Back to Basics: A Year in Recap

I started the year 2015 with reading Fifty Shades Trilogy (yes, I know… I know…) but then continued on my own usual path, out of the romance way (except for one paranormal romance I had to professionally translated). After wandering around the genres of romance and fantasy quite a lot for the last three years, I finally came back home last year: the general/literary fiction that I love most. In short, I was getting back to basics. It’s not that I deliberately intended to limit my reading, but last year I had an unintentional, spontaneous tendency to read something that I would call “of my passion”. Of all the 28 books I’ve read till last December, only seven which were not of my “comfort zone”—3 romances, 1 fantasy book, and 3 crime fiction novels. Others were just what I would have loved to get myself into.

Now, speaking of reviews, since this is a mainly book review blog, I have to admit that I wasn’t 100% productive in writing them. Some books were left unreviewed for no particular reasons: sometimes I was just lazy to do it, sometimes the book was just too bad to even talk about, and sometimes I just didn’t know how to start it with a book so complicated. So, of all the books I read last year, only 23 I made the reviews. Here is the list:

  1. Fifty Shades Trilogy by E. L. James (all in one)
  2. Supernova: Ksatria, Puteri, dan Bintang Jatuh by Dee
  3. The Diving Pool by Yōko Ogawa
  4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  5. Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa by Maggie Tiojakin
  6. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory
  7. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
  8. Hotel Iris by Yōko Ogawa
  9. 9 dari Nadira by Leila S. Chudori
  10. Silent House by Orhan Pamuk
  11. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  12. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
  13. Bastian dan Jamur Ajaib by Ratih Kumala
  14. Trilogi Soekram by Sapardi Djoko Damono
  15. Layar Terkembang by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana
  16. Cantik Itu Luka by Eka Kurniawan
  17. The Road to Becoming a Survivor by R.R. Hayden
  18. The Gathering by Anne Enright
  19. Cameo, Revenge by Yudhi Herwibowo and Ary Yulistiana
  20. Halaman Terakhir by Yudhi Herwibowo
  21. Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah by Sapardi Djoko Damono
  22. Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

And here is my list of the unreviewed books in 2015:

  1. The Hobbit by J. R. R Tolkien
  2. Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak
  3. Shadow Heir by