fiction, review

Orang-Orang Bloomington

2016 reprinted Indonesian edition by Noura Books

Budi Darma’s narrative is always a place where readers will find the darkest sides of human beings: hatred, envy, spitefulness, loneliness, indifference, anger, obsession, resentment. If anyone ever read his works before (for example: Hotel Tua, Kritikus Adinan, or Olenka), they’ll know right away that the late Indonesian author never describes human beings as “okay” (literally or figuratively). People have ill-intentions, they have their own evil; and the tone in which Mr. Budi portrays them can always drive the reader even more to that dark corner where they wish (or deny) that they are not one of them. Orang-Orang Bloomington is no exception. Every piece of the seven short (and rather long) stories on the list brings us disturbing narrators who let us see more characters with even more disturbing behaviors and attitudes and thoughts, which often result in sort of saddening situations.

Laki-laki Tua Tanpa Nama is the starting example. Through the eyes of the ever-curious, and disturbingly anxious, narrator―who rents an attic room in Ny. MacMillan’s house, which is one of the three in a row in Jalan Fess―the reader will see an old World War II veteran who plays with a gun in his own rented room and carries it to crowded places, causing confusion (and cautious amusement) among people.

But under this worrying situation―at least according to the narrator―what becomes a bigger problem is the indifference of the people around him, and how it clashes with the narrator’s unreasonable, growing fear. On the one hand, readers have to witness how―for some people―an old, senile man carrying a gun (loaded or not) is “none of my business”; on the other hand, the narrator keeps nagging his lady neighbors about the old man and his gun and trying so hard to get to know and befriend him so that he can stop him. It’s not something pleasant to read; it shows how people―in their comfortable space―try to draw a clear line between other people and themselves and end up misunderstanding others and then taking an unnecessary, fatal action. It also shows how our unstoppable desire to meddle in other people’s business can bring about their bad ending.

Another disturbing story is Keluarga M. However, here, instead of giving a disturbing vibe of a character, the narrator seems more of a dark-hearted, vengeful person. The Meek family is poor, and though both parents (Melvin and Marion) are working, the children (Mark and Martin) still cannot get enough food and clothing, and they definitely do not have toys to play with. That, quite understandably, leads to both often having fights with other children in their apartment complex over toys and trivial stuff.

Mark and Martin, however, also do not have the best of characters, and do not always do the best of actions. One day the narrator finds out that the younger brother has scratched his car’s passenger door, so he demands justice from their parents. But Melvin and Marion defend their children, and they already apologize so there’s nothing the narrator can do about it. Unfortunately, the narrator’s mind cannot rest until he can make Martin pay for what he’s done; and somehow, in his action of revenge, he hurts the other family’s child instead.

In Yorrick readers will meet a worse narrator (not the worst, if they can understand the annoyance and the broken heart he has to suffer) and an annoyingly worse character who (very much strangely, as the narrative shows) is very likable among people around him. For some inexplicable reason, Yorrick―this annoying man, at least according to the personal experiences and opinions of our narrator―can be very friendly toward others (but not toward the narrator) and can even snatch the attention of the girl our narrator falls in love with. If we put ourselves in our narrator’s shoes, we can probably understand why he hates Yorrick (and everybody around him) so much; but if we step back and observe everything from another point of view, then we won’t probably agree with all his actions.

Not all stories here are bleak and dark, though; some are pretty warm to read―with a tinge of grittiness still. Orez is a story of a man who’s determined to marry the woman he loves despite knowing what bad things could result from their marriage, and who still loves his son however his condition is and whatever he’s growing up into. There’s a fleeting moment when he almost kills him but fortunately doesn’t have time to because once he gets back into his car, that moment’s gone away. Ny. Elberhart is also heart-warming, although it is actually a reminder to the reader that we, people, at the end of our days, will always be old and lonely and have no one to accompany us day and night, unless there’s someone who is sometimes willing enough to take care of us―someone who doesn’t necessarily like us, for that matter.

Through these “unpleasant” stories, in general, we kind of able to see our true faces reflected like in a mirror. It’s not to say that we are all as bad and pathetic as those characters drawn by Mr. Budi, but at the very least we are as complex as they are. None of us are saints, and sometimes, not to say that it is right to, we can hate someone who has treated us unfairly or has merely annoyed us to the core.

Mr. Budi treats all his characters in this book very humanly, giving them a chance to speak out their minds through their narratives and let the reader see not only their personalities but what makes them decide what they do. And Mr. Budi’s profound writing style lend more strength to their each characterization so they look, feel and sound so real that readers would not probably be able to bear it sometimes. Some points in some pieces feel too cruel, too painful to “enjoy”. For some readers it would probably be like, “I’ve had enough of this life I don’t need it to be written on a piece of paper.”

But that’s not actually the flaw of Mr. Budi’s writing here; it’s the grammatical errors and the diction. Orang-Orang Bloomington was written and first published in 1970s and 1980 respectively so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Budi didn’t use today’s standard of Indonesian language. But the book being reviewed here is the reprinted edition from 2016 and they should’ve edited some incorrect sentences and confusing diction but apparently they didn’t. It makes the writing a bit off and awkward; and just imagine reading it in the middle of putting so much effort to sit still and face unacceptable characters.

All in all, however, Orang-Orang Bloomington by Mr. Budi Darma is a classic to start off if people want to know more about Indonesian literature, though not about our culture because that’s not what he’s talking about here. But at least people get to know our kind of literature and that there are still more fields yet to explore. This book is already translated into English by Tiffany Tsao and published by Penguin Classics for those who are interested.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Bagaimana Kita (Seharusnya) Memandang Olenka

Dalam sebuah cerita, sudut pandang adalah yang mendorong jalannya narasi dari awal hingga akhir. Sudut pandang ini bukan semata-mata perkara dari “kacamata” siapa cerita tersebut dilihat dan dikisahkan, tetapi juga memengaruhi bagaimana kemudian pembaca menerima dan memahami cerita tersebut. Bukan hanya itu, sudut pandang jugalah yang “membentuk” karakter setiap tokoh yang kemudian tertanam di benak pembaca.

Novel Olenka diceritakan dari sudut pandang pertama, dari “kacamata” Fanton Drummond, sang tokoh utama. Namun ada yang terasa sedikit mengganggu pada sudut pandang bercerita ini. Gangguan ini datang dari bagaimana tokoh Olenka digambarkan sebagai seorang wanita, diperlakukan sebagai seorang wanita. Gambaran yang menggelisahkan akan tokoh Olenka ini juga datang dari Wayne Danton, suami sang tokoh dalam judul. Jadi bisa dibilang, bagaimana karakter Olenka “dibentuk”―dan bisa jadi “diterima mentah-mentah” oleh pembaca―adalah bagaimana kedua tokoh pria ini (secara dominan) memandang tokoh tersebut.

