penuh dengan satire dan bernuansa komedi gelap (black humor). Tetapi memang gaya penulisan seperti ini sangat cocok untuk menyampaikan olok-olok yang diinginkan penulis. Namun novel ini juga tak melulu berisi sindiran terhadap budaya patriarki dan masalah sosial, Eka juga mewarnainya dengan guyonan-guyonan segar terutama melalui burung Ajo Kawir yang ia ajak bicara dan mintai pendapat setiap kali ia dihadapkan pada masalah yang rumit. Dan yang paling menarik dari novel ini adalah plotnya yang terlihat seperti tak beraturan, tak memiliki batasan antara masa lalu dan masa kini, pun antara kenyataan dan khayalan. Uniknya, jalan ceritanya mengalir dengan sangat baik sehingga tetap dapat diikuti tanpa kesulitan.

Secara keseluruhan, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas bukan hanya sebuah karya yang sepertinya diciptakan memang sengaja untuk mengkritik, tetapi juga merupakan hasil olahan narasi yang ciamik dan bukti dari kelihaian sang penulis dalam bercerita.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Drupadi

33828926655_9a7f05b53b_oWanita sering kali tidak punya pilihan, dan tidak bisa berkata tidak. Sebelum banyak dari kaum perempuan di zaman modern menangisi kenyataan ini, kisah-kisah wayang Jawa kuna sudah sejak lama menyiratkannya, dan kisah Drupadi dalam epos Mahabharata adalah salah satunya. Seno Gumira Ajidarma menuliskan kembali kisah sang dewi nan cantik cemerlang ini dalam sejumlah cerita pendeknya, yang kemudian dijadikan satu sehingga terbaca sebagai sebuah novel yang utuh. Ditemani ilustrasi-ilustrasi apik karya Danarto serta bait-bait puisi yang memantik akal dan rasa, buku yang diberi judul Drupadi ini tidak hanya berbicara tentang penderitaan yang harus dialami wanita, tetapi juga peran dan apa yang sanggup mereka lakukan dengan kekuatan tersembunyi yang mereka miliki.

Di buku ini kisah Drupadi dimulai ketika ia diarak dengan segenap upacara kebesaran menuju gelaran sayembara yang diadakan sang ayah, Prabu Drupada, untuk mencarikan suami baginya. Belum apa-apa pembaca sudah disuguhi kenyataan pahit di mana Drupadi, sebagai seorang wanita, tidak berhak untuk memilih suaminya sendiri, karena yang akan menjadi suaminya adalah siapa pun yang memenangkan sayembara tersebut. Pesertanya pun dibatasi hanya dari golongan yang sederajat atau yang tidak lebih rendah dari Dewi Drupadi sendiri. Secercah harapan muncul ketika Arjuna memenangkan sayembara, karena walaupun akhirnya ada seorang pria yang berhasil “memiliki” dirinya, Drupadi jatuh cinta pada pandangan pertama pada sang kesatria yang tengah menyamar. Dapat menikah dengan pria yang dicintai merupakan kebebasan tersendiri, tetapi bukan lagi saat pria itu justru kemudian menolak untuk menikahinya dan melempar tanggung jawab untuk mempersunting dirinya kepada saudara yang lain. Jadilah Drupadi dari seorang putri yang tak bisa memilih suaminya sendiri menjadi sebentuk tanggung jawab yang dilempar-lempar di antara para Pandawa karena tidak ada yang mau menanggungnya. Drupadi hanya bisa tertunduk dan diam, tak mengungkapkan pendapat maupun keinginannya. Karena sekalipun ia mempunyai keinginan dan harapan, wanita seakan-akan tidak dikodratkan untuk memperjuangkan dengan cara mengungkapkannya. Maka pada akhirnya orang lainlah yang menentukan nasib Drupadi, menjadikannya istri dari kelima Pandawa bersaudara sekaligus.

Drupadi tertunduk. Apakah perempuan diandaikan tidak punya kemauan? Tentu seorang perempuan memiliki kehendaknya sendiri. Namun meski dirinya hidup di antara para bijak, selain kepada perempuan tidak pernah diajukan pertanyaan, perempuan sendiri tidak akan memperjuangkan kehendak dan cita-citanya dengan cara menyatakannya.

