fiction, review

Fish Soup

Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo is a pretty difficult book to stomach. It is not because it’s about women and their sexuality, but because the entire narrative is so unapologetically blatant in describing them. Or, rather, “cruelly” so. It’s like a slap in the face of everybody who believes that women should keep docile, modest and only follow the generational, social rules and patriarchal views in which they should not show their desire, should not be sexually active, or that they cannot be as sexually free as men are. This book wants to tell readers that women cannot be sexually repressed, should not be sexually repressed. And that they should not be punished for being a victim of sexual harassment and/or abuse.

The first part is a novella entitled Waiting for a Hurricane. The opening paragraph truly gives a punch, with the middle of it talking about being in the middle:

The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle. It was where the lost causes lived: there, nobody was poor enough to resign themselves to being poor forever, so they spent their lives trying to move up in the world and liberate themselves. When all attempts failed – as they usually did – their self-awareness disappeared and that’s when all was lost. – (page 7)

The unnamed female narrator is always where she has been since she was born, dreaming of getting out of the place where she is now. She doesn’t care if she’s very smart and could have a “bright future”, she only cares about running away, escaping the small city she lives in. She even dumps her boyfriend because she knows he will never (be able to) bring her out of their hole. And finally she decides to be an air hostess, that way she at least can leave her city even if only for a short time and be back again. She becomes more and more desperate to go away upon seeing her brother marrying a nurse from the US, hence gaining a green card. But after so many efforts she has done, she can only eventually find herself stuck in the middle, in the life that she knows with someone who is also never going anywhere.

The second part of the book, Worse Things, is a mini short-story collection consisting of seven stunningly disturbing pieces. Once again, they’re not disturbing because of the ideas, but rather for how merciless the narratives can be. Like A Pariah might only be a simple story about an old woman in the middle of her recovery after having a cancer, but later it is revealed that deep down she still has her desire and that it is somewhat satisfied by a man so much younger than she is. The question then might not be “what is wrong with her?”, but rather “is it wrong?”

Another “disturbing” piece in this part is the titular short story, Fish Soup. It’s disturbing in a way that Mr. Aldo Villafora always has bad imaginations of his wife while he is in delirium. In his mind, his wife is a “whore”, always having sexual relationships with many different men, always brutally shameless. There’s also a point in his dreams where his wife is already dead, and what is left is only bad memories. The whole narrative clearly shows that Mr. Villafora doesn’t have quite a good impression of his wife, thinking that his wife is a “bad woman”. But then the question is, why? And the next question is, does that impression match his wife’s real character? Seeing that, as it is, the real person of his wife is not presented until the end of the story, and only in a glimpse with an anxiety over Mr. Villafora’s condition.

Something We Never Were is an attempt to reverse the male-female point of view on men-women (sexual) relationship. It is very often that we see men having free sexual relationships with any woman they like without maintaining ties while women have to bear whatever consequences there are. But here we see Salvador yearns for a “normal” boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with Eileen while the girl only wants sex and nothing more. The differences between them do not stop there. Eileen is too well-read and too broad-minded for Salvador that he cannot catch up with her train of thoughts, cannot understand her. And while he feels more and more in love with her, she doesn’t seem to have the same feeling at all. And when Salvador finally wants to break up with her, Eileen just cannot get, “what is there to break?”

The third and final part is another novella, Sexual Education. Well, it is, in part, about sexual education in which young girls in a school are encouraged to refrain from having (free) sexual relationships, seeing that so many have ruined their own future by having babies so early and being married off in such a young age. But, of course, some students do not just be quiet and comply with the teachings. Particularly Dalia, the narrator’s close friend, who has no qualms whatsoever about revealing her thoughts about women’s sexuality and doing sexual activities freely and openly with her boyfriend. But our narrator is so sick of her friend’s behavior and her way of (sex) life, though she herself doesn’t seem to agree with her teacher.

The story doesn’t have any end, as it is opened and is not concluded in any way. It even ends up displaying “another story” where one of their schoolmates is being raped by several boys and that she cannot get justice, cannot even spread the news about her tragedy because the editor of the newspaper is a relative of one of the rapists. And the boys, of course, are spared from any punishment.

Generally speaking, all stories in this book do not have any specific end. They all do not have any conclusion. It is as if Robayo wants to show that women’s problems, whatever they are, never have any solution. Women keep being hit by patriarchal views and practices, and especially, sexually. Fish Soup may not be a breakthrough in itself, but it is definitely a statement, a harsh statement, that those patriarchal views and practices against women should stop right now, that women should get justice when they are being the victims of sexual misconduct done by men, that there should be an end to it.

Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup is both fascinating and unsettling at the same time, in a way that it’s so true and blatant that readers might want to stop and take a breath and admit to themselves that this is what happens, what always happens, in our society, even up to this day. It wants to wake us up by pouring cold water right to our face, making us shocked and see the reality immediately. And it doesn’t feel sorry for it, because that’s the least that it can do.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Die, My Love

2020-05-29_10-39-06Being different is already difficult, much more being a different woman who doesn’t live up to everyone’s standards. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz is a blatant protest against these standards, and it never feels sorry about it. First published in 2017 by Charco Press (and co-translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), this short novel tries so hard to point out what is wrong with a marriage that obviously goes wrong in a patriarchal society which tends to see everything out of standards in a woman as wrong. You might want to prepare yourself, for this one is totally unapologetic.

The story begins with our (anonymous) protagonist imagining herself holding a knife in her hand, ready to kill her husband. Of course, it does not truly happen, but the desire to do so is there and never ceases to exist. What she never has a desire to do is having a baby, and yet there she is, with a six-month toddler to care for. Another problem wedged in her heart that surges immediately in her early narrative of stream of consciousness is the big question of why her husband picks and chooses her while there are so many other beautiful, attractive women out there. And readers might have their own big question in turn: if she doesn’t feel like it, why doesn’t she say no?

But, well, that probably is not the right question to ask, since the book is obviously not about the choices women could have, but what they have been trapped into. As the story progresses, readers can see that the protagonist is so out of place in her own world: she isn’t only unfit for marriage, but the entire household stuff, the neighborhood, the way the world “usually” works. She sees everything that is “normal” as imprisoning, a cage she’s yearning to get out of from. The only place she can feel free in is the forest next to her house, where she often sees a deer with a pair of warming eyes. It is the deer she considers her life partner instead of her demanding husband who always sees her as weird and unsettled and not the kind of wife he wants her to be. He even thinks her excessive sexual appetite annoying, not letting her get what she wants while he himself strays away and has sex with another woman.

And this is also where the problem lies. The protagonist’s husband never (or, never wants to) fulfill her huge, endless sexual needs that when she knows her married neighbor has his eyes on her, she directly jumps into an affair with him. Her husband flies into a rage, of course, but while you know unfaithfulness is never the right thing, you cannot blame her. You would demand faithfulness from the husband as well, and since he cannot give that, you would stand up for her.

But a secret affair is not the only problem wrecking their marriage. The protagonist’s unusual (if you want to call it “unusual”) sexual appetite has also created another one: the husband sends her to a mental facility. What then makes the reader feel unsettled is all the patients there are male, except her. This action by the husband can be interpreted by the reader as misogynistic, being based on an opinion that women with such sexual desire are “not normal”. Is that how the world sees them?

The entire narrative bottles up pressure and frustration, resulting in having unrestrained demons screaming for freedom inside oneself. This having demons doesn’t mean that women are evils, as misogynists might think, but that they are not liberated the way they want to be, or should be. If this book seems to be the total opposite of misogynistic, whatever you might call it, then it is. All male characters here do not seem to be a good man to the protagonist—not her husband, not her lover, and definitely not her father-in-law, who never loves his wife. It feels like the protagonist (or, the writer) wants to say that if “normal people” can be misogynistic, then why can’t we be the opposite? Die, My Love seems to want to demand justice for women, for “unusual women”, that is, in a very extreme way. And it just doesn’t care, it doesn’t want to pretend the other way around.

What might become a problem here is actually the protagonist herself. Not her demonic character, but her silence. Why does she keep silent in the entire story? Why, every time she and her husband have disagreements, she never argues or expresses her opinions? Why does she never say no? Because she never has a choice? Is that how the writer portrays all women in the world and the mentality that, sadly, get them fall under patriarchy: do as you’re told, keep quiet, don’t fight back. And if everything doesn’t go well or as you like it, turn to the backstreet, fight from the dark.

But perhaps that is just the case, and Die, My Love is the written proof of this sad situation, of all women’s frustration. And if this difficult premise is already hard enough to chew over, then readers might want to prepare themselves for the difficult writing style: no names, no quotation marks for conversations, no clear distinction between the past and the present. Everything is blended, everything is like in a daze, yet so strong and poignant and heart-tugging. And Harwicz doesn’t seem to want to give the reader a certain ending, only hope for freedom.

I wouldn’t say that Harwicz’s Die, My Love is a super marvelous work of feminist literature, and reading it might give you a headache (literally), but it’s a screaming voice that we should consider for it’s own sake. It’s something different about someone different, and not a few people might be able to relate to it.

“It’s not that I’m assuming I want to slit his throat. I’m only saying that submission pisses me off.”