Pertama-tama mungkin kita mesti melihat bagaimanakah karakter Wayne Danton, seorang penulis menyedihkan yang tidak memandang Olenka sebagai istri melainkan sebagai wanita jalang dan budak belaka, dalam urusan seks pun dalam urusan rumah tangga. Wayne seorang pria yang egois, yang ia pikirkan hanyalah karier dan dirinya sendiri. Ia tidak mau bekerja karena baginya itu akan mengganggu pikirannya dan memakan waktunya sehingga ia tidak akan sempat menulis. Demi menopang keluarga, Olenka-lah yang harus bekerja. Wayne juga menganggap Olenka sebagai alat pemuas nafsu dan memaksa Olenka memiliki anak―dan melahirkan anak yang tidak diinginkannya membuat Olenka tak pernah menyayangi Steven, anak mereka, begitu pula sebaliknya. Masih ditambah lagi, Wayne terus-menerus berusaha (dan berhasil) membuktikan bahwa Olenka bukanlah seorang ibu yang pantas dicintai.

Sementara itu, Fanton Drummond, sang narator dan tokoh utama, bisa dikatakan terobsesi terhadap Olenka. Pemuda gelisah ini mungkin terlihat sebagai “pria yang lebih baik” daripada Wayne. Fanton mencintai Olenka dengan tulus dan tanpa usaha. Ia merasa memiliki ikatan batin dengan Olenka dan merasa terus dibayang-bayangi Olenka. Ia mengikuti semua keinginan Olenka dan ketika Olenka menghilang dari hidupnya, ia menelusuri jejak-jejak Olenka. Bahkan saat mengejar Mary Carson, Fanton tetap tidak bisa melupakan Olenka. Ia juga merasa bahwa dengan mengenal Olenka, ia dapat mengenal dirinya sendiri.

Tetapi bagaimanakah Fanton memandang Olenka? Apakah sebagai manusia, ataukah benda? Apakah sebagai subjek, ataukah objek? Ketika berhubungan intim dengan Olenka, Fanton selalu menganggap Olenka sebagai “peta dunia”, yang ia ketahui “lika-liku dan seluk-beluknya”. Dalam menggambarkan hubungan dan badan Olenka, Fanton selalu menggunakan kata “meletakkan” dan “menggarap”. Bagi Fanton, tubuh Olenka adalah alam yang dapat ia “garap”, ia “rombak”, ia “kuasai”, ia “miliki”, dan ia “rusak” kalau perlu. Bahkan, pada salah satu bab, Fanton pernah berkata, “Seorang laki-laki jantan yang baik mampu menguasai perempuan bagaikan pioner memperlakukan tanah dan hutan,” dan “saya yakin bahwa dia [Olenka] juga ingin saya perlakukan demikian.” Dari mana Fanton tahu? Apakah Olenka pernah berkata demikian? Setidaknya, dari sudut pandang Fanton sendiri, ia tidak pernah mengutip pernyataan dari Olenka bahwa Olenka memang ingin diperlakukan seperti “tanah dan hutan”.

Bukan hanya dalam hubungan seks, dalam hubungan cinta pun Fanton menganggap Olenka sebagai objek. Bagi Fanton, Olenka adalah “sasaran” dari rasa cinta dan gairahnya, tujuan dari segala obsesi dan keinginan-keinginannya. Sudut pandang Fanton dalam bercerita juga menjadikan Olenka objek pemikirannya. Olenka merupakan sosok yang jauh, sosok yang tertanam di benak Fanton yang kemudian ia gambarkan dengan kata-kata dalam narasinya. Sekalinya Olenka memiliki ruang untuk bicara sebagai subjek, sebagai dirinya sendiri, adalah ketika ia menulis surat panjang kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka bercerita tentang dirinya, tentang keluarganya, tentang pengalaman “main apinya” dengan seorang kawan perempuan beralias Winifred, dan bagaimana akhirnya ia menikah dengan Wayne dan menderita karenanya.

Dalam surat tersebut, Fanton bukanlah objek bercerita Olenka sebagaimana Olenka dalam narasi yang dikisahkan Fanton pada keseluruhan novel. Fanton merupakan “teman bercerita” Olenka, Olenka bercerita kepada Fanton. Dalam surat tersebut, Olenka adalah subjek sekaligus objek narasinya sendiri, dan Olenka tidak memandang atau memperlakukan Fanton sebagai objek dalam hal apa pun, sebagaimana yang terlihat sebaliknya. Sesungguhnya, ini bukanlah sesuatu yang dapat dianggap aneh. Namun lantaran penggunaan sudut pandang pertama pada novel ini―juga “cara pandangnya”―ini menjadi terasa tidak (atau kurang?) adil. Adil memang bukan soal “sama” dalam segala hal, tetapi entah mengapa dalam kisah ini ketimpangan yang demikian terasa―sedikit banyak―mengganggu.

Lalu bagaimanakah kita (seharusnya) memandang Olenka dalam kisah ini? Apakah sebagai “wanita jalang” seperti yang digambarkan Wayne Danton lantaran ia gemar “melayani” pria-pria lain? Sebagai “bukan istri dan ibu yang baik”? Atau apakah seperti yang digambarkan oleh Fanton Drummond―objek cinta dan obsesi serta objek seks yang bisa diperlakukan sesuka hati?

Dalam novel Olenka, tidak ada satu pun tokoh yang sempurna, atau bahkan “cukup baik” menurut standar moral tertentu―entah itu Fanton, Wayne, ataupun Olenka sendiri. Maka apakah kita mesti bergantung (dan percaya) pada sudut pandang Wayne yang membuat ketidaksempurnaan Olenka tampak sebagai suatu “keburukan” alih-alih suatu “kewajaran” pada diri manusia biasa akibat kesulitan-kesulitan yang menimpanya? Apakah kita mesti menerima sudut pandang Fanton yang membuat Olenka tampak seperti benda tak bernyawa dan hanya diberi kesempatan bicara sepanjang beberapa lembar surat?

