fiction, review

Malam Terakhir

Although it’s the third book by Leila S. Chudori I read, Malam Terakhir was actually her first work ever published. I didn’t have any expectations of this one, I didn’t dare to, since I’ve read the other two and been left quite disappointed. Chudori is a talented storyteller, I can say that, but I always have a problem with her language and (judgmental) tone. And this short story collection is no exception. It’s peopled with black-and-white characters (though Chudori tries hard to make them gray), and written with language too poetic to be real. What’s worse, of all the nine pieces contained in the book, only three that quite impressed me.

The first is entitled Air Suci Sita, a story based on Hinduism-rooted Javanese wayang tale, Ramayana. Like what Sapardi Djoko Damono does in his own retelling, Dongeng Rama-Sita, which is included in his double short story collection, Pada Suatu Hari Nanti/Malam Wabah, Chudori uses the idea of said tale to alter the whole narrative. However, instead of making the main female character choose her own way the way Mr. Damono does, Chudori doesn’t change the “female faithfulness” in her own version of Sita. Her Sita doesn’t dare to, even if love and desire have invaded her entire mind and being. She shuts them all and stays faithful to her fiancé. But this is the point where Chudori cleverly shows the reader what is wrong with our gender idealism. Why is it so normal for women to be/stay faithful to their men, and for men to betray them? Through this story, Chudori seems to want to slam the society for their injustice and male chauvinism. That’s said, Chudori doesn’t let the reader think she can’t be harsh in showing where she stands.

In Keats, my second favorite story of the book where the female character imagines herself talking to John Keats, Chudori takes action and makes her turn back and pursue her true love, instead of listening to her family and fulfilling the society’s expectation. The last of my favorite stories in Malam Terakhir, Sepasang Mata Menatap Rain, does not talk about gender/women’s problem at all. Far away from that, it tells of the experience of a two-year-old girl named Rain where she comes to know the harsh reality of life for the very first time: poverty, hunger, a little girl just a bit older than her playing music on the street only to get a scrap of money. What she doesn’t see is what’s behind all those things: the beggar mafia, the cruelty of war. And it is not so easy for parents/adults to explain it to an innocent girl like her. And when they try to do it, the result is a clash between pure sympathy and political views.

As I’ve mentioned in my introduction, the characters of almost all the short stories in Malam Terakhir are portrayed black-and-white, no matter how hard Chudori tries to make them look gray through her narratives. And so sadly, Chudori seems to make two strict divisions: fathers are white, and mothers are black. What is wrong with mothers, anyway? Are mothers always that bad? I thought, as a woman herself, Chudori will champion the position of mothers. What is the point, then, of talking gloriously about gender issues if she doesn’t have any intention to make even the slightest description of a good mother? A mother doesn’t always have to be likeable, of course, for they are only human. But, at the very least, you don’t have to make them that horrible. Women have already had too many problems without being described as awful. Besides the characters, the language also doesn’t work for me. It’s too poetic and figurative to my liking. Thank God she doesn’t mix it with slang language the way she does in 9 dari Nadira and Pulang, which results in an awkward feeling during the reading. The only thing about Malam Terakhir that I can give some honest applause is the way Chudori arranges all the nine plots. They are all very neat and clean, so much so that they feel deceitful, in a good way, thankfully. Paris, Juni 1988 has the best storyline of all, no doubt about that. And it’s unique, too.

Basically, all the stories in Malam Terakhir have some really great ideas, especially Paris, Juni 1988, Air Suci Sita, Sehelai Pakaian Hitam, and Sepasang Mata Menatap Rain. Such a shame they are not manufactured in the best way they can be. Despite talking mostly about freedom, all those stories are not written in a free way that they look so stiff. I don’t think readers will feel that they can get right into their hearts, that they can move something inside them.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

9 dari Nadira

It was the second time I read Leila S. Chudori’s work, after Pulang, and the second time I felt quite disappointed with her narrative tone. First published in 2009, 9 dari Nadira is a short story collection meant to read like a novel. The contents were written at different periods of time, and some of them had been subjected to revisions in order, I assume, to synchronize them with the entire plot. They are all great stories, and I marvel at their capability to have dragged me along the book without even blinking and held me hostage to the last page. If only Chudori weren’t too judgmental.

