fiction, review

Bastian dan Jamur Ajaib

Despite having heard her name in Indonesian literary world for quite long, I never read any of Ratih Kumala’s works until just recently. Bastian dan Jamur Ajaib is not her first book, but it was the first ever that dropped into my lap. Freshly published in 2015, it is a collection of thirteen short stories with truly brilliant ideas, although the writing of some of them mostly does not support the shiny premises. Here are a few which I deem to have left the strongest impression in my mind.

Well, it needed a willingness to move through two somewhat badly written stories before I finally came to a number which has both a unique premise and an acceptable way of storytelling. Nenek Hijau, the third story on the list, presents to the reader a notion of virginity apposite to what society believes in general. While people hold a firm belief that women have to keep themselves virgin until the day they’re married, in Nenek Hijau Kumala tries to play with that notion and reverse the whole discourse. As the story unfolds, readers will get to see boys who have to struggle to keep their virginity so that girls will come and ask their parents for their hands in marriage. Yet it is so impossible for them to keep virgin, because once they come of age, Nenek Hijau will come to them, unexpectedly and uninvitedly, and rip them off their virginity. The result of this is way beyond our imagination. The number entitled Tulah is so stunning, not for its storyline but for Kumala’s bravery, or rather audacity, to retell the story of Moses with a plot of her own. The story is told from two changing points of view: Moses and the Red Sea. Kumala uses quite lyrical sentences to elaborate the narrative, which match the tone she has set and thus render a somewhat epic tale.

Some other stories put unfaithfulness on the spotlight and Keretamu Tak Berhenti Lama is one of them. Here in the number eight on the list, unfaithfulness is mingled with social issues, revealing the story of a woman of middle-lower class struggling for money every single day while her becak-driver husband spends it for gambling. Women who carelessly leave their husbands and/or families are often being looked down on by the society. But here, Kumala seems to want to make a statement that if a woman is not happy with her man, then there must be something wrong with him. The other two numbers about unfaithfulness are Rumah Duka and Foto Ibu. Rumah Duka is all about the clash of egos between two women, where a wife has to live with the fact that her husband is unfaithful and has been having an affair with another woman for years, and then has to face that woman on the last day her husband breathes the air. On the other hand, in Foto Ibu the wife knows nothing about her husband’s secret lover until she learns that their settled, peaceful life is not without obstacle.

The story of Bau Laut is the most engrossing of all. Its folkloric style really supports the premise and the atmosphere is so dreamy that the reader may feel like they’re dragged into a wonderland. To top it all, the absurdity shrouding it enhances the fairy tale infusion. It’s about Mencar, a young boy living in a seaside village, who has an incredible talent of spotting the fish whereabouts under the sea and goes to sea regularly with the rest of the seafarers in said village. Despite his promise to marry his girlfriend just before his last voyage, Mencar comes back with a married status, to a mermaid. More than that, his talent seems to get greater than anyone can imagine: he can see where the fish are without going out to the sea. But then he chooses to leave the life of prosperity and come back to his true love, breaking his promise in reverse to the mermaid. What people, and his girlfriend, don’t know is that it takes great consequences for him to do that.

When I first turned the first page of the book, which brought me to the story entitled Ode untuk Jangkrik, I strangely felt like I stumbled upon a writing of a little child. This is by no means meant to offend or something, but I honestly was uncomfortable with the awkward, childish writing style. I thought that as an experienced writer who has been wandering around the realm of literature for so long, and even nominated for Khatulistiwa Literary Award, Ratih Kumala would have been better than that. The way she arranges her sentences in that first title on the list is like a little child managing to complete their very first story for the first time. Later on, although her writing and narrative form got way better, I still found some odd diction. She doesn’t seem to know what the meaning of “seraya” in KBBI (our national dictionary of Indonesian language) is, and when to use “sehelai/selembar” instead of “sebuah”. I may be wrong, and we may have different opinions on our own language, but it certainly is disturbing.

On the whole, Bastian dan Jamur Ajaib is a nice short story collection with really fabulous ideas, it’s just such a shame that not all of those ideas are realized in fabulous narrative writing.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh

the very first edition's cover
the very first edition’s cover

Science and fiction are two different fields of study, as we generally know, unless you want to take science fiction into account. But, what if it’s not science fiction at all? What if science and fiction are blended together to form a romantic story inside a story? Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh by Dee is the answer. Previously known as a singer/songwriter, Dee released this debut novel of hers in 2001 under her own independent publishing company. It has and continues to gain critical acclaim as well as popular response among readers. It’s heavily strewn with theories of psychology and physics and philosophy, and is guaranteed to force the reader to view this world from a different angle.