Olenka, jika dilihat dalam bingkai yang lebih luas, bukan semata-mata sebuah kisah nan kompleks tentang manusia-manusia yang gelisah dan bermasalah, manusia-manusia yang (tentu saja) tidak suci dan murni. Novel ini tidak hanya bercerita tentang orang-orang dengan ego masing-masing, yang berjalan di atas pilihan masing-masing dan menanggung akibat masing-masing. Novel ini, disadari atau tidak, juga merupakan contoh dari cara pandang umum terhadap wanita―bahwa wanita sering kali dipandang sebagai objek (dalam hal apa pun itu, dan sengaja atau tidak sengaja), serta bagaimana “wanita yang tidak baik” dipandang dari “luar” lantaran tak ada yang mengetahui masalah serta penderitaan-penderitaan yang menuntunnya pada hal-hal yang dilakukannya, mengingat ia tidak diberi panggung yang layak.

fiction, review

Semua Untuk Hindia

Dalam kumpulan cerpen Teh dan Pengkhianat, Iksaka Banu mengambil sudut pandang “lawan” dalam menceritakan masa-masa pendudukan Belanda di Nusantara, demikian pula dalam kumpulan cerpen Semua Untuk Hindia ini yang terbit lebih dulu pada tahun 2014. Di satu sisi, Iksaka mungkin ingin menunjukkan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda yang bersimpati terhadap kaum pribumi atau yang tidak setuju dengan pendudukan ini sejak awal, menunjukkan bahwa “tidak semua orang Belanda sama”. Tetapi di sisi lain, hak beliau dan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut juga patut dipertanyakan. Jika pun benar ada beberapa orang Belanda yang bersimpati dan menentang kolonisasi atas tanah Nusantara, maka (seharusnya) pihak mereka sendirilah yang berhak menyatakannya.

Meski demikian, tidak berarti cerita pendek-cerita pendek yang terdapat dalam buku ini tidak menarik atau tidak dapat mendorong pembaca untuk melihat “sudut pandang lain”. Selamat Tinggal Hindia, yang merupakan cerpen pembuka, menampilkan sudut pandang Maria Geertruida Welwillend atau Geertje, seorang perempuan muda yang lahir dan besar di Hindia Belanda. Ia sangat mencintai “tanah kelahirannya” dan bersimpati terhadap orang-orangnya. Ketika Jepang datang ia sadar bahwa era Hindia Belanda telah usai, dan ia mendukung penuh terbentuknya Repoeblik Indonesia serta menentang NICA.

Rasa simpati yang muncul dari keterikatan dengan tanah Hindia Belanda juga ditunjukkan tokoh Letnan Pieter Verdragen dalam kisah Keringat dan Susu. Tidak hanya lahir dan besar di tanah air, Letnan Pieter juga disusui oleh seorang wanita pribumi. Ikatan ini tak pernah pudar dari hati maupun pikirannya, meski kini ia telah menjadi tentara bagi Belanda. Ketika bersama pasukan yang terdiri atas tentara dari berbagai bangsa Eropa ia berpatroli pada tengah malam di Batavia―mengingat pada saat itu pasca pendudukan Jepang dan terjadi banyak kekacauan menyusul diumumkan berdirinya Republik Indonesia―ia melihat seorang anak muda yang tidak waras mengenakan ikat kepala merah-putih serta seragam, dan lantas dicurigai oleh anak-anak buahnya sebagai tentara laskar dan sengaja menghadang mereka di tengah jalan, sang Letnan melepaskan anak muda tersebut atas permintaan sang ibu―yang mengingatkannya kepada ibu susunya dulu.

Namun bagaimanapun, bagi orang Belanda, atau sebagian besar dari mereka, orang-orang pribumi tetaplah orang-orang terbelakang yang lebih rendah. Pada cerpen Di Ujung Belati, sang protagonis beranggapan bahwa agar orang-orang pribumi hormat dan setia kepada orang-orang Eropa, mereka harus memberi contoh budaya Eropa yang tinggi, bukannya mengikuti budaya pribumi yang rendah atau menuruti tuntutan dan cara berpikir mereka. Tetapi di sinilah letak kesalahan mereka, karena ketika Hindia Belanda diserang oleh pasukan Inggris, sang protagonis diselamatkan oleh mantan mandor yang pernah ia tolong dan angkat derajatnya. Bagi orang pribumi, kesetiaan datang dari balas budi.

Bias pandangan orang Belanda terhadap orang-orang pribumi pada waktu itu tidak berhenti pada kaum bawahan lelaki, tetapi juga menyentuh kaum perempuan. Dalam cerita Racun Untuk Tuan, seorang nyai (wanita pribumi yang “disewa” pria-pria Belanda untuk melayani kebutuhan fisik dan rumah tangga mereka) dipandang rendah dan berbahaya. Nyai dianggap pencemburu dan menakutkan bila pada suatu saat mereka akhirnya menikah secara resmi dengan wanita Belanda dan “harus menyingkirkan” gundik mereka, karena bisa jadi mereka mati diracun. Tetapi tentu saja, sebagaimana karakter mandor pada Di Ujung Belati, karakter Imah di Racun Untuk Tuan tidaklah seperti pandangan umum orang-orang Belanda terhadap mereka.

Menariknya (dan untungnya) di sini, karakter seorang nyai tidak hanya digambarkan dari sudut pandang pria Belanda, tetapi Iksaka juga menyediakan ruang bagi perempuan pribumi untuk memperlihatkan sudut pandang mereka sendiri. Stambul Dua Pedang menceritakan tentang Sarni, yang berganti nama menjadi Cornelia van Rijk setelah menikah dengan orang Belanda yang merupakan petinggi di perkebunan teh Tanara. Karena tertular hobi suaminya, Sarni suka membaca dan menonton opera, dan dari situlah ia jatuh cinta pada bintang opera Stambul Tjahaja Boelan, Adang Kartawiria. Keduanya pun berselingkuh, lantaran Sarni tak pernah merasa cocok dan bahagia dengan suaminya, walau suaminya sangat mencintainya. Lagipula Sarni tidak pernah merasa dirinya merupakan bagian dari orang-orang Belanda, ia tetaplah orang pribumi yang dipaksa menikah dengan orang Belanda oleh ayahnya.

Meski sebagian besar (bisa dibilang hampir secara keseluruhan) buku ini menceritakan tentang kehidupan dan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda di tanah air, sebenarnya cukup menarik melihat sekilas sudut pandang orang pribumi menyusup di tengah-tengah dan “dipertentangkan” dengan sudut pandang tersebut. Stambul Dua Pedang merupakan cerita pendek paling menarik di antara cerita-cerita lainnya lantaran memperlihatkan situasi dari mata bukan hanya seorang pribumi yang “dijajah”, yang harus tunduk dengan “pernikahan paksa”, tetapi juga mata seorang wanita yang tidak bisa berbuat apa-apa sedangkan ia sangat membenci penjajah dan tidak bahagia dengan pernikahannya. Perselingkuhan Sarni dengan Adang di satu sisi bisa jadi salah, jika dilihat dari “kesucian ikatan pernikahan”, tetapi bisa juga tidak jika mempertimbangkan hati seorang wanita dan seseorang yang mendamba kemerdekaan.