All the nine stories are intertwined with each other and tell of one main idea, focusing on one figure, Nadira Suwandi, a journalist born and raised in a troubled, tortured family. Through each title we will see the course of her life in a particular order: the death of her mother (Mencari Seikat Seruni); the hatred her older sister Nina has for her and their inharmonious relationship (Nina dan Nadira); the familial responsibility she has to shoulder on her own (Melukis Langit); married to the wrong man and unaware of it (Ciuman Terpanjang); filing for divorce (Kirana); and finally realizing her true love when it’s almost too late (At Pedder Bay). But my favorite is definitely Tasbih, in which Chudori elaborates on Nadira’s character through an encounter with a psychopathic psychiatrist, a serial killer she has to interview for her crime report. Just a few seconds after they sit face to face in the prison, Mr. X, the psychopath, can figure her out completely. He can even guess what happens in her family, how her mother dies and why, and what her relationship with her sister is like. It sort of freaks her out and rises her temper, and I guess the reader would feel the same. But to me that is the most engrossing moment, the best story of all nine, because Chudori somehow shows us not only that Mr. X can understand Nadira, but that they are in the same state of mind.

And that is what I love most about Leila S. Chudori, the way she describes her characters. She seems to excel in opening up layers of a person and making them appear so normal albeit a little bit unsettling. Among so many characters in this collection, I think Nadira and Nina are the most intriguing ones. Nadira is described as a smart woman, a bookworm, so introvert and full of grief and sadness. Everything about her is told in great detail: her complex nature, her mourning, what’s inside her heart, her choice of life, and her saddening psychological condition. Chudori doesn’t put it word by word, but everything is there. Chudori lays her character bare throughout all the nine related stories for all the readers to see. The same applied to Nina. Despite her brief appearance in a few titles, Nina’s character is so vivid that we can see clearly her anger, her jealousy and her bitterness alongside her sense of responsibility and burden. Readers may find her so hateful, but I can understand her conflict inside. It might be hard to be Nadira, but being Nina is even harder.

Unfortunately, while Chudori succeeds in putting her created characters into the “gray area”, she doesn’t seem to feel it’s necessary to do the same with her tone, which tends to be judgmental. It’s like all people involved in the New Order are bad guys, all rich people are corrupt, all members of Indonesian Communist Party are innocents, and all journalists are angels. All of a sudden the narratives become a set of fairy tales for kids where all we get is merely black vs white, good vs bad, and all people are classified and put into boxes that, consciously or not, she creates a certain stereotype in the eye of the reader. The second most disturbing flaw I found in this book, much like in the novel Pulang, was the grammar. Chudori mixes both slang and formal/poetic language that sometimes the reader will find an inappropriate word in an inopportune sentence and the whole writing reads so awkwardly. Be that as it may, this book is not without some pluses. All the stories might have been written randomly (looking at the date put at the end of every piece), but the plot is nicely put and arranged, allowing the reader to enjoy it without being periodically misguided. And all the narratives, or rather the entire narrative is surprisingly strong, absorbing and quite sensible (though I believe there is a miss within one story). What I found so interesting about 9 dari Nadira was its main ideas: trauma, emotional wound, unrequited love, and a very, very exhaustingly complicated romance and family conflict.

Overall, I can say that I liked 9 dari Nadira. It’s just I had a problem with the tone, and I couldn’t stop myself from frowning at the sentences the whole time I was reading it. It’s great, but with great minuses, too.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Pulang

History is a blank page anybody can fill in, written from each of their point of view. It’s like a work of fiction, merely a story nobody knows the truth. History is not shaped by the actors, but the ruler. Who’s the ruler? Whoever at the top of the governmental throne. Once the ruler changes, the history changes in result. Demanding a fact revelation of the history is thus a very useless effort, and hammering what I would call “our version of history” into everybody’s head over and over is just as unworthy of anybody’s time. I’m not saying that Pulang by Leila S. Chudori, which was first published in 2012, is a useless book to read. In fact, it’s worthy of our attention, for it’s narratively well written, very well constructed even. But the fact that it’s only showing who’s the victim and who’s the villain doesn’t make it a good enough standard for history-based fiction.

