Tag: Read and Review Challenge BBI 2017

The Vegetarian

34023328233_df89591553_oWhat is our body? A bunch of flesh and blood? A soulless entity? An empty creature devoid of civilization? Whatever you think of your body, it is yours and it is yours to do anything with. At the very least, this is a message that The Vegetarian, a short novel by Han Kang which has drawn an enormous amount of attention in the literary world, seems to intend to deliver. Quite vividly, here Han Kang lays emphasis on the idea that “yours to do anything with” includes harming that body of ours—that if you think harming is not actually harmful—when our traumatic experience leads us to anger and self-hatred resulting in the urge to destroy ourselves.

So many people seems to have already read this book, so let’s be brief. Upon having a horrible dream where she’s got blood all over her hands and mouth, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat and turn herself into a vegetarian. It bothers her family and society, for eating meat has been an inseparable tradition in their culture, and hence their insistence on her getting back to it. But her will is so much stronger than theirs, so she continues with her own way and eats nothing but vegetables and fruits. It costs her everything: her job, her marriage, her family. She doesn’t care, though, and is persistent, even if putting an end to eating meat doesn’t really stop that dream from hunting her nights over and over. Only when her brother-in-law paints flowers on her skin does she stop having such a dream, but that doesn’t mean everything turns the better for her (that if you think so). After a shocking incident involving her brother-in-law, her older sister In-hye is forced to put Yeong-hye into a mental hospital. And there, she starts to refuse to eat at all, because she thinks a tree doesn’t need to.

“I’m not an animal anymore.”

Yeong-hye apparently believes that she is an animal merely because she eats meat. But, are we? Does eating meat make us some kind of carnivore, a cannibal? Does it make us a horrible creature who has the heart to take the lives of other living creatures without mercy? Do you think, really, really think that by being a vegetarian, only eating vegetables, you’re not a killer? Do you not think that plants are also alive, breathing, growing, and breeding? Do you not think that when you eat them it means you kill them, too? Forget about blood, you’ve certainly taken the lives of others. In any way, being a vegetarian is not an answer to the question of our humanity, or will challenge our nature as human beings. Unless you stop eating at all and kill yourself slowly like Yeong-hye, that is.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

The broader your point of view on the story, however, the more you will realize that this is not only about being a vegetarian. This is about our body, about oppression imposed on our body. What happens to Yeong-hye—her psychological disturbance—seems to date back to when she received violent behavior from her father. She was weak and didn’t fight it, and was therefore left wounded physically and mentally. In a father-daughter relationship, where the father has more power over his children, more often than not, in any culture, this domestic violence practices occur. And when this happens, it always feels like we don’t own our body, like our body belongs to someone else. Some children cannot endure it, but continue to live with it, with the memory of it. So, eventually, Yeong-hye fights back and seeks revenge for what her body must have suffered from. But then, is it worth it? Does it really solve the problem of physical/emotional violence? Does it stop violence at all? But, of course, a book is sometimes not about finding an answer.

The Vegetarian is composed of three separate novellas, so it somehow reads incoherently. Luckily, Han Kang seems to mean it as one unity, making the next installment the next chapter to explain the aftermath of the previous event. And we can enjoy it thoroughly and easily, what with the smooth translation by Deborah Smith and no particular, skillful writing style. What makes this novel appear more extraordinary than it might actually be is how incredible Han Kang is (supported by Smith, of course) in using diction to build the atmosphere the story needs and in describing her characters. The narrative feels so simple to read yet so artfully created. It brings out a sense of horror in the reader and manages to make them feel as if they plunge into the horrendous world Yeong-hye is living in and witness the psychological torture she has to deal with. Readers will also be able to feel what In-hye feels, see what she sees and follow where her thoughts wander. It is a quite great prose.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang might work for so many people, but it is not for me. Technically, it doesn’t have the writing style I would call genius, and essentially, I have so many disagreements with it. It challenges my thoughts, yes, but not in a way that will change my mind.

Rating: 2.5/5

Dijual: Keajaiban

32918651421_ddb0ce58f9_oNine different writers from various Asian countries with nine different stories. Dijual: Keajaiban is an anthology that provides you with this wonderful miracle. Despite the geographical question you might be left with after perusing the list of writers contributing to the collection, the nine short pieces bring you thought-provoking ideas, deep, vividly drawn characters, emotional plots and thoughtful messages. This book is something we can call a hidden gem, something that might not be popular among readers (here in this country) but has the value of a treasure.