Namun terlepas dari sudut pandang apa pun yang digunakan oleh Iksaka Banu, sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut dan apakah Iksaka sebagai penulis berhak mengambil sudut pandang yang demikian, pada akhirnya buku ini hanyalah sekumpulan cerita fiksi yang titik beratnya adalah keelokan narasi dan kekuatan karakter. Pada nomor-nomor di mana karakter-karakter Belanda digambarkan bersimpati kepada rakyat pribumi, Iksaka dengan tepat menunjukkan adanya alasan keterikatan karakter-karakter tersebut dengan tanah air, dan bagaimana keterikatan itu kemudian memengaruhi sudut pandang mereka. Ada pun tokoh-tokoh Belanda yang memiliki bias tertentu dalam memandang orang-orang pribumi, hal itu juga dapat dimaklumi lantaran jelas-jelas mereka merasa superior sebagai penjajah, sebagai bangsa yang menduduki tanah bangsa lain. Dua sudut pandang dalam satu kelompok bangsa ini saja sudah merupakan sebuah pertentangan, apalagi jika ditambah sudut pandang kaum pribumi seperti Sarni.

Semua Untuk Hindia merupakan kumpulan cerita pendek yang sesungguhnya menarik, jika pembaca dapat menafikan persoalan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang yang dipakai dalam menuliskan cerita-cerita di dalamnya. Ide-idenya juga menarik, walaupun gaya penulisan Iksaka Banu kurang dapat menjadikannya lebih menarik lagi.

Rating: 3.5/5

poetry, review

Sergius Mencari Bacchus

Some writings can truly have devastating effects on the reader, and Sergius Mencari Bacchus (officially translated into English as Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Tiffany Tsao) is one of those. Every word, every line, every verse Norman Erikson Pasaribu penned down on this poetry collection not only sound, but feel so painful. You might get your heart wrenched brutrally reading every piece of poem on the list, whether or not you feel related to the issues being discussed.

This book doesn’t only talk about being different, or how to deal with it and people’s general lack of approval. It talks mostly about the pain, the dilemma, the acceptance of oneself as a homosexual when the family―and the society―see it as a sin, a sickness to be cured, and thus expel them to the lonely corner where they are forced to feel weird about themselves and try to figure out what they should be.

Puisi is the first poem to highlight this pain one has to endure―of pretending, of living two kinds of life, of being “two persons” at the same time. While people see them as a “normal” person, inside they are merely a “dying tree”―as stated in the second verse:

Selama ini kesepian adalah daun-daunmu

hijau, acak, dan lebat, orang-orang mengira kau

pohon yang sehat, sebentar lagi berlebah dan berbuah.

Meskipun sebetulnya kau sekarat; batang, rantingmu

digerogoti benalu yang telah lama kau harus pelihara

This pain, and the dilemma, sound through almost the entire book; in Erratum, one has to face his own family’s rejection after coming out and frankly telling them that he cannot be with any women; Aubade also sees the same rejection, with a group of friends can only laugh at themselves and cry at the same time watching a movie reflecting their own situation, but finally accepting that situation without any fear, without any wish to end their lives, because the protagonist of the movie has done it for them.

Inferno seems like a very calm, “dim” poem, having no shocking or blazing effects on the reader. But it is one which particularly makes the reader ponder about self-acceptance and how the older you get, the longer you live, you will no longer think about whether others love you or not, understand you or not. You don’t even care if there’s a place for you in Heaven, for that Heaven is not for you in the first place.

Tiba di usia di mana dunia tak lagi misterius:

(1) tak lagi perlu seseorang memahamimu

Karena kau telah memahami dirimu sendiri

(2) tak lagi mendamba dicintai

Karena kau telah mencintai dirimu sendiri


Dan surga yang dibicarakan itu, Ada

di puisi lain yang tak membicarakanmu

Meanwhile, Sebelum Aeschylus and Serial TV Komedi talk about the same thing in a row: how this life is a mere play and you are the director of your own. You can have a script in your hand, a “director” behind, but life is not about doing what is written in your script or what the director wants you to. It’s about living it as it is, with all its interruptions and unexpected changes of course and all that―and you have to, ready or not, improvise accordingly.

Tentang Sepasang Lelaki Muda di Basemen P3 fx Sudirman is obviously about how self-acceptance is not enough when we are different from others, for sometimes we still need to hide from them―in the corner of a basement car park, far from anyone’s sight and watching out for any security or cleaning staff who might be passing by and witnessing our secret love and passion. We are hiding not because we are afraid of being ourselves, we are hiding because we are afraid of being unfairly judged. People are so easy judging that our love is not true and that our passion is out of place, and it is so useless to tell them what we think because “dunia belum siap dengan kita” (the world is not ready for us―my translation).

In Curriculum Vitae 2015 Pasaribu seems to summarize all memories he still has of his life: all that pain, rejection, dilemma and, finally, self-acceptance, and the love he found in a writing class. It’s not in any poetic forms or verses, it’s stated in points without any use of figurative nor flowery language. It’s so blatant and he wants all readers to see it clearly: this is my life, this is my pain, this is all the trials and tribulations I’ve been having to go through all this time.

All in all, Sergius Mencari Bacchus is a very painful book to read. Each story behind each poem, each verse and each line sound and feel so devastating. Pasaribu’s personal experiences might not be your experiences, but you will defenitely feel what he has been going through his life.

Rating: 3.5/5

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

Sepasang Sepatu Tua: Sepilihan Cerpen

Sapardi Djoko Damono’s Sepasang Sepatu Tua might have just been released last year, but the contents are surprisingly not new. Most of them are recognizably included in the short story collection Pada Suatu Hari, Malam Wabah; so Mr. Sapardi’s readers might get the feeling of reading the “same” book twice coming from different publishers. The reason behind this decision to republish many of the same contents over a short period of time was not known, unless one wants to speculate the later publisher merely intended to use the late senior writer’s popularity to boost their sell, for this was not the first time they―or any other publisher―did so with senior writers’ old works.

Of the nineteen pieces (short and rather long) included in this collection, only seven which are definitely outstanding, mostly for their unusual themes and styles of narratives, and some for the way Mr. Sapardi twists the plot. The first on the table of contents, the titular story, is such a one. Told in subtly hilarious tone, Sepasang Sepatu Tua narrates the close relationship between a university professor and his newly bought pair of shoes. He bought them (which were originally made in Germany) in a Chinese shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hence their ability to speak Chinese. Yes, the shoes speak, and the professor can hear them though is unable to understand what they say since it’s a foreign language to him. Over a period of time, however, he’s come to get their daily conversations and, inevitably so, started to feel annoyed at the same time.