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Mr. President

Indonesian edition cover

Totalitarianism seems to be an always relevant topic to discuss, for there is still one or two countries applying the said system and having the world amazed and scared at the same time. It cannot be helped since total freedom seems what people want most, and democracy has become some sort of a god. People worship it, people idolize it. And people do not want any regime to control any part of their lives. And so any contrast to it will be talked about forever, especially in literature where people are sharing and spreading what they are thinking.

Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is only one example of this kind of medium. First published in 1946, it depicts how bad life under a dictatorial regime is, how turbulent times affect people living under such regime, and how politics works in such country.

It opens with an unintentional killing of one colonel José Parrales Sonriente by a deeply traumatized, mentally ill beggar in front of a public church. The witnesses are there, so it should not be difficult to investigate and close the case as such. The problem is, however, Colonel Sonriente is one of Mr. President’s close friends and his murder is deemed an act of treachery. In short, it is considered impossible for a higher official with such connection to be murdered by a crazy beggar who doesn’t even know whose life he has taken. Therefore, quite intentionally (I would say so), the blame is laid on the president’s enemies: General Canales and the lawyer Carvajal. They in fact are not even his true enemies, they merely have a different opinion from his.

And so, as is predicted, the hunting begins. Both Canales and Carvajal are charged with murder and treachery, and given the death sentence. The president then asks his another close friend, Miguel Cara de Ángel, to pretend to help Canales run away (so he will definitely look “guilty”) and sets to catch him in the act. Unfortunately, the general really manages to escape while Miguel gets his hands on the general’s beautiful daughter, Camila, making him unable to hold his ground and change sides. But it might not seem strange in the middle of political turmoil to switch sides and betray each other, for General Canales, innocently charged with betrayal himself, eventually sees why he should take actions against the president.

Rulers of this kind of regime can be very paranoid and manipulative. And that’s not a very good combination. The president of the fictional republic described in the book is obviously so afraid of losing his power and position that he must suspect everyone and anyone even those who innocently (or, unconsciously) express an opposing opinion to his. He deems everything against him as a thread, not only to him but to the entire country. Hence the law is literally blind before everything and everyone. One can be punished for saying the truth, and another can be rewarded for telling lies. It’s all for the sake of maintaining power and sovereignty, as is described by Asturias.

For all his unfair treatment of the people, Mr. President here is the central and interesting character to look at. People are not being bad or cruel without any particular reason. Though this is not what the writer intends to convey, it’s coming out through his words nonetheless. Mr. President, both the protagonist and antagonist of the book trying to control and silence everyone under his regime through any possible, imaginable means, is actually a mere weak person who is deeply hurt by his horrible past. Basically from a poor family with no privilege whatsoever, he has to survive and fight his way to the top—where he eventually has power to make the unfair society pay for what they have done to him. On the one hand, it could be (I say it could be) understandable that he becomes the dictator that he is. On the other hand, however, we will perhaps question his mentality and sanity and ask, “Do people become a leader just so they can seek revenge for their past? Is becoming a tyrant is a way to prove yourself?” Most of us will surely say no, but a leader with Mr. President’s mentality will likely say yes, it is.

Mr. President has a very powerful narrative and the president himself, though rarely seen and mostly described through his enemies’ or friends’ words, is a very strong character. The reader should not be worried about the so many side characters (those enemies and friends) because Asturias tells about their entanglement pretty clearly, despite their changing sides and whatnot. The realistic and surrealistic parts of the story are also nicely woven, so seamlessly, however, that readers might not be able to recognize which is which—which then becomes a hardship rather than pleasure. It also ends rather openly, but instead of giving hope (after all the characters have gone through), it only affirms that authoritarianism might not see its end very soon.

Overall, Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is undoubtedly a great novel, almost technically perfect and engaging. It’s just exhausting at times, for its surrealistic parts and for the military tortures done by the president’s cronies which seem to never stop.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat: Sepilihan Cerpen Amerika Latin

48123172453_e03a49bc90I’ve been wanting to join the Spanish Lit Month since a long time ago but this is my very first time ever truly making it true. And for this first edition I chose Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat, which has been on my TBR pile for almost an eternity, to read and review. You might be familiar with the English title, and it’s true that it is taken from the short story by Augusto Roa Bastos, but it is an anthology curated and released by Indonesian publisher Diva Press, consisting of fourteen short stories and one lecture.

Encounter with the Traitor is of course one of the pieces listed on the table of contents, and it’s also one of my few favorites. It is about an ex-prisoner who was years ago convicted of leaking information on rebels and once again encounters one of the victims of his deed. As the slow-but-sure storyline progresses, however, we will see that the so-called traitor was not actually the one who brought all the rebels at the time of war to their total demise. It was his brother, who then died and has been since then remembered as the hero. This short yet dense story clearly and cleverly shows us readers that wars, a particular period where everything is so tricky, deceiving and victory is the ultimate goal, can make a false hero out of the true culprit. We never know who our true enemy is behind the foggy lines.