Ruben and Dhimas, a homosexual couple first met when taking their undergraduate program in the United States, finally decide to work on the masterpiece they’ve planned on and promised to do ten years earlier. Their intention is to fuse science with literature, a bunch of grand theories with a wave of romanticism, in order to produce a work of fiction interwoven with nonfiction facts. So they choose to pluck the characters of Ksatria and Puteri from a comic book, and make up their own story featuring those two lovebirds. Ksatria, a successful young man with a dull, monotonous life, meets Puteri in what seems to be a predestined encounter. They fall in love each other almost in an instant, succumbing to their lust and love regardless of her having already been committed in a marriage. Things appear to run so well in their secret affair, until their desire to be freely together feels more urgent than ever and their hush-hush feelings overwhelm both with no restraint. Puteri has to decide whether she is going to leave her husband for the one she loves, or stay in the marriage she never feels passionate in. And in the middle of it all comes Diva, a catwalk model/highly paid prostitute whose attitude towards the world is so bitter and cynical that the reader may find her too much self-righteous for a woman of her profession. It is her, the Bintang Jatuh, who saves Ksatria from his tragic fall. But she cannot stay and return his love, for it’s been her nature to go and shoot away.

There are several characters in this first book of Supernova series, in and out of the “story”. But there’s only one that captured my sole, vehement attention, and that’s Diva, the Bintang Jatuh or the Falling Star. To me, she’s like standing head and shoulders above everyone else, not for her divinity-wanna-be portrayal, but for her significance in stirring the course of events of the “inside story”. She’s described as cynical and sarcastic, bitter towards anything and everything, like nothing is right to her in this pathetic world. As a matter of fact, her self-righteousness made me feel cynical in return towards her. To her, selling her body is like selling any other commodity in the market, like selling our labor, time, our soul. The way she thinks made me see her as an ungrateful person, for instance: condemning her beautiful, straight, long hair when so many women out there would die for it. She is indeed a do-gooder, trying to “change the world”, but what she does is too small to compare with the bigness and complexity of the universe. Really, I’m being so cynical towards her now. What’s worse, she is created, by the authors (Ruben and Dhimas), to become an Avatar, a Cyber Avatar, who has a divinity of a monk. Dee, as the writer of this whole narrative, perhaps only wants to show to the reader, through this Diva character, that in being a human, it’s all about your thoughts and good deeds, not the label you have on your forehead. I cannot say anything to this but that I have mixed feelings.

Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh is an interdisciplinary novel not all readers would get. The writer seems to want to prove something to them, and it’s probably for this very reason she makes up a narrative in which order and chaos become its main focus and goes to such great lengths elaborating and mixing so many scientific theories into one. Her intention is, I believe, to present a fictional romance that brilliantly emerges from those theories. However, the result is, the way I see it, only an “ordinary” rectangular love story which is so simple and easy to read that you don’t have to bother dwelling on those fruits of science experts’ thoughts. Fortunately, the narrative is shrewdly constructed, subplot being layered upon subplot, proving yet another thing that there are indeed no boundaries in time and space. The whole plot is also dense, without so much as little ramblings about anything. It’s very complex, however, and has no predictable direction as to where the story will actually lead. It is amazing, technically speaking, but I don’t have a consistent opinion when it comes to the language being used. I don’t know why but I felt it’s like a “translation language”, awkward and unnatural. And when it comes to male dialogues, I felt it was a woman talking instead of a man. What’s worse, I found some misplaced diction and less than correct use of marks, especially those in repeated words. In other words, linguistically (if I may say so), it’s quite a mess.

On the whole, Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh is actually a pretty great book, though not as fantastic as I might have thought before. The basic idea is stunning, but the execution, especially that of the “inside story” used to embody all those theories, is not what the reader could hope for. The question is, why bother elaborating such grand scientific theories if you only want to tell something simple?