Set in 1960s’ Indonesia, the book begins with a prologue where Hananto Prawiro, a communist-affiliated journalist, is arrested for his left ideology. He leaves a wife and three children, being executed without trial. His friends, Dimas, Nugroho, Risyaf, and Tjai are dispatched abroad to attend an international seminar on journalism, and can never come back for their allegedly same political affiliation. Being on the radar screen, they don’t have any choice but to stay on the run, hopping from one place to another, from one country to another, breathlessly hunting for an identity like, borrowing from Dimas, “a soul chasing after its own body.” After three years of wandering, they finally settle in Paris as political exiles. There, Dimas meets Vivienne Deveraux, a beautiful Sorbonne student who catches his instant attention the first time they clap eyes on each other. He knows he’s still running from the government’s dictatorial grip, he knows he’s still in love with Hananto’s widow, he knows he’s still seeking something he doesn’t even know how to call, but he can’t help getting tangled in a marriage web with the French girl. Together, they have one daughter, Lintang, who follows her mother taking study in Sorbonne University. For her final assignment, Lintang has to do research on what actually happens in 1965 and the unfair treatment toward the families and friends of the members and supporters of Indonesian Communist Party. To that end, she gamely sets foot in the motherland she never knows, and risks being detected as the daughter of an exile. But that’s not the only ordeal she has to deal with, because she’s also in danger of falling in love with Segara Alam, the youngest son of her father’s former lover, and forgetting about the man waiting for her in Paris.

Pulang is filled with “ordinary” characters, not that they’re not superbly described, but they’re just like those who are living next to your door. They are not unique in any sense, but they are interesting, making you think of some saying that less is more. Dimas Suryo is a free agent, I would say, never keen on being tied to anyone or anything, love, politics, religion, ideology. He can’t even look at his girlfriend dead in the eye and say that he wants to live with her forever. That very trait makes him a fickle man, someone you cannot rely on. Sadly, that’s what he passes on to his daughter. Smart and beautiful, Lintang Utara becomes inconsistent when it comes to love. She’s a woman who doesn’t even think about settling down. It is such a shame that Chudori has to depict her as uncertain and indecisive, for I always think that a smart girl must know what to decide. But people do have faults, no matter what their good qualities are, and questioning it would come to naught. Speaking of faults, I must say that I have a particular interest in the characters of Hananto Prawiro and Segara Alam, who are both promiscuous, brave, and rebellious. I cannot say that they’re characters I’d like to cherish, but I have to give credit to Chudori for describing them in a very manly, very virile way. She really succeeds in portraying them, in my opinion.

To call Pulang a work of historical fiction doesn’t feel right, but calling it a romance novel is also wrong. And it does not essentially fall into historical romance genre, either. It has several elements blended together: drama, romance, and history of the 1965, which is thought of as the darkest and the bloodiest in Indonesian historical record. Chudori has succeeded in weaving deftly those elements together into a wonderful narrative. It’s just a crying shame that she doesn’t present the historical aspect in a quite objective way. By this book, she seems to merely pour her sympathy to the victims and cast aspersions on the villains. Not that I’m on the New Order’s side, but what happened in 1965 didn’t stop at those who held the throne at that time, if you know what I mean, so we cannot blame it all on them. It’s quite disappointing to have such judgmental tone, while the book has actually many great qualities. It has a great story, with parts nicely arranged and enjoyable to read, and also a very strong narrative. Its segmented plot is not hard to follow, running smoothly to the open, intriguing conclusion. I only have one objection to the writing, namely its diction. Chudori doesn’t seem to completely determine what language she should use, sometimes it’s too formal, and sometimes it’s too casual. Some words aren’t even put in the right place, for the right sentence. I found it a little bit awkward to read at some point.

All things considered, Pulang by Leila S. Chudori is a wonderful work, a wonderful story. Only it doesn’t have the objectivity I need in a work of historical fiction, if it falls into that genre. It has a great basic idea and marvelous, down-to-earth characters. I wish I could like this book more, but for all the faults it has, I really couldn’t.

Rating: 3/5