Dalam kisah ini, menjadi seorang wanita yang bersuamikan lima orang bukanlah balasan atau jawaban dari praktik poligami di mana seorang pria boleh memiliki lebih dari satu istri. Di sini, Drupadi justru menanggung beban harus bersikap adil kepada kelima suaminya (walau hanya mencintai seorang saja) dan menurut kepada kelimanya pula. Ia tetaplah seorang istri yang, sedikit banyak, merupakan properti dari para suaminya dan dengan demikian menjadikannya bagian dari diri kelima Pandawa. Ia tetaplah seorang wanita yang tak bisa berbuat apa-apa kala salah seorang suaminya, Yudhistira, mempertaruhkannya di atas meja judi dan menyerahkan nasibnya pada dadu yang berputar. Dan benar saja, ketika Yudhistira kalah di tangan Sangkuni, sebagai bagian dari properti sang suami, Drupadi pun harus ikut diserahkan kepada Kurawa bersama seluruh negeri Indraprastha. Sekeras apa pun ia menolak, bukanlah takdirnya sebagai seorang istri dan wanita untuk bisa lepas dari suratan menjadi “milik orang lain”. Belum cukup penderitaannya sampai di situ, ia diperkosa beramai-ramai di hadapan kelima suaminya sendiri serta harus ikut mengembara bersama mereka di hutan saat terbuang dalam penyamaran.

32946376464_713f388337Namun Seno Gumira Ajidarma tidak hanya menceritakan derita yang mesti dialami Drupadi sebagai seorang wanita. Dalam bab berjudul Wacana Drupadi, SGA menggambarkan betapa sang dewi sudah tak sanggup lagi memendam dendam di dalam hati dan menuntut kelima suaminya agar menuntut balas kepada para Kurawa. Dari tuntutan Drupadi inilah berkobar Perang Bharatayudha, di mana Kurawa dikalahkan oleh Pandawa dan Drupadi dapat memenuhi sumpahnya: mengeramasi rambutnya dengan darah Dursasana. Dari sini dapat dilihat betapa perang bisa terjadi “hanya” karena dendam dan tuntutan dari seorang wanita. Tetapi dari sisi lain juga dapat dilihat betapa balasan dari menghinakan seorang wanita mampu menyeret seratus orang kesatria beserta seluruh pasukannya pada kematian. Ini adalah kekuatan wanita, kekuatan tersembunyi yang tidak diperoleh dari penempaan fisik maupun penggunaan senjata.

Seno Gumira Ajidarma mampu menceritakan ulang kisah wayang Jawa yang berakar dari legenda India ini dengan sangat sederhana tetapi dengan gaya bahasa yang sangat apik dan dramatis. Dan meski terkesan sangat singkat dan plotnya melompat-lompat, novel ini mampu menerangkan karakter dan menangkap peran seorang Drupadi dalam kisah peperangan yang didominasi oleh kaum lelaki dengan lugas dan terperinci. Novel ini menggambarkan dua sisi wanita (kuat dan lemah) yang tak terelakkan, layaknya dua sisi kehidupan (baik dan buruk) yang sudah menjadi suratan dan hanya dipisahkan oleh sebuah garis tipis berwarna abu-abu. Novel ini juga seolah ingin menyatakan bahwa pria dan wanita seharusnya setara dan sederajat, bahwa bukan hanya wanita yang memiliki kewajiban terhadap suami tetapi juga sebaliknya. Pesan inilah, selain gaya bahasa dan ilustrasi-ilustrasinya, yang membuat novel Drupadi terasa sangat indah dan menggugah.

Rating: 4/5

poetry, review

Melipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak

32572055191_8df2ceb2fb_oMelipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak comprises Sapardi Djoko Damono’s selected poems written and published between 1998 and 2015. Quite different from Hujan Bulan Juni, his other book of selected poems released back in 2014, this one’s central theme is more of nature, God and spirituality, and old age. There is no so much as a hint of human love and romanticism in each and every one of the seventy five works contained in this book. But instead of being boring and lifeless, I found Melipat Jarak so heart-shredding and profound.

The collection opens with Catatan Masa Kecil, 4, a paragraphed poem about a little child who only knows of, and is so fond of, the number zero. It is intriguing how Mr. Damono, as an old man himself, explores the mind of a child and presents, if not writtenly imagines, that child’s take on numbers. The style may not be the prime quality for it’s not surprisingly new, but it is something that brings out the storytelling goal of the poem to the surface. Without it, the reader might not catch the reminiscent tone intended for them to sense; it would merely be verses and rhymes. And we won’t find this paragraphing in the opening poem only, but also in some others, like Sepasang Lampu Beca, which needs to bring up into view its “hidden narrative”.

