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


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.

poetry, review

Buku Latihan Tidur

45524246745_5d12bf6423Some (or most) people might think poetry is some kind of melodramatic literary product, with flowery, figurative language not everyone understand. And there might not be many people who would think that poetry can also be funny, comic even, triggering laughter of its readers. Buku Latihan Tidur by Joko Pinurbo, one of Indonesia’s senior contemporary poets, falls into that category. It is not only hilarious, it’s refreshing, and yes it is thought-provoking but it doesn’t try to take anything seriously. Many poems listed on its table of contents indeed address some serious issues—like religion—but still in a very light, entertaining manner.

Those who are already familiar with the poet (those who aren’t can try and pick up Selamat Menunaikan Ibadah Puisi, some sort of “summary” of his past works) must have known that Pinurbo loves to play with words like someone playing a Rubik’s Cube, the result of which is revealing colorful sides of Indonesian language and what’s funny about it. This tendency is clearly seen in almost every piece of his poems here, but new readers may catch it up directly in Kamus Kecil, the second on the list, where he flips some words, or put two words together with only one letter difference, to show that those words can make up meaningful senteces.


bahwa sumber segala kisah adalah kasih;

bahwa ingin berawal dari angan;

bahwa ibu tak pernah kehilangan iba;

bahwa segala yang baik akan berbiak;

bahwa orang ramah tidak mudah marah;

bahwa seorang bintang harus tahan banting;

bahwa untuk menjadi gagah kau harus gigih;

bahwa terlampau paham bisa berakibat hampa;

bahwa orang lebih takut kepada hantu ketimbang kepada tuhan;

…” —(page 3)

The last line above is particularly funny because it’s mostly true that people are more afraid of ghost (hantu) than of God (tuhan).

In Tokoh Cerita, Pinurbo seems to try to point out how tricky it is to write a story and fill it with characters. He describes himself as an author who sits side by side with his fictional character, then suddenly he crosses out himself and so one character disappears and disturbs the plot. This attempt takes the reader back to the notion that writers often pour out themselves—either their alter ego, part of their personality, or their real-life experiences—into the stories they create. And once they decide to take back their character and let the others run wild, that’s when the storyline starts to get uncontrollable. Meanwhile, Perjamuan Malam is another amusing poem in which Pinurbo jokes about a meal where the dish on the plate (seemingly fish from the way the poet describes it) looks about to say “ouch” when it’s going to be eaten. Here he really makes the most out of his stock of metaphor.

There’s also an irony where Pinurbo thinks (or, seems to think) that people are actually insane in general, and that sanity is something as rare as holidays.

“Kepalaku rumah sakit jiwa yang kesepian

(my head is a lonely mental hospital)

ditinggal penghuninya mudik liburan.”

(all its inhabitants going out on vacation)—(page 18)

It is very intriguing that the poet would really think that way. Or perhaps, he means to refer to himself, what with his “abnormal” tone of poetry and crazy ideas. Whatever it is, this one poem can truly knock the reader’s mind as it points out the contradiction between what’s people generally believe (that sanity is a normal condition) and what’s real (that it is insanity the normal one).

“Apa agamamu?

(what’s your religion?)

Agamaku air yang membersihkan pertanyaanmu.”

(it’s water that cleans your question)—(page 6)

As naturally funny and linguistically comic as it is, Buku Latihan Tidur still can’t help but fall into the dangerous area of religion, which is a very sensitive topic if you see the condition these days. But Pinurbo doesn’t try to set up some doctrine for people to follow. In fact, he tries to show that religion should be relieving, calming, freeing belief and not something that makes people so angry, so intolerant, so snobbish, so hateful and vengeful toward others. Like in the poem Sajak Balsem untuk Gus Mus, where he highly criticizes “religious people” who do their prayers everyday but then chiding, bullying, fighting others and get mad when they’re at the losing side. This subtly harsh criticism can also be found in Kolom Agama. It basically criticizes the national ID card in which we have to fill what our religious belief is for all people to see. What’s the use of it, anyway?  Does it make you a good person? What if the religion stated on the ID card is not the religion the ID card owner holds? There are too many a case like this. Moreover, as the poet implies in this poem, what’s important is not religion, but love.

Buku Latihan Tidur by Joko Pinurbo has not only so much fun, but also so many themes and tricks of how to handle them. It consists only of 80-something pages yet it is so rich: either in its contents or its metaphorical language. Pinurbo doesn’t only entertain us, but he provokes our thoughts. He invites us to come and see many things from a comical angle, from a humorous point of view. He seems to want us not to take anything seriously, but if we think about it, we’ll find things truly funny but most of the time in an ironic way. Joko Pinurbo really has a gift to do that.

Rating: 4.5/5