Rumah-Rumah is also a giggle-triggering one. In quite the same style as Sepasang Sepatu Tua, it tells a story of “talking” houses in a complex bad-mouthing each other the way human neighbors usually do. They whisper about how the house number eleven is never in peace, the family living there are always in a row, not a single time do they ever keep quiet. Meanwhile, the house number thirteen is a mere uninhabited one being let by the owner but never gets rented. Worst of all, the house number fifteen is only half-built, because the owner doesn’t have any money any more to finish it. These “lonely, bitter” houses are just like the human dwellers: envying each other, whispering about each other, and yet never realizing that life is merely about seeing through the tinted glass.

Two short stories in a row are talking about mentally ill people. The first one, Seorang Rekan di Kampus Menyarankan Agar Aku Mengusut Apa Sebab Orang Memilih Menjadi Gila (or, in English, A Colleague at the University Suggests that I Ask What the Reason People Choose to be Crazy) literally tells of a university professor who asks a random wandering insane person why he chooses to be crazy. The crazy man, recalling his mother’s saying to him, feels annoyed by the constant questioning and thinks that the professor himself must be out of his mind. Meanwhile, the second one, Membunuh Orang Gila (literally translates Killing A Mad Man) talks about a driver accidentally hitting a wandering mad man on the street with his car. The mad man dies on the spot. Strangely (or not?), the driver feels sad about the mad man’s unexpected, sudden death―though he claims that it’s not him hitting the mad man, but the mad man who hit him―for he has already considered the mad man his own friend, seeing him everyday on his way to Bogor. And then a question pops into his mind: who is the crazy one in this world? How did they become crazy? Are they the victims of revolution who were never proclaimed a hero? Or are they the victims of reformation who were oppressed back in the day? One thing for sure: the sane person is the one who goes wherever the wind blows.

Just like the twist he does to the legend of Ken Arok and Ken Dedes in the quite long piece Hikayat Ken Arok, Mr. Sapardi reverses the entire premise of our famous fable about a cunning mouse deer in Dongeng Kancil (The Story of A Mouse Deer). Traditionally, the protagonist mouse deer could easily play tricks on other animals (the tiger, the crocodile and the snake) and get away with it. But here, the truth is the opposite. The Storyteller has decided that the mouse deer is the one being tricked by the other said animals and even by human beings. Having objections to his “new” fate, the mouse deer sets to find the Storyteller to find out what will happen to him next. On his way, however, he is trapped by humans and being caged and prepared for a wedding feast. He has no way to run.

Jemputan Lebaran is perhaps the most reflective short story of all in this collection. It reflects on how we (the Indonesian Muslims) see the Eid ul-Fitr celebration. It’s been our tradition upon the celebration day to go back to our hometowns and do the same things and meet the same people every year. So traditional it is that we just do it automatically without thinking and without knowing what the “rituals” mean. The protagonist wants to apologize to the Eid ul-Fitr for this, and to try to understand what that particular celebration day actually means.

And, the last of the most engaging stories in this collection I was appealed to, Suatu Hari di Bulan Desember (One Day in December) is my favorite both here and in the other book Pada Suatu Hari, Malam Wabah. It focuses on the main female protagonist Marsiyam who is sentenced years in prison for badly beating her husband. No, it’s not a hoax. It’s true. She indeed did that. But here the reason behind it is the main highlight: Marsiyam was always blamed for their childless marriage, and her husband accused her of having an affair with another man. There is only so much a woman can take, and this had been beyond Marsiyam’s emotional and mental capabilities. Strangely, after being years in prison, she gets pregnant, though she never had any physical relationship with anyone there.

Reading the entire collection, it won’t be wrong to say that Mr. Sapardi keeps true to his style and narrative twists. He never merely stands and lets himself be swayed either to the left or to the right, the way he never accepts the dominant narrative as it is―which is what he does here most of the time. He laughs at the world without showing off his sneer. His writing is as quiet as usual, but strong and profound. His ideas are never the common ones, and his reflections on life are always worth to be reckoning.

The fact that Sepasang Sepatu Tua might not be his best short story collection is perhaps because some pieces are delivered in pretty boring tone, like Ratapan Anak Tiri and Daun di Atas Pagar. Meanwhile, a thought-provoking piece like Ditunggu Dogot might be too difficult for some readers to stomach.

That’s said, Sapardi Djoko Damono is a truly great writer worth to watch, and Sepasang Sepatu Tua is still good enough for readers to spend their time reading it.

Rating: 3.5/5

poetry, review

Perjamuan Khong Guan

Earlier this year, Joko Pinurbo, Indonesia’s much beloved poet, had just released his latest poem collection, Perjamuan Khong Guan. It is divided into four parts (or, cans, in this case), and some numbers may not sound new anymore after their previous appearances in newspapers last year. However, Pinurbo’s die-hard fans and loyal audience were sure excited about the release, because his works, newly or re-released, are always being looked forward to. Moreover, the title has in it the biscuit brand which is not only legendary but also has become everyone’s yearly joke at the Eid ul-Fitr day celebration in our country.

The first part (or, Can One) deals mostly with the growth of a place, a society, a country. But it’s not particularly in a good sense of the word. For example, in poem Dari Jendela Pesawat (From the Airplane Window), which talks about the growth of a city, Pinurbo says:

“Besi, beton, dan cahaya
tumbuh di mana-mana.” — page 12
(“Iron, concrete, lights
stuck out everywhere.” — my translation)

He seems to use a sarcastic tone more than readers can sense. And it sounds stronger when it comes to the growth of our country and politics, saying that this era is getting wilder and our politics is getting “louder”. He blatantly points out that our country and politics are not something we can rely on. In Pesta (Party), he even criticizes the last presidential election event where the officials were “forced” to work till midnight and died after being overworked without getting due compensation, all the while, of course, the candidates were fighting for the No. 1 position and the winner blissfully rejoiced in his victory.

However, the most regrettable growth that Pinurbo laments in Can One is the growth of technology, as readers can see clearly in several numbers such as Markipul (where the use of smartphones has driven people crazy), Doa Orang Sibuk yang 24 Jam Sehari Berkantor di Ponselnya — a very obvious title which literally translates A Prayer by Someone who is Busy Working in His Cell Phone for 24 Hours, talking about how someone is so absorbed in his gadget and unconsciously forgets about praying to God. In Fotoku Abadi (My Pic is Eternal) people really think that the photography technology can make them immortal (in pictures).