All the stories contained in this book are of high quality, there is no doubt about it. But there are four that can truly tear your heart apart, or at least leave you dead silent and aware of the reality around you. The first one is also the first to welcome readers to the collection, a very subtle love story by the Chinese Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian, entitled In the Park. It’s about a couple of childhood friends who meet again when they are grown up and are talking about their past and present, while watching a restless woman waiting for the man she loves nearby. The way Gao composes the dialogs tells us how both of them are actually in love with each other, unluckily, destiny doesn’t seem to want to see them together. But there has to be someone to blame, and the woman doesn’t conceal the fact that she intends to do so. However, it is not this attitude, or the subtle conflict being told she has with her male friend, which pulls the reader to the depth of the narrative, but the idea of how women, even in a personal love affair, has always to be on the losing side. It is crystal clear from what the woman says to the man:

“If the woman falls in love first, it’s always unlucky.”

The second lump-in-the-throat story of the book is Qismati and Nasibi by Naguib Mahfouz. Imagine you have a Siamese twin sibling and you cannot get away from the fact, much less from them. Characteristically, you both are so different you might as well be two different people born from two different mothers, and nothing unites you but your conjoined bodies. You cannot help but hate each other and fight almost everyday, sometimes willing to take the defeat only to get spurred again and determined to get what you want without an ounce of care about your twin’s feelings. Life is like a hell on earth, so much worse than that even. Unfortunately, even death cannot do you apart.

To Look Out the Window by Orhan Pamuk is as much heart-breaking. With its rather flat narrative, it surprisingly has the ability to set fire to the reader’s heart and make what seems to be a simple idea of family affair feel more moving and profound than any other Pamuk’s story ever did. Told from a first-person point of view, this long short story talks about a father secretly leaving his wife and children without so much as a word but telling his youngest son, who doesn’t have the faintest idea of what actually happens, not to tell anyone about his leaving for Paris. It appears, though, as the story progresses, that he leaves them for another woman. Pamuk is very clever in how he employs the viewpoint of an innocent little boy to elaborate his creation of a plot and describe the feelings of adults around him. On the one hand, it indeed makes it seem like nothing is really happening, but on the other, from the way the little boy relates his mother’s state of mind and conversations we can tell that she is suffering from severe depression and trying hard to deal with it, and to find out what she should do next. It’s a very sad story, and it’s my most favorite of all.

Yusuf Idris’ A Tray from Heaven is also moving, but in its own funny, stinging way. It hilariously relates the life of an old man named Syaikh Ali—poor, jobless, uneducated, with no family at all. His bad temper never leaves the people of his village upset, instead, they think his rage and the way he takes it out on his poverty are funny and entertaining. Until one day he gets them into a panic because he takes it out on God and curses Him for he hasn’t eaten the whole day. His neighbors are all afraid God will retaliate against the entire village for his foolish act. So on their own initiative, they give Syaikh Ali any food they have in store on a tray. And they keep doing it every time he gets cranky and starts to verbally attack the Almighty.

All characters inhabiting each story in Dijual: Keajaiban are portrayals of ordinary people, they are there to reflect our complicated, gray life with all the bitter-sweet: poverty, patriarchy, destiny, humanity, and, of course, miracles. They are, in some ways, not the center of the story where they live and look alive, but they are the center of attention to the reader. It is through their existence, then, that readers are able to look into the depth of each narrative and find out what the writer wants to say. This is especially true of The Blind Dog (R.K. Narayan) and Miracles for Sale (Taufiq el-Hakim). Both the blind dog and the priest are not the narrators, nor are they the aspects we should give more emphasis to, but it is through their characterizations that we see the messages and criticisms expressed strongly in each of the storylines.

With the exception, unfortunately, of Yukio Mishima’s The Seven Bridges, every short story put into this anthology is very affecting and incredibly moving. The writings grip you, so much so that you need to pull yourself together to carry on reading. This kind of prose needs undoubtedly a superb writing technique and a perceptive mind, and the translated version needs a superb translator to do it. Tia Setiadi could really do it. It seems like he could naturally catch the tone used by each writer and follow their writing styles. It read so smooth and natural, as if those stories are his own. There are, however, some questioning diction and several sentences translated too much literally. It was a little annoying but fortunately it occured only rarely. No harm done. What actually bothering is the line-up of writers the publisher, or the editor, chose to get their stories put together into this “all-Asian” collection. There are two writers from Egypt and one from Turkey. When the entire literary world, people in general, and even Turkish people themselves think of Turkey as a European country, the editor of the collection put Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate, into the list. Perhaps, it’s just perhaps, the editor thought that since Turks were originally coming from Central Asia, and the majority of the land geographically lies in Asia, then Turkey is fundamentally an Asian country. But what about the two writers from Egypt? The last time I checked, this country is still located in Africa. Why were they chosen to contribute their pieces to the book? Is it only because they write in Arabic? If so, then it sounds like Isabel Allende is thought of as a writer from Spain just because she writes in Spanish while in fact she comes from Chile in South America. I’d rather have writers from South Korea or South East Asia. We’ve got plenty here.