In stark contrast to the first poem of the collection, many of Mr. Damono’s other works here talk about old-age life. Anyone already read his poetry books before must have been familiar with a piece entitled Ada Berita Apa Hari Ini, Den Sastro?, a nine-part poem telling of an old man who has been retired from his job and from everything else and the only thing he does everyday is reading newspapers at the terrace of his house without anyone, not even his own neighbors, paying attention to him. It emanates loneliness and elicits sadness, describing a kind of life where we will be only doing boring things, recalling the past, reading news and stories of other people on papers while totally ignored by those in reality, waiting for death to come to us. Reading this poem, the reader might get the feeling that it will happen to them one day, especially when there is no one beside us anymore. Interestingly, Mr. Damono describes this purgatory not only in one or two poems, but in many numbers, including Sebelum Fajar, which is very much heart-breaking, and Old Friends, a brief, funny poem about a lot of old people sitting in a wait for their turn at a hospital.

As I have mentioned earlier, many a poem in Melipat Jarak brings up the subjects of nature, God, and spirituality. They are so many that they seem to be the soul of the book. Sometimes these themes of God and nature are blended together into one, like what we find in the poem Surah Penghujan: Ayat 1-24. This isn’t so because of the title, nor the form that replicates the verses in the Koran, where God speaks to humans, but for it subtly describes the power of God transforming into changes of seasons which cannot be denied no matter how hard humans refuse them. In others, like the ones entitled Tiga Sajak Ringkas Tentang Cahaya (about the light of the moon and sun) and Sajak Tafsir (where every element of nature denies the way others describe its shape, name, and role in this world), Mr. Damono purely talks about the nature and how it works. Meanwhile, in poems like Sajak-sajak Kecil Tentang Cinta, Tentu. Kau Boleh, and Sajak dalam Sembilan Bagian, he channels out his creativity solely into the subject of God, spirituality, and how he interacts with the Almighty.

As engrossing as those poems mentioned above might seem, none of them bears uniqueness as attractive as Malin Kundang and Sudah Kubilang, Jangan Kamu ke Sana, which are meant to represent the “alternative narratives” of an Indonesian folklore, Malin Kundang, and a well-known Western fairy tale, Cinderella, respectively. It is not the only time for Mr. Damono to tinker with folklores, legends, or fairy tales for he has ever done it with the story of Ramayana in his 2-in-1 short story collection, Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah, but still they are fascinating creations. In Malin Kundang, the betraying son is not cursed into a stone, instead, people of his land warn him against coming back home so he can dodge the bullet. While Sudah Kubilang, Jangan Kamu ke Sana is a totally different take on the happily-ended, popular love story. There are, on the other hand, pieces of which uniqueness is more on the form than the content; some poems like Sunyi yang Lebat, Tiga Percakapan Telepon (something I’ve never discovered before), Sebilah Pisau Dapur yang Kaubeli Dari Penjaja yang Setidaknya Seminggu Sekali Muncul di Kompleks, yang Selalu Berjalan Menunduk dan Hanya Sesekali Menawarkan Dagangannya dengan Suara yang Kadang Terdengar Kadang Tidak, yang Kalau Ditanya Berapa Harganya Dikatakannya, “Terserah Situ Saja…”, Urat Daun, and Dialog yang Terhapus. Their meanings are somehow unfathomable, but the beauty of their verses and rhymes is undeniably fun and enjoyable.

I cannot say I know much about poetry—the techniques, the figure of speech, the rhyme patterns and all that stuff—but overall I enjoyed Melipat Jarak so much. All the poems contained in this collection seemed to speak to me in every way, though it’s not to say that I could understand every one of them. Now I’ll close this review with some quote from one of my favorite numbers here, Dongeng Marsinah, a quote that is more powerful than that of Descartes:

“Ia suka berpikir,” kata Siapa,

(“She likes to think,” says Who)

“itu sangat berbahaya.”

(“that’s very dangerous.”)

Rating: 4/5

fiction, others

Indonesian Local Culture in Literature: Past and Present

Not so long ago I had a chance to read two Indonesian books, one is a classic and one is contemporary, which are heavily laden with cultural values and traditions: Sitti Nurbaya by Marah Rusli, and Puya ke Puya by one of our young potential writers, Faisal Oddang. Interestingly, though written by authors of different generations and talking about different cultures, the two books bring up the same restlessness. And, to me, that’s quite something.

Sitti Nurbaya (1920) is an Indonesian classic known to and hailed as a masterpiece by everyone in the country, even by those who never actually read the book. Every time there’s a young girl being married off to a man she never desires, we, Indonesians, will immediately, and stupidly, say that the girl suffers the same fate as Sitti Nurbaya. But most people get the story wrong, for it’s not about a girl being married off to some old, notoriously rich man her father picks for her. Set in Padang, West Sumatra (the land of Minangkabau people) the novel unfurls the story of a very young girl named Sitti Nurbaya who suffers a tragic fate in which she has to lose not only her love (by her own choice), but also everything she has. She is the daughter of a very rich merchant, befriending, and later falling in love with, Samsulbahri, a young man of noble birth. They could have been married, if not for her father’s sudden bankruptcy after the conflagration that destroys his shops and the evil scheme his competitor plays against him. The situation forces Nurbaya to forget about her dream and give up her happiness for her father instead. In order to help him pay his debts, she ends her relationship with Samsulbahri (without his knowing it) and marries Datuk Meringgih, who is also a bloody rich merchant in their city. She’s not happy, of course, and before she can see it coming, a fate worse than death befalls her and takes her life.