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review


Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

Love stories have been being written so many times in so many ways over the centuries, but not many of them, I daresay, are presented to the reader philosophically, and yet sternly memorable. In search of other works by Susanna Tamaro, I grabbed a hold of Rispondimi quickly after reading Ascolta la mia voce. It’s her another work of philosophical fiction, in tradition of Va’ dove ti porta il cuore and Ascolta la mia voce, and talks about love in its own way, delivering the other side of the abundance of love and the unpleasant consequences suffered by people feeling and having it.

Divided into three, each story implies the same moral and idea, in which its main character is depicted as fragile and vulnerable. Rosa is the first to show up, with gnawing hatred for her uncle and aunt and a sense of emptiness about everything she has, asking what love is over and over again yet never gets the correct answer, the answer she is looking for. She eventually finds something she can call home, and gets to feel the love she’s been searching for in a Mother who employs her as a babysitter. But soon, she finds her world crashing down when she lets herself fall into what could be the freedom of being loved.

The fragility of a soul can as well be seen in the character of a loving Mother, who feels unashamedly happy about her husband’s death. That glorious feeling bursts out of her heart as a result of her husband’s miserable mistake of killing their own son—their beloved son—years ago. This feeling may not seem so wrong, looking at the fact that she has witnessed her husband’s terribly monstrous behavior at home all the time, or that she has been haunted by the guilt of being weak and not fighting back while her beloved son fights on his own.

The third story sees the proof of Tamaro’s unquestionable character-writing capability, where she plays a role in a man’s viewpoint. She unawkwardly tells the reader about what it is like to be an obsessive man, what it is like to love a woman for her weakness and dependence on him. When their daughter shows a bad indication of illness, his wife emanates more strength instead. The cheerful and gaily attitude of his wife leads him to wrongly accusing her of having an affair. Blinded by his own thought and demanding love, he then accidentally kills her.

Reading Rispondimi, it is plain to see that Tamaro gives more room for female characters to speak out than for the male one. Though depicted as weak and helpless, those two women have the power of love inside them. And while the one man here is obviously stronger, physically, he cannot stop himself from being vulnerable inside, what with his jealousy and need to be needed. However, the characterization of these three different people creates a certain pattern where sanity is not a part of love, nor the act of loving. All of them are overwhelmed by love, paralyzed by the need to be loved, thus having no sense to act sanely nor reasonably. All of them are devastated, literally and figuratively, because of their own blindness and doings.

Rispondimi is not merely about love, or the many ways in which we can show our love, it gets deeper into the characters of the people showing their love. The way I see it, Tamaro wants to say that love and natural character are chemical to each other and therefore result in people having different ways of showing their feeling. However, there is one thing people should hold fast, it is sincerity. Without it, we will be blinded and obsessed.

Tamaro never fails to make me awed with her stories and beautiful writing, and her narrative has always been simple but philosophical. But the atmosphere shrouding Rispondimi is too gloomy and sad to my taste. It’s too rueful, too tearful, too mournful, too grim that I couldn’t stand it. It’s nothing like the other two Tamaro’s books I’ve read so far. It still has the message of feminism vaguely implied in its characterization, which is interesting, but the fact that the book is too thin to contain three stories doesn’t seem wise to me. It’s too compact, if I may say so.

Nevertheless, Rispondimi is truly a great work of philosophical fiction with an idea unlike any other, or at least a narrative quite different from what other authors have ever written. So, this book is definitely for those who are looking for the other side of love, something other than just romanticism or lust.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Ascolta la mia voce

Indonesian edition’s cover

Ascolta la mia voce comes along to bring to light Marta’s side of story, Olga’s granddaughter in Susanna Tamaro’s previous novel, Va’ dove ti porta il cuore. This philosophical drama still carries the subject of women and family issues. Tamaro is steadfastly consistent in the way of her storytelling and portraying of characters. Reading this so-called sequel of Va’ dove ti porta il cuore has been an exceptional experience to me. Not only does it complete the previous story, but it also completes my learning of humanity.

Upon the death of her grandmother Olga, Marta, who for a good reason best known to herself hates Olga so much, is sunk deeply in thought of her mother, Ilaria. Topped with nagging curiosity, Marta sets to find out about the history of her family. Realizing that Olga never tells her much about her parents, Marta tries to track anything related to her mother Ilaria, and the father she never knows. She finally gets her hand on Ilaria’s memorabilia and letters and diary. After reading them, Marta comes to know her father, Massimo Ancoda, who has apparently abandoned her from the very start of her life. Having met Massimo afterward only brings home to her the fact that he is a selfish man and afraid of shouldering responsibility.