Having said that, I’d still like to thank the editor and the publisher for bringing out Dijual: Keajaiban. It really is a miraculous book, some kind of hidden gem that will make you feel rich only by reading the whole nine stories.

Rating: 4/5

Melipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak

32572055191_8df2ceb2fb_oMelipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak comprises Sapardi Djoko Damono’s selected poems written and published between 1998 and 2015. Quite different from Hujan Bulan Juni, his other book of selected poems released back in 2014, this one’s central theme is more of nature, God and spirituality, and old age. There is no so much as a hint of human love and romanticism in each and every one of the seventy five works contained in this book. But instead of being boring and lifeless, I found Melipat Jarak so heart-shredding and profound.

The collection opens with Catatan Masa Kecil, 4, a paragraphed poem about a little child who only knows of, and is so fond of, the number zero. It is intriguing how Mr. Damono, as an old man himself, explores the mind of a child and presents, if not writtenly imagines, that child’s take on numbers. The style may not be the prime quality for it’s not surprisingly new, but it is something that brings out the storytelling goal of the poem to the surface. Without it, the reader might not catch the reminiscent tone intended for them to sense; it would merely be verses and rhymes. And we won’t find this paragraphing in the opening poem only, but also in some others, like Sepasang Lampu Beca, which needs to bring up into view its “hidden narrative”.

In stark contrast to the first poem of the collection, many of Mr. Damono’s other works here talk about old-age life. Anyone already read his poetry books before must have been familiar with a piece entitled Ada Berita Apa Hari Ini, Den Sastro?, a nine-part poem telling of an old man who has been retired from his job and from everything else and the only thing he does everyday is reading newspapers at the terrace of his house without anyone, not even his own neighbors, paying attention to him. It emanates loneliness and elicits sadness, describing a kind of life where we will be only doing boring things, recalling the past, reading news and stories of other people on papers while totally ignored by those in reality, waiting for death to come to us. Reading this poem, the reader might get the feeling that it will happen to them one day, especially when there is no one beside us anymore. Interestingly, Mr. Damono describes this purgatory not only in one or two poems, but in many numbers, including Sebelum Fajar, which is very much heart-breaking, and Old Friends, a brief, funny poem about a lot of old people sitting in a wait for their turn at a hospital.

As I have mentioned earlier, many a poem in Melipat Jarak brings up the subjects of nature, God, and spirituality. They are so many that they seem to be the soul of the book. Sometimes these themes of God and nature are blended together into one, like what we find in the poem Surah Penghujan: Ayat 1-24. This isn’t so because of the title, nor the form that replicates the verses in the Koran, where God speaks to humans, but for it subtly describes the power of God transforming into changes of seasons which cannot be denied no matter how hard humans refuse them. In others, like the ones entitled Tiga Sajak Ringkas Tentang Cahaya (about the light of the moon and sun) and Sajak Tafsir (where every element of nature denies the way others describe its shape, name, and role in this world), Mr. Damono purely talks about the nature and how it works. Meanwhile, in poems like Sajak-sajak Kecil Tentang Cinta, Tentu. Kau Boleh, and Sajak dalam Sembilan Bagian, he channels out his creativity solely into the subject of God, spirituality, and how he interacts with the Almighty.

As engrossing as those poems mentioned above might seem, none of them bears uniqueness as attractive as Malin Kundang and Sudah Kubilang, Jangan Kamu ke Sana, which are meant to represent the “alternative narratives” of an Indonesian folklore, Malin Kundang, and a well-known Western fairy tale, Cinderella, respectively. It is not the only time for Mr. Damono to tinker with folklores, legends, or fairy tales for he has ever done it with the story of Ramayana in his 2-in-1 short story collection, Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah, but still they are fascinating creations. In Malin Kundang, the betraying son is not cursed into a stone, instead, people of his land warn him against coming back home so he can dodge the bullet. While Sudah Kubilang, Jangan Kamu ke Sana is a totally different take on the happily-ended, popular love story. There are, on the other hand, pieces of which uniqueness is more on the form than the content; some poems like Sunyi yang Lebat, Tiga Percakapan Telepon (something I’ve never discovered before), Sebilah Pisau Dapur yang Kaubeli Dari Penjaja yang Setidaknya Seminggu Sekali Muncul di Kompleks, yang Selalu Berjalan Menunduk dan Hanya Sesekali Menawarkan Dagangannya dengan Suara yang Kadang Terdengar Kadang Tidak, yang Kalau Ditanya Berapa Harganya Dikatakannya, “Terserah Situ Saja…”, Urat Daun, and Dialog yang Terhapus. Their meanings are somehow unfathomable, but the beauty of their verses and rhymes is undeniably fun and enjoyable.