Unlike the classic, which is a tragic story by nature, the contemporary Puya ke Puya is lighter in its tone, though the story itself is all about the pursuit of heaven in the afterlife. The Tempo’s Best Book 2015 relates generally about what the people of Toraja (it derives from the words to riaja, which means “the people from above”) in South Sulawesi have to do for a family member who has just passed away to be able to find their way to heaven. Rante Ralla, a known noble man of his ethnic group, dies a sudden death while drinking ballo, some kind of alchoholic drink from Toraja. Rante’s son, Allu Ralla, refuses to hold rambu solo, a huge and costly funeral for the deceased, for he has no money and his father hardly leaves him a penny. His uncle urges him to sell their family’s land to the mining company that has been sucking their village dry for years so he can have the money to hold a proper ceremony instead of just burying his father in a low-cost, Christian way. It’s not only about money, though, for Allu doesn’t see any point in performing an “old custom” which is not relevant anymore. Thus, he insists on going on “the modern way”.

If we compare the two novels, even if only at a glance, we will see some differences in what they each tell of. While Sitti Nurbaya is a tragic love story, Puya ke Puya is a tragicomedy about death and family affair. More than that, both represent two different cultures in Indonesia, that of West Sumatra, and of South Sulawesi. The focus is different as well. Somewhat unrelated to the main plot, at some point in the narrative Marah Rusli describes how the society of Padang live under the matriarchal system: when two people get married, it is the family of the bride-to-be who provide the dowry and not the man; in a family, it’s not the father who is responsible for his children, but the brothers of the mother; and usually, the inheritance is passed down from mothers to daughters. Funnily enough, though, this rare system doesn’t seem to stop the nature of the society itself from being chauvinistic. I remember Sitti Nurbaya talks about how a woman should get more education, empowering herself instead of just bearing and rearing children, and how women should not marry too young. I assume, looking at the way she says all this, that the people of West Sumatra, whatever their social system is, is still patriarchal by nature and culture.

Puya ke Puya focuses on another matter. It’s not about how people marry, it’s about how people die. Throughout the multi-points-of-view narrative, Faisal Oddang puts his best effort into describing how the people of Toraja try to keep their traditions no matter what and hold a proper rambu solo for dead people, especially the high-ranking ones, so they can go to and arrive in heaven safely. For this journey, the deceased will need at least a hundred buffalos and pigs as their vehicles and supplies, hence the need for their family to hold said ceremony and butcher all those animals for them. It needs a lot of money, a whole lot of money. The problem is, not every time do the family have that much to carry out the expensive tradition but if they fail to do their “duty”, the spirit of the deceased will surely be lost between the heaven and earth.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, despite the differences, Sitti Nurbaya and Puya ke Puya imply the same restlessness. And the nagging question is, do old values and traditions need to change? In Sitti Nurbaya, the protagonist herself and her father and uncle rue the culture they hold and look up to the Dutch people (who occupied Indonesia in the past) for their progressive way of thinking. Baginda Sulaiman, Nurbaya’s father, insists that the local society of Padang should leave their old ways and do better, while her uncle Ahmad Maulana thinks that they should follow the Western path where it leads to the good example and leave it when it’s bad. He also believes that they should dump everything useless about their customs and keep still the good ones. But all these lamentations are a bit subtle and gentle. Oddang is louder and more progressive in delivering his ideas. He wants change, not just suggests it. Through the voice of Allu Ralla, his main character, he doesn’t hesitate to say that he hates the old ways, that the traditions the people of Toraja hold dear are so burdensome and pointless they have to be left behind.

This is very interesting: both classic and contemporary writers despise the old ways, demanding an immediate and progressive change in the local traditions their societies have been holding for generations. Well, I don’t believe the traditions are still there and whole now, but I don’t think the people of West Sumatra and South Sulawesi have left them altogether, either. Even here in Java island, in the small town I live in, people still hold on to their culture. Though, as part of today’s generation, I don’t understand half of it and hate the rest.

So, what do you think? Do the old values and traditions need to change? Or should they stay the same for the sake of identity? Because, what would people be without cultural identity? But, what if all that stuff is not relevant to the fast-moving world anymore?

fiction, review

Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

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