The second part, or Can Two, is more of a place where Joko Pinurbo flaunts his well-known linguistic sense of humor. The title of every single poem is actually a common idiom in Indonesian language, but when you read the entire poem you’ll get that these groups of words are used literally. For example, the poem entitled Kamar Kecil (which is an idiom for a restroom) turns out to be talking about a small room (its literal meaning); Catatan Kaki (or, footnote) talks about writing a note on a sleeping person’s foot. The funniest moment would probably be when we encounter the poem Mimpi Basah (wet dream) in which the character there is not having a sexually exciting dream but a nightmare of falling into a river instead. And while he is all wet, he feels so deeply sad as he sees his late father in the dream. The title Datang Bulan (menstruation) is also ironically funny, because the content of the poem is not, for it talks about an employee who has to work till midnight with the company of the moon (bulan) — which, as we dig deep into it, actually shows the distress of an overworked white-collar worker.

Can Three is a bunch of stories about the character Minnah: her birth, her family, her home, her school, etc. There are, however, three or four poems which are the most engrossing. Sekolah Minnah (Minnah’s School) insinuates the unpleasant truth that people in common never use their brains when talking, saying things without thinking. This is particularly interesting as there is the word “school” in the title, a place where people should be learning through thinking — again, the poet is secretly making fun of people. The second interesting one is Kepala Minnah (Minnah’s Head), in which Pinurbo mourns over the state of libraries, especially in our country, which often only have a very few visitors. This might be no surprise since our country is known to have a very low rate of reading interest. However, Uang Minnah (Minnah’s Money) is the one that punches readers in the face the hardest, especially those who are so stingy. It reminds us that we don’t need to wait to have fortune to be generous.

“Merasa kaya kadang lebih
berguna daripada kaya sungguhan.” ― page 91
(“Thinking that we’re rich is sometimes
more useful than being actually rich.” ― my translation)

The entire idea of the fourth part is to give the Khong Guan biscuit can its own narrative. The poems talk about the family portrayed on the can, especially the absent father whose presence is always questioned by the biscuit fans or the passer-by consumers. And his being absent is indeed explained in Keluarga Khong Guan (The Khong Guan Family), but it is in the form of criticism of Indonesian language, nationalism, and the printed media. Speaking of criticism, it’s as if Pinurbo cannot stop bemoaning the new era where everything seems to be in such a mess: the houses in villages not having yards anymore (Mudik Khong Guan); the biscuit can holding today’s newest gadgets (Bingkisan Khong Guan); and, once again, the overuse of smartphones by the younger generation that the grandma in Simbah Khong Guan feels neglected by her own family.

Some readers might be a bit tired of his always simple style and think that he only sells themes, not the beauty of the “poetic forms”. But we have to admit that he is linguistically apt and what he brings forward as themes are always thought-provoking. He is a word player and a keen observer of life and that’s what makes him a beloved poet. His collection this time is an undisputed proof of what he is capable of.

Joko Pinurbo’s works are always about twisting daily lives into linguistically hilarious, satirical musings. And now that our daily lives cannot be separated from gadgets, the gist can be seen in most of his poems here in Perjamuan Khong Guan: from the first part to the last, lamenting the craze over smartphones and how it affects our social lives and communication with real people in real life. The senior poet also bewails the “growth” of our country, which cannot be said to be “okay”.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa

48123715498_5e39c308fc“Kenyataan adalah hal yang paling mudah dicurigai kebenarannya.” Apalagi jika kenyataan tersebut berlapis-lapis. Apalagi jika kenyataan kita dipegang dan dikendalikan oleh orang lain, sebagaimana kita memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan orang lain. Apalagi jika kenyataan saling bersengkarut dengan khayalan.

Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa, karya terbaru Faisal Oddang, dibuka dengan adegan di mana kamu (pemegang kenyataan pertama) sedang sibuk berusaha merampungkan novelmu lantaran sudah dikejar-kejar editor. Di tengah-tengah usahamu itu kamu didatangi oleh seseorang, pria tua berbadan gempal yang berdiri menghadapmu sambil menenggak vodka. Kamu mengenalinya: Raymond Carver, seorang penulis cerpen dan puisi yang (seharusnya) sudah meninggal tiga puluh tahun silam akibat kanker paru-paru. Tetapi orang itu ada di hadapanmu, dan meminta tolong padamu agar mencabut nyawanya. Sampai di sini kamu mempertanyakan apakah ini nyata atau tidak.

Nyata tidak nyata, demi iming-iming sejumlah uang, kamu lantas mengiakan dan menandatangani surat perjanjian. Yang menjadi masalah kemudian adalah, di saat kamu harus segera menyelesaikan novelmu, kamu juga harus mencari cara untuk membunuh Ray Carver tanpa ketahuan orang lain.

Ini tidak mudah. Novelmu saja sudah menguras pikiranmu. Plot yang kamu ciptakan buntu, terutama ketika kamu justru membuat kekasih si tokoh utama mati di tengah jalan. Lantas bagaimana kelanjutannya? Apakah Clevie, tokoh utama dalam novelmu—sang pemegang kenyataan kedua—harus kaujadikan kambing hitam dalam kasus pembunuhan yang kaukarang? Namun, mengingat kau masih harus mengurus kematian Ray, pertanyaan tersebut belum bisa kaujawab.

Sebelum membunuh Ray, kamu sempat memberinya makan mi instan yang kamu bawa dari Indonesia, dan ternyata Ray sangat suka. Dia berkata pernah menikmati mi instan bersama mantan istrinya, Maryann, tapi menurutnya yang kamu beri adalah yang paling enak, maka ia kemudian membeli sekotak untuk dimakan sendiri sebelum mati. Setelah Ray puas, kamu segera melaksanakan rencanamu. Sayang, percobaan pertama pembunuhanmu gagal. Ray nyata-nyata masih hidup. Kamu pun harus memutar otak dan mencari cara lain untuk melakukannya lagi. Tetapi anehnya, sebelum kamu sempat melakukan percobaan pembunuhan yang kedua, Ray telah ditemukan mati di bak mandi di kamar hotelnya dalam keadaan telanjang, berdarah, dan terkubur di bawah tumpukan mi instan dengan hanya kepalanya yang terlihat.

Kamu tahu bukan kamu pelakunya, melainkan orang lain: Tuan Monaghan, suami dari Nyonya Monaghan yang diketahui berselingkuh dengan Ray. Tetapi Nyonya Monaghan sendiri merupakan salah satu tokoh dalam novel yang tengah kamu garap, yang kamu jadikan kekasih gelap Clevie dalam narasimu. Bagaimana mungkin ia tiba-tiba keluar dari khayalanmu dan suaminya membunuh seseorang yang “nyata” dalam hidupmu?

Tapi apakah hidupmu memang benar-benar nyata? Bukankah kamu juga hanyalah tokoh dalam buku karangan Clevie? Secuil khayalan dalam kenyataan hidup Clevie? Bukankah kehidupanmu, kenyataan yang ketiga, juga hanya merupakan fiksi di tangan Clevie?