I cannot say I know much about poetry—the techniques, the figure of speech, the rhyme patterns and all that stuff—but overall I enjoyed Melipat Jarak so much. All the poems contained in this collection seemed to speak to me in every way, though it’s not to say that I could understand every one of them. Now I’ll close this review with some quote from one of my favorite numbers here, Dongeng Marsinah, a quote that is more powerful than that of Descartes:

“Ia suka berpikir,” kata Siapa,

(“She likes to think,” says Who)

“itu sangat berbahaya.”

(“that’s very dangerous.”)

Rating: 4/5

The Old Man and The Sea

old-man-and-sea-2There are only a small boat, an old man, a wide, seemingly endless sea and nothing else. Ernest Hemingway could have created a boring piece unworthy of reading time we try so hard to spare, but The Old Man and The Sea is worth so much more than that. With Hemingway’s deftness in narrative building and the character’s thought-provoking, sometimes funny monolgue, the 1952 classic proves to be a work bigger than its size (at least, the size of my copy). It’s simple but deep and complicated in what it wants to deliver, it has only two human characters but their presence says more than their number, and its conclusion is all but you need to face the fact that life is not what you think it is.

The Old Man and The Sea tells the story of an old fisherman named Santiago who has been through eighty four days without catching a single fish that he is dubbed salao, the worst form of unlucky. But he is far from being disheartened, instead, the bad days only spur him on to go and set sail again on the eighty-fifth day, with what fishing gear he has and no one keeping him company. The boat trip seems to go on as usual and he does what he normally did. He does wish to catch a big fish, that’s what his aim, but he never thought that he would manage to bait a very huge marlin. He is certainly not prepared for it, and he tries with all his might to handle the shocking catch while navigating the wild blue sea at the same time. It’s obviously not an easy task to beat such a large animal and bring it home, especially when it seems to stay stubbornly strong despite the hook stuck inside its mouth and drags the old man along with his boat over la mar. With his only self and his equipment, Santiago has to face the challenges that lie before him before everything he has started ends well as it should. But, will it?

“But, he thought, I keep them with precision. Only I have no luck any more. But who knows? Maybe today. Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

The Old Man and The Sea is about struggle and hard work, about dreams and hopes that never cease to flare, about dogged perseverance in trying to achieve our aims. But it is not, unfortunately, about getting them easily. But that’s what Ernest Hemingway wants the reader to see. When Santiago is already halfway toward the end of his taxing journey, fate is suddenly playing tricks on him and he has to wrack his brain, take on patience, and keep calm and sane. Reaching dreams is not a piece of cake, there will be challenges, obstacles, and twisted roads our eyes fail to see laying before us. Determination and patience are not the only qualities, we have also to be smart and emotionally intelligent, and Santiago has shown us he has those. He also shows that, when everything goes wrong and doesn’t end the way he wants it, he still has the humility to accept it.

As a whole, The Old Man and The Sea is merely a simple kind of prose, with conventional, novelistic structure and a lonely man talking to himself almost throughout the plot. But the story is dense and focused and Santiago is a marvelously strong character. Hemingway doesn’t waste his time describing too much; he makes the introduction fast and precise, inviting the reader to the boat trip immediately afterward and follow the character fighting his fight and keeping his chance even if it’s only small and dim. The description of events at sea and the continous monologue cleverly suck the reader into the prevailing situation and make them see, crystal clear, what it’s like to struggle almost to the dying point and end up with merely half success. They result in us vaguely feeling troubled and hurt, unable to accept what reality serves us and yet resigned to acknowledge the truth. The entire story, however, doesn’t leave us hopeless, because Hemingway seems to point out, somewhere in the heart-warming conclusion, that there will always be hopes no matter what.

Though sad, this masterpiece of Ernest Hemingway is really encouraging instead of the opposite. It gives us hopes and reassurance that our belief and hard work will never waste in vain. It might not be a grand creation of a narrative, but it has a punching effect on the reader. More than that, I think it will stay long-lasting as well, as it has always been.

Rating: 3.5/5