Concerning Señor de la Peña by Eliseo Diego is the second on the list of both the contents and my favorites. Like the previous one, this is a story of deceitful reality. What you see is not always what is real, that’s pretty much the idea. Or maybe what you see is not what other people see. A new owner has come to live in a huge mansion at the border of a village, and since his arrival there all the servants try to figure out who he actually is, or rather what he really is like. Each of them sees their new master from a different point of view and therefore has a different opinion. It causes an endless debate among them and pushes them to go and take a look at him together, to see who is right and who is wrong about his person. But still, no agreement has reached, until finally the master’s brother-in-law comes and says, “What are you all looking at? There is nothing there.”

Why Reeds are Hollow by Gabriela Mistral is my most favorite of all stories that already left deep impression on me. People always dream of equality and ceaselessly, fearlessly fight for it. But at what cost? And to what extent do we need it? The reeds are throwing certain propaganda for the entire vegetation to have equal height. However, once this is realized, everything is in total chaos: clover as high as cathedrals, bushes grow dozens of feet, flowers get dried, lilies divided in two. And that’s not all. Animals are also badly affected by the so-called equality: get lost, cattle losing their fodder and finally human beings are starving. In short, the effect of equality campaigned by the reeds on the lives of all living creatures is not the good one. It ruins them, and not the other way around. You might wonder why but the answer is actually very simple: because everything and everyone is unique, they have their own characteristics, duties, functions and benefits. Everything and everyone do not need to be the same in every sense of the word, in every aspect. The world needs balance and that’s what differences are for.

My last favorite piece in this anthology is One Sunday Afternoon by Roberto Arlt. It might not be one with the newest or the most shocking premise, but its twisted, unpredictable plot will surely make readers feel tricked. When there is a lonely, bored wife – who is frequently being left at home by her busy, indifferent husband – inviting her husband’s friend for tea it wouldn’t pass the reader’s mind that she actually tries to seduce him while her husband is not around. What a perfect timing for unleashing her pent-up desire, and what a perfect person to do it with, too. But while you think that this woman is unfaithful, you’ll see that Eugene Karl, our male protagonist here, is having another idea. He might look so reluctant for a black-and-white reason, but then he’ll show you that he is not that good of a person. Later, after a very long, deep conversasion between the two, Eugene points out that the desire to get into bed with someone who is not your spouse is something normal in an empty marriage, and that any marriage will go through this particular phase, too.

It is such a shame that of the fourteen short stories contained in this rather thin book only four I could consider great and became my favorites. The rest just passed by without leaving any particular impression on me, not even those written by the greats such as Gabriel Gárcia Márquez (The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship), Isabel Allende (Toad’s Mouth), or Jorge Luis Borges (Parable of the Palace). This might sound so odd, but I probably couldn’t see their premises as interesting. Or perhaps it’s their narratives, or the translation. And the worsts are those with very, very unacceptable ideas like Axolotl by Julio Cortázar and Yzur by Leopoldo Lugones. I cannot say anything but that they are not my kind of stories.

Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat is not actually a bad anthology, but the short stories it consists of just didn’t interest me. I initially had high hopes for it, as it has many famous, great Latin American writers stamped on its front cover. Unfortunately I didn’t feel connected when I read most of their works here, hence my conclusion it’s merely so-so.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

The Tunnel

35065720642_3069d86cfb_oThere is this tunnel drawn by Ernesto Sabato which we might call a horrendous psychological novel. It follows a murderer, tried and already in prison, who attempts to justify what he has committed by describing his obsessive love and what’s inside his restless psyche. It relates his obsession, the danger of it, and his stormy mind where it somehow finds its comfortable home. First published in Spanish in 1948, this modern classic, The Tunnel, is definitely a quick read, as quick as the steps the narrator takes in recounting his story.

The book opens with the narrator’s introducing himself to the reader and telling forthrightly that he has murdered a woman by the name of María Iribarne. He, Juan Pablo Castel, doesn’t seem to regret what he has done. Instead, he keeps going on and on about his peculiar tendency, what he thinks about things, how he lives an isolated, solitary life until he eventually finds the only person who can understand him and, yes, kills her. Only after two chapters (which are, fortunately, very brief) does he truly start to relate how he meets María Iribarne, how they share the same view of life, how they are lonely persons, and how they start their somewhat secret love affair. María is reluctant at first, saying that she will only hurt him, but Castel is insistent. Not merely because he knows that only María in this whole world can understand him (proven by her appreciation of his painting Motherhood), but because he is obsessed with her. He must have her, he must possess not only her sole love but also her soul, he must be the only one for her, no room for other men even if they’re just a piece of memory of the past.