“Orang-orang hanya ingin mengerti apa yang mereka alami.”

Faisal Oddang (dalam kenyataannya sendiri, tentu saja) memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan semua tokoh utama dalam khayalan masing-masing. Meski teknik penulisannya terkesan tidak istimewa (dan bahasanya terkesan seperti hasil terjemahan mentah), caranya menghadirkan kenyataan yang bertumpuk-tumpuk mampu membuat pembaca bertanya-tanya manakah sebenarnya kisah yang “nyata.” Keingintahuan ini sebagian juga didorong oleh keinginan pembaca untuk benar-benar meresapi dan mendapatkan “jawaban” dari pengalaman membacanya, oleh keinginan untuk mengendalikan sendiri mana yang nyata baginya dan mana yang tidak. Singkat kata, pembaca (sebagian besar) tentu tidak ingin dan tidak suka dibuat bingung oleh sesuatu yang “tidak nyata”.

“Kamu tak perlu memberinya identitas,” Allisa memotong Clevie, “biarkan itu jadi olok-olok pada kehidupan dan juga kenyataan.”

Karya fiksi memang merupakan ranah khayalan di mana kita dapat bermain-main dengan dan “menciptakan” sebuah kenyataan. Ketika menulis cerita rekaan, kita—sebagai pemegang kenyataan kita sendiri—mengendalikan kenyataan orang lain dalam khayalan kita. Namun belum tentu kehidupan kita lebih nyata daripada khayalan kita. Pun diri kita, identitas kita, bisa jadi merupakan hasil pengandaian semata. Identitas kita, jangan-jangan, juga bukan merupakan sesuatu yang “nyata.” Setidaknya bagi orang lain yang tidak memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan kita.

“Jika kamu berjalan mengelilingi dunia lalu mendengar setiap orang dari setiap tempat berbicara mengenai kehidupan, maka segala yang bisa kamu pahami semata-mata omong kosong. Jika kamu berjalan mengelilingi dunia lalu mendengar setiap orang dari setiap tempat berbicara mengenai kenyataan, maka segala yang bisa kamu pahami semata-mata omong kosong.” — Robert Barry, pemenang Nobel Sastra 2018*

*) Kutipan ini, tentu saja, tidak berlaku bagi pembaca yang menganggap pemenang Nobel Sastra 2018 tersebut benar-benar nyata.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Cinta Tak Ada Mati

48956873901_70691273c6Cinta Tak Ada Mati (or, Undying Love in English) is not a short-story collection where Eka Kurniawan tries to be romantic. As we know of him, lovey-dovey narrative is never his way, and love stories, even if he ever made one, have never any intention other than to display people’s characters, actions and reactions which then lead to, or exist in, something bigger and mostly shocking. Consisting of thirteen of his old pieces, this book takes the reader to a journey of history, politics, religion, women empowerment, horror, sex, and, to my surprise, martial arts world (or what we usually call jianghu in Chinese).

It should have been clear that Kurniawan has always stood for women, what with his implied “protests” in Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is A Wound) and Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash). And here, in the first short story on the list he once again stages a protest and this time against the underrated role of a domestic woman in history. Yes, a domestic woman. What can such a woman do in the middle of the fights against colonialism? What can she do to help free her country of the profit-driven tyranny? Most people must have difficulties imagining her able to do anything. But Diah Ayu can do something.

In Kutukan Dapur (Kitchen Curse), Diah Ayu uses secrets of local ingredients and seasoning to poison her Dutch superiors and successfully kill them all. And, as she also teaches her fellow local cooks, she manages to get rid of not only one or two, but so many Dutch people unrightfully invading her motherland. It’s a massive killing and success, but does the history appreciate that? No, obviously. Not a single word told about her fight, not a single truth said about her person. Instead, people make and spread false rumors about her which only give her a bad name. Why? Is it because she is a woman? Or is it because she is fighting from the depth of her kitchen which is deemed too domestic to put into the masculine historical record?

As if it’s not enough yet, Kurniawan’s second piece Lesung Pipit (Dimples) also forces readers to put themselves in women’s shoes. Our unlucky protagonist here is a very beautiful girl whom her father sacrifices as an offering to a powerful shaman in order to save his own life after being beaten by a poisonous snake. Lesung Pipit (the titular name of the girl) is understandably unwilling. Who would want to marry a smelly shaman who has already had wives everywhere? So she sees no other way to fight for her freedom but to sacrifice her own body, inviting four unknown men to have a one-night stand with her. By the wedding night the wicked shaman knows it, inevitably, and divorces her at once.

Now if we talk about repression, we cannot help but have a tyrannical regime crosses our minds. This kind of regime is obviously, and undoubtedly, driven by fear: fear of losing its power, fear of having to face justice for the heavy-handed methods it uses to retain order, fear of challenges and upheavals. But what people in power fear most is that someone knows about their brutal actions and spread the word. And this is the basic idea of Mata Gelap (Dark Eyes). A man has been a witness to a mass killing of one million people in the midst of political upheavals, and the authority is frightened of the idea that he might have visually recorded the entire bloodshed. And so seven people are sent to him and demand that he removes both of his eyes. Not blind them, but remove them, and making him eat them to boot. Unfortunately for the authority, his being unable to see leads to his sharper hearing, and of course it is afraid that the man who is now called the Dark Eyes might hear some dangerous political rumors and demand him to cut his ears, too.

It is not enough, however, for a regime with such a paranoia. Next, the seven men order him to cut his nose, for there is a possibility that he smells something fishy and scandalous. And seeing that the Dark Eyes can still talk and tell (mostly funny) stories, they come again and cut his tongue. After that, it’s like they can’t get enough of their brutality: they cut his penis (for the sole reason that he can still make love to his wife) and all of his limbs so he cannot move at all. Lastly, they behead him and disembowel him. These horrendous actions might seem exaggerated, but it looks like Kurniawan wants to warn us readers that a regime that is so afraid of losing its grip on power can and will do much worse things than what he has described.

As always intriguing as the themes of brutal regimes and women’s problems might be, religion is perhaps what gets our attention more. It is undeniably so in a society where people wield their belief to show, and affirm, their superiority over “the others”. But Eka Kurniawan here doesn’t tell readers about how people in our society do that, for Surau (Mosque) is rather talking about rituals. Muslims who say their prayers five times a day might wonder, or complain, why they should do so but keep doing it anyway. This compulsory ritual has been an integral part of a muslim’s life everywhere, but what if some do not feel the need, or the urge, to do that? This seemingly simple yet profound short story tickles us readers to ask ourselves: when we do religiously compulsory rituals such as praying five times a day, are we truly sincere in doing it, or is it only for a show? And if we’re not whole-heartedly doing it for the sake of God, why bother?