Knowing her father never seems to care enough about her, Marta then decides to track the path of her family to her grandmother’s cousin, Gionata, in Israel. Their conversation results in Marta getting some revelation and enlightenment of life and understanding what life is for others. Everything seems so sobering and convenient there in Israel when the news of her father’s death reaches her, so she goes back to Italy to see him for the last time. At the end of the story, she finds Olga’s diary (written as the story of Va’ dove ti porta il cuore), and reads it.

Here, Tamaro elaborates expansively the character of Marta, the distant, untouchable granddaughter in Va’ dove ti porta il cuore. Even better, through its plot and narrative, Tamaro seems to give Marta more room to show her feelings and thoughts, more than what she does to Olga. Tamaro creates Marta as a hateful woman, with complicated feelings and mysterious past. And then she slowly puts Marta through difficult and unbelievable revelations, showing her the reality of life and of being a woman. Unlike what she does before, Tamaro doesn’t make Marta a single character to tell the entire story, with a few additional characters to help the narrative building it. However, this way the reader can still see Marta more closely and comprehend her character.

Like its previous number, Ascolta la mia voce relies on its narrative more than dialogues, despite the facts that it has more characters in it. This may become its only, yet certainly unsettling, weakness. Though beautifully written, it doesn’t mean that putting up the whole story in an unpunctuated narrative, without any good ground for it (as it is applied in Va’ dove ti porta il cuore), is excusable. Be that as it may, I would say that this book has a wider thought on women’s issues and life. Its plot brings the reader to digging little by little the philosophy of life, at least in the author’s point of view. It is very deep and inspiring, putting aside the question whether or not it is acceptable to the reader.

In conclusion, Ascolta la mia voce is still a worth-reading book for its nice story and thoughtful philosophy, although some readers may not excuse its narrative and more complicated language. I recommend this book to those who are really interested in women’s issues and the discovery of what life has for us.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Va’ dove ti porta il cuore

Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

It is always intriguing for me to get my hands on European literary works. Reading European literature is never dull. But what makes it worthwhile for any readers to read Susanna Tamaro’s Va’ dove ti porta il cuore? It can be its mind-numbing narrative. Or its feminist message. Or its female characters. Readers who love drama may even like the sad atmosphere shrouding it. But I would personally say that the whole package of the book is what makes it worthwhile. This novel is among my first European reads, and reading it has excited me even more.

The story may have several characters in it, but the narrative is itself centered on the character of Olga. She seems to be a single character to tell the entire story. The idea of this book is to have her reveal a story through writing a diary for her granddaughter. I can tell that this novel depends so much on narrative rather than dialogues, which can be a bit boring for some. But the fact that the main character is actually writing a diary makes it just sensible. Besides, Tamaro composes her narrative nicely so I wouldn’t say it’s boring to read.

Olga, an old sick woman, is having a troubled relationship with her granddaughter. It is her granddaughter’s nature and her chosen way of life which are responsible for their difficult  communication. Aware of her health condition and coming time, Olga decides to write a special diary for her granddaughter, explaining the history of their female predecessors in family, the history of the granddaughter herself (which is not exactly what she thinks it is), and most of all, how this life is running.

Following Olga’s writing, you’d think her words are so philosophical. I can’t say that Tamaro deliberately wants to lecture the reader about philosophy of life, even though it’s what it seems on the outside. However, the feminist echo reverberating from Olga’s story caught my attention more than anything in the book. It conveys some different paths of feminism. The main character may not claim herself to be a feminist, but she is to me clearly revealing the true reality of being a woman, the women’s issues to be exact: positions, sufferings and everything. Considering the whole story, this book is solely about women. With its nice and easy language, I don’t think this book will be a dull read so anyone who doesn’t care about feminism nor gender issues won’t have to be afraid.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Va’ dove ti porta il cuore is not a lecture book, but it gave me so much to think about. Its narrative and the way it is written are wonderful. A pity it’s a little bit absurd so I couldn’t really get into the story and lose myself in it. Nevertheless, for those who love European literary works and have a little care about women’s issues, Va’ dove ti porta il cuore is not something to miss.

Rating: 3.5/5