Their relationship is a very complex one, as Castel is making it so. His mind never sits still and forever questions María’s love for him, her faithfulness, her past, the nature of her marriage to Allende, her true character, and so on and so forth. And those unbearable, never-ending questions do not stay put in his brain, he lets them out and fires them ceaselessly at her. He never believes whatever she says, and he gets mad every time she shuts her mouth in protest at his rude attitude and cruel words. He is repressive, too, though God knows why he thinks it’s in the name of love, always making her do this and do that—including making love—which, in the end, only manages to put her off. But the thing is, María is also an enigmatic person. Everything about her is a mystery. Probably, the reason is that the entire story is told from Castel’s point of view, hence no room for her to explain anything or to express what she has in mind. It’s so muddling between them, and Castel keeps pushing her to the corner until she has no choice but to dodge him and run away. It’s also frustratingly unfair, not solely because it’s a one-sided narrative but because Castel has already set his mind on the idea that María is a dishonest woman so thus he cannot trust her, which in turn bars him from willing to stop to ponder everything from her viewpoint.

However depressing The Tunnel is, at the end we will be left marveled at how Ernesto Sabato constructs the whole narrative out of a single, solid point of view. This very view takes us readers along the tunnel inside Juan Pablo Castel’s unsettling mind, a tunnel which is so dark, narrow, twisting, so full of “I shouldn’t do that but I’m doing it now.” It is this tunnel which makes up the story we read and inevitably hate. And, because Castel’s mind is a stormy, ever-moving one, Sabato is so right to write such short chapters and put them together into a disturbing, short novel. The atmosphere is so tense, the scenes are cut into pieces like those in movies, the dialogues are never too long and very convincing that you want to slap Castel in the face. It would be safe to say that the tunnel, Castel’s tunnel, is the point of the entire story. Devouring this book means walking into that dark tunnel and forever trapped there, reading what he thinks. Even worse, because his is a male point of view, we might find it quite chauvinist, if not, rudely saying, misogynist. Women are deemed untrustworthy when they have several lovers, women are deemed liars when they refuse (or, do not have a chance) to say anything, and they are easily judged unfaithful when you don’t know what actually happens to and around them. This is the thing that makes an excellent prose like The Tunnel an unbearable read.

Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel is wonderfully enjoyable in one way and cruelly devastating in another. You want to love it but you despise it, too. It’s such a grand idea to display horrific psychological sides of humans, because by that we can recognize the sordid weaknesses that we all have (except for the bravery to refuse to act hypocritically like what Castel has, maybe). However, it is also saddening to have women pictured as ones who lie a lot and keep quiet when they can say a lot, too. All in all, it is a maddening thing to make any judgment on this book.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Portrait in Sepia

Indonesian edition’s cover

There seems to be no end to talking about women, for the fluidity of our social cultures and systems and the diversity of our viewpoints on womanhood will remain existing and always bring about endless, sometimes useless, discussion. Some female authors can actually point out women’s issues that are worth discussing, and even though they don’t really offer any solutions, what they have to present to the reader is not some nonsense we don’t feel related to at all. Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia doesn’t need any claims of being a feminist novel, yet it’s somehow capable of telling, and elaborating in the process, a story of unfortunate women and the suffering they have to endure in their time and age. Every woman who appears in this book is doomed from the start, to heartache, social restrictions, physical embarrassment, disgracefully gray status. Living in the 19th century, all they can do is stay quiet and resigned. But at some point, they show the reader that they can still stand up and hold their heads high.

The story gets us focused mainly on Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Tao Chi’en and Eliza Sommers of Daughter of Fortune, who lives a traumatic life and suffers horrible nightmares. Those upsetting dreams are deeply rooted in the death of her beloved grandfather, a haunting childhood experience that later defines the course of her troubled life. Paulina del Valle, her rich, demanding paternal grandmother, takes care of her and tries her best to erase Aurora’s memories and redefine her self and being by giving her luxury, education, even unlimited love and protection. But none of those can ease her pain nor dim her sufferings, for there will be always a huge hole in her heart and memory. Then, when she thinks she’ll never be happy, Aurora meets Diego Dominguéz, a country man she thinks of as her first and forever love. He gently courts her, and asks her to marry him. But what’s supposed to be a dream marriage turns out to be another nightmare for her. His betrayal leaves her torn, embarrassed, lost, but she sees no way out because tradition and the religious belief of their society bind her to an anti-divorce law in which a married couple cannot be separated by anything for they are united by God. Unable to do anything, she’s resigned to live that painful life until one day, she finds her true sanctuary in the arms of a man who can truly appreciate her and love her as she wants to be loved and fights back against the unfairness of the fate.