The most interesting piece in Cinta Tak Ada Mati, however, is Ajal Sang Bayangan (The Death of the Shadow), where we can finally see Kurniawan gather all of his writing skills to pen something wuxia. Wuxia stories are not unfamiliar to Indonesian audience, and we have our own version of them. Seeing Kurniawan himself is a fan of the genre, it is only naturally exciting to see how he would craft his own jianghu adventure. It is not disappointing, fortunately, and surprisingly a bit philosophical in its idea.

Ajal Sang Bayangan tells the story of a pair of martial arts brothers who have been ordered by their master, Ajisaka, not to leave Majeti and to guard the treasure kept there until the master says the otherwise. But both disciples, Dora and Sembada, cannot sit still and do what they should. They are restless, thinking always that they are merely each other’s shadow and keeping a desire to banish it. So they abandon their duty and set to have a fight. But it is doomed from the start, looking at how alike they are in everything, just like, as it is already narrated, each other’s shadow.

Though stories like Penjaga Malam (Night Watch) and Jimat Sero give the feeling that Kurniawan doesn’t really fit into horror writing, Persekot and Caronang have quite shocking premises and twists, and are horribly satisfying at the end. Meanwhile, the titular piece, Cinta Tak Ada Mati, offers the reader another way of looking at undying love: how frustrating and exhausting it can be.

All in all, Cinta Tak Ada Mati displays not only thought-provoking themes and how unusually the ideas are crafted into narratives, but it also shows Eka Kurniawan’s talent and unquestionable ability in doing so. His prose is undeniably beguiling and his style is so beautiful without necessarily being dramatic. All of his short stories here are an embodiment of completeness in writing, and he seems very capable of that. No wonder he is one of our best writers today.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review


48076836522_f7ba53d209Joko Pinurbo is not the first poet to suddenly shift gear and write prose, but this is definitely his first time ever. Srimenanti, published earlier this year, is a very short novel guaranteed to give fans satisfaction, linguistically if not thematically. The sure thing is we can still have a laugh reading it, as we always did with his other works.

Subtly looking back to the past history, here Pinurbo presents a story told from two alternate points of view: one of a young, mournful girl whose father was mysteriously kidnapped (supposedly by the authority) and who is a painter, and one of a poet-cum-employee who is a huge fan of Sapardi Djoko Damono and strangely seems to have seen her in the description of a girl in one of Mr. Sapardi’s poems, Pada Suatu Pagi Hari. Having the same interests in arts and literature, both Srimenanti, the titular name of said girl, and the so-called poet are inevitably in the same circle of friends and so interact with each other as often as he can wish to. But that is not the only thing connecting them, for they seem to have had the same encounter with a buck naked man with bleeding genitalia strutting out in front of them. He frequently hunts them, stopping them everywhere they go and shouting, “It hurts, General!” as if he is in a terrible pain. One day he vanishes without trace and Srimenanti inexplicably gets anxious about it, waiting for him right under the lamp post where he is last seen.

The presence of this naked man might strike readers as odd in the middle of Pinurbo’s blatant attempt to quote, revamp and/or retell Mr. Sapardi’s poems in his own narrative prose and style. Some might even find it entirely unnecessary, and not funny at all, while Pinurbo is throwing jokes and amusing (though still meaningful) lines here and there. But let’s not forget that the senior poet is most probably talking about, or discreetly criticizing, the New Order. The mysterious man might actually denote the ghost of our past, hunting us still with repression, dictatorship and all kinds of bad memories. His shouting, “It hurts, General!” is not only a joke we usually hear or say casually (Indonesian people will surely understand this), because we know who the general is. And if all those symbols are not enough to make readers see clearly what Pinurbo intends to say, then the line, “Piye kabare? Ngeri zamanku to?” (“How are you? It’s scarier in my time, wasn’t it?”) might do the deed. Again, it’s another joke symbolizing something that is not funny at all.

Joko Pinurbo is widely known for his wit and amusing lines, and both are very much displayed here in the book. The name Srimenanti itself is a clear proof of his ability to think of something which is highly unlikely to cross others’ minds. What woman in Indonesia, particularly of Javanese tribe, named Srimenanti? I mean, I can’t even start to try to translate or explain what that name means. Sri is a typical name of Javanese women, and menanti is an Indonesian word for waiting. So what does that mean, then? The woman who waits? Well, it may refer to her waiting for the comeback of the mysterious naked man at the end of the story. But that is just my ridiculous thought.

And you cannot read any of Joko Pinurbo’s works without laughing or smiling at the very least. The joke is everywhere, like when a bank account says to our protagonist, “Aku merasa terhormat bisa menjadi bagian dari ketidakpastian rezekimu” (“I am honored to be part of the uncertainty of your finances.) Or when at some point Pinurbo parodies one of Mr. Sapardi’s famous lines into, “Kopi dan saya tidak bertengkar tentang siapa di antara kami yang lebih pahit” (“Coffee and I do not quarrel over who among us is bitter.) And they are not at all without meaning. They are more often than not sort of a slap in our face, knocking our conscience, stating hurtful facts, a little bit philosophical sometimes, especially when he says, “Kita adalah cinta yang berjihad melawan trauma” (“We are all love fighting against trauma.”) However, there is this one line that truly punches us so strongly about what happened in 1998:

“Saat itu sedang berlangsung demonstrasi menentang kenaikan harga BBM yang diikuti dengan merosotnya harga manusia.”

(“There was at that time a demonstration against gasoline price-hiking, which was followed by a plunge in the human value.”)

But his lines can be Pinurbo’s undoing as well, seeing how they are formulated here in the book. He seems trapped in his own style, “unable” to differentiate between prose and poem. (I put the word unable under the quotation marks because of course I know he is very able to do that). If you ever read even only one of his poems-collection books then you’ll know that he often writes poems in an almost prose style, and here in Srimenanti he appears to write paragraphs in rhyme that sound just like poems. This might seem revolutionary, or merely nothing-to-fuss-about, but for Pinurbo’s readers it can be outright boring. I mean, when you do two different things in one same style then what’s so new about it? He might just as well not write any novels at all, for his poems have already delivered stories to us.

Be that as it may, Srimenanti is still an enjoyable read. Anyone can read it merely for witty entertainment without having any literary expectation. And let’s not forget that it still has the ability to shake our conscience and emotions, and remind us that some pasts are still lurking behind our back and if we’re not careful they might come out and strike again.

Rating: 3.5/5

NB: all translations were unofficially done by myself.