It 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.