Allende describes female characters who are trapped in an old patriarchal society which robs them of the right to make their own choices. Once they plunge into an unpleasant situation, here disastrous marriages, they cannot get out of it. Aurora, Paulina, and even Susana have no choice but to stay where they are and bear all the unhappiness clouding their married lives. All three of them are stuck, the epitome of patriarchal dolls moving with strings attached. However, while Aurora seems too weak and innocent at the beginning, Paulina always knows what she wants to do and to have and makes something of herself. Aurora is a bit late in finding what she truly needs in life, but she soon comes to realization and does not let her fate, and the unfair society system, dictate her choices anymore. Interestingly, on the other hand, Susana seems so content with having an affair with her brother-in-law, while ruining another woman’s life and dreams in the process, to compensate for her inability to dissolve the marriage she never wants. Any way you slice it, we can’t deny the fact that those characters are women in trouble, who become the base of the whole story.

Portrait in Sepia is, obviously, a dramatic tale of womanhood of a constricted and constricting society. It’s revealing how a marriage can be both bliss and an unavoidable disaster, how a man can do whatever they please when a woman is bound to law and tradition they cannot untangle themselves from, how a secret love affair is the only way to solve a problematic marriage that is so unfair. Allende also talks about women’s sexuality here, which I personally deem important in the realm of feminism. The way she narrates every sex scene and the talks on sexual relationship emanate the unrecognized inner power of women. It is wrong, I have to say, to liken sexuality and femininity, but it is also undeniable that sex has been part of the physical politics of women’s bodies. This idea is very clear in the description of the character of Nívea, who refuses to be dictated by motherhood and enjoys sex as it is, using it as a weapon to get her husband always on fire.

The narrative is as randomly arranged as that of The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, which I now think is Isabel Allende’s typical style of writing, at least so far. However, while this kind of narrative works so well in her other works above, this time it’s quite disturbing. The hasty flow makes it dizzying to my eye and, worst, doesn’t help some characters develop well. The character of Feliciano de Santa Cruz seems to change in a second, drastically from a loving, passionate lover into a deceitful, playboy husband. Aurora’s and Iván Radovic’s mild friendship also turns to be a lustful relationship in a snap without detailed elaboration. It gives the impression of not being carefully handled, or rather, written. Nevertheless, awkwardly, it is still engaging and beautiful in a dramatic way. I liked the story, and especially the basic idea. The conflict Allende presents to the reader is very much heart-wrenching and connected to women in general, despite its historical specificity. What so unfortunate about this book is that Allende apparently decides not to use her “magical realism” prowess here, and let it be a simple historical/general fiction instead.

On the whole, Portrait in Sepia is a great read, pretty absorbing and interesting, in spite of the weaknesses in its plot and character development. Without looking at those failed aspects, this book is actually a wonderful work of feminist fiction.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Daughter of Fortune

Indonesian edition’s cover

Craving for more Isabel Allende’s works, I grabbed Daughter of Fortune and went into it with so much excitement. First published in 1999, it should have been, I’d rather say, the prequel of Allende’s previous phenomenon, The House of the Spirits. It’s never too late to write a prequel, though, if this book is really meant to be one, and the result is not at all less impressive. This time, Allende goes back way far to the era of the Gold Rush in California and presents the so-called “magical realism” in a culturally different way than that of I found in The House of the Spirits. The blend of history, feminism, and cross-cultural love story combine well with Allende’s trademark style of writing and produce a stunning prose which I believe, though cannot be said to be better, is of the same quality.

The story is about Eliza, an orphan girl with unknown parents, who is dropped irresponsibly in the Sommers family’s lap. The prim English lot raises her like one of their own and makes her into a lady of manner. But her strict upbringing doesn’t stop her from falling badly in love with a low-born labor man, by the name of Joaquín Andieta. She determines from the very first time that he is her first and forever love, and soon they involve in a passionate forbidden love affair. It’s not long, however, before the news of the gold rush spreads rapidly over Chile, and everyone is charmed by the promise of a better life and instant wealth. Every man is ready to go to California to find their fate and dig some precious gold, and Joaquín is no exception. Pregnant, Eliza decides to go following her love to the North America two months later with the help of a Chinese cook working for her adopted uncle, Captain John Sommers. The said cook, Tao Chi’en, thinks that this Latin girl must be crazy enough to go across the dangerous sea just to see her unthinking boyfriend, but he can’t helplessly say no when Eliza asks him to smuggle her into the ship he is about to go aboard. So he agrees and they sail right away to the land of gold, but they don’t know that Eliza’s reckless request will lead to different circumstance they innocently expect to deal with.

As always, Allende describes her every creation of a character with some uniqueness and unusual way of portrayal. I was particularly interested in the likes of Ms. Sommers and her opposing brothers. Their naturally different viewpoints and behaviors create the ever so quiet dynamics of the family, making it seem so normal on the outside yet so flaring up inside. The presence of Eliza in their household doesn’t seem very much significant, though, nor is it more determining once she sets foot in California and the narrative goes on to reveal her and Tao Chi’en’s struggling life among the forty-niners. Instead, Tao Chi’en seems to steal the whole show with his wisdom and compassion and cultural background. Some readers may have an objection to reading two full chapters about Tao Chi’en and a long elaboration on the winding road he takes to become the great traditional healer that he is, but, to my thinking, by elaborating his background more Allende seems to want to assert her “magical realism” type of prose. So, in a way, I can say that through the character of Tao Chi’en, Allende emits her magical/spiritual ideas.

After reading, and comprehending, the entire narrative, my overall impression of Daughter of Fortune is that it’s not a love story, despite the loving connection between Eliza and Tao Chi’en. If we look at it closely, it has so many integrated ideas: the famous history of the Gold Rush in California, the racial conflicts occurred during those times, women of that period and the lives they have to live, wisdom and knowledge. By analogy, it is some kind of salad consisting of several ingredients complete with some delicious dressing of complicated love saga. However, what caught my attention most during my reading it was its vague presentation of women’s problems in that particular time of history. In a period where women were being put through some strict rules and social restrictions, either in the Western or Eastern society, the fair sex had not many choices to take, only a few decisions to make, and not enough room to breathe. Either they ended up being married or being a spinster, there was not much they could do. Other choices could be worse than anything else: sold to become a prostitute or a slave. Most of them did not have the power to say no and doomed to live under patriarchal rules and guide. This is, as far as I understand, what is mirrored in the blunt character of Ms. Sommers and Eliza’s letter to Tao Chi’en:

“Being a man is boring, but being a woman is even worse.”

Daughter of Fortune, I would say, is very well written, a typical trait which never ceases to exist in the works of Isabel Allende. Nonetheless, the narrative is not as engaging as that of The House of the Spirits. The basic idea, although skilfully executed, is not something I deem interesting. It might be because I have too high expectation of Eliza and Tao Chi’en’s love relationship, while it looks as if it only decorates the whole story. Fortunately, the storyline is not as disappointing. It’s not linear in progress, with scenes scattered over the narration like seeds of plants on a field, but it is engrossing in some ways, sticking our attention to it and its details. I must say that Daughter of Fortune is an enjoyable read, except that it has some unnecessary similarities with The House of the Spirits in the opening chapters, which I think is irritating and tainting.

Overall, I think Daughter of Fortune is actually a great story, with a great idea and a mysteriously great execution at the end. I might be disappointed by the lack of romance here, but the marvelous, meticulous arrangement of the narrative has made up for it. So, yes, this book is certainly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The House of the Spirits

Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits was my very first introduction to Latin American literature. I was quite in awe when I first went into it, and by the middle of the book, I felt sure that I had fallen for it. First published in 1982, The House of the Spirits is, hands down, one of the most notable works not only in the realm of Latin American literature, but also modern literary world in general. It has everything it takes to become a splendid, unforgettable work, namely uniqueness and profundity.

The House of the Spirits opens with a peculiar narration introducing Clara, a ten-year-old girl of some large, prominent family. However, it’s not particularly her the whole first chapter is talking about, but her elder sister, the mermaid-like, gloriously beautiful Rosa. Through a whimsical description of the little Clara, Allende weaves her magic and slowly brings out Rosa into view. Later, as the narrative picturing Rosa and the entire del Valle family develops, we come to meet the main male character who will be the machine of the story throughout the book, Esteban Trueba, Rosa’s loving fiancé. The tragic end of his painfully brief engagement to Rosa brings Trueba to mourning, being unable, as he claims, to feel love anymore. Desperate and broken-hearted, Trueba distracts himself by trying to focus on making money, especially after leaving his mining job earlier. So he comes back to his ancestor’s abandoned land, Tres Marías, examining it with a critical eye and deciding that it has the potential to become a prosperous field. To that end, he rolls his sleeves and gets back to work, setting himself up as the landlord and doing everything in his power to achieve his deep-rooted ambition. But the success of a son is never enough for a mother, for it is a sure thing that a mother would like to see her son get married right and proper. So at his mother’s request, Trueba starts to seek a proper wife, and the twist of fate brings him to Clara, Rosa’s little sister. Clara, the clairvoyant, has already known for quite some time that she will one day marry her sister’s former fiancé, and that her marriage to Esteban Trueba will lead to an unavoidable disaster. From then on, the story of the Trueba family involves so many horrible events that bear evidence of what Clara has predicted all along.

The character of Esteban Trueba sort of draws the reader’s sympathy and hatred at the same time. While his loving nature and hard-working persistence are unmistakable, his evil deeds and his endless arrogance and desire for power seem to me too much to bear. He is such a fantastic creation of a character, mean yet tender, strong yet vulnerable, tyrannical yet pitiful. What he does and how he behaves as a landlord and a politician show flagrantly the one side of him, while his forever love for Clara and his limitless affection for his granddaughter Alba vividly prove the other. He is, in my opinion, the perfect other half for Clara, who is so quiet and indifferent, yet so determined and having so much care for others. I cannot say that they are a romantic couple, but the unique bond between them is so touching and so natural. Their daughter Blanca seems to be the blend of both of their characters, quiet and shy but so rebellious in her own way. Her love for Pedro Tercero García drives her to fearlessly fight her father in any possible way. And this very trait is then inherited to Alba, her and García’s illegitimate child. However, in light of a different era, Alba is more forthright and more stubborn than her mother. These three women, these three representations of the fair sex across times and eras, have important roles of their own which help shaping the entire narrative alongside the character of Trueba, keeping the balance of both genders in a marvelous tale of historical events, wave of ideology, and endless love.

The story is intricately written from two different points of view, Esteban Trueba’s and his granddaughter Alba’s, making it rich and luxurious, instilling in the reader multifaceted understanding of the events that take place. This way of storytelling is one of the many unique things found in the book. It doesn’t necessitate the reader judging any character or assessing any happenings, or even conceding any ideology. It flows as it is, as a story of a family and a society that are never perfect in their natures. The plot is unusual as well. It doesn’t really run in a straightforward line, nor is it molded into a flashback pattern. Allende seems to make it like a recollection of the past events bouncing off every which way without certainty. But, thankfully, it’s not distracting, but demanding our full attention instead. The description of every character is also very much clear, developing through the course of the said events so that the reader can have a clear picture in their mind. What so incredible about this book is that Allende concocts every ingredient cleverly and serves it as one unity, marking each era she recounts with the presence of a character and all of their personalities and thoughts and choices of life, and then infusing them with her ideas so that every aspect is inseparable and solid.

The House of the Spirits is a stunning, breathtaking work of fiction, and so far I have found no match for it. Its beauty and excellence are all indescribable. In short, it is definitely very much recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

The Alchemist

Among so many motivating books out there, The Alchemist is surely one of the most standout. It’s been bestseller everywhere and translated into so many languages. Looking at its core idea, it’s no wonder that this book has been very much successful. What book can sell better than a book about reaching dreams? People of any nations, any countries, any ages and genders are all dreaming a dream. This book is just perfect for anyone, with a strong narrative and a fictional yet earthly ordinary character everyone can find inside themselves.

That character is Santiago, a shepherd wandering around Andalusia taking care of his sheep. He only wants to be a wanderer, travelling to every corner of the world, and being a shepherd is just the best job to serve his purpose. One night, Santiago has a sudden dream, and later that dream ceaselessly comes to him several nights in a row. Having seen a fortune-teller and a mysterious king, Santiago realizes that he has to pursue his dream to Egypt, finding a treasure near the Pyramids. His journey is not without let nor hindrance, and it’s inevitably laced with some bewildering happenings and signs… leading him to the actual path towards his dream.

During his journey, Santiago feels hesitated at times, thinking what he has up to that point of his life has been enough for him. He almost gives up then and there, but the voices at the back of his mind tell him to go on with his steps. He then decides, and is determined, to listen to those voices and keep pursuing his dream even though he still often believes it’s unreal.

The way Coelho tells his story is so surreal, like a fantasy fairy tale. It mixes what’s real and what’s not. It is, in my opinion, in itself reflecting the dream/reality world Santiago stepping on, a world where a dream is the aim of our real life. Its packed plot doesn’t allow the story to be nonsensically dragging on and on, and it ends at just the right spot. The Alchemist is unarguably encouraging, driving and moving. It somehow forces you to have faith, to believe in God, and to take a step. Aside from everything, I am particularly, most subjectively, glad with how Coelho describes Islam and the Muslims here. While others are usually being offensive, Coelho tries to present Islam without hostility.

So, The Alchemist is, to me, a highly recommended book to everyone. I do believe that this book will remain standout for some more years in the future. It may be just another motivating book, but with all its unlike-any-other features, The Alchemist will not be forgotten easily.

Rating: 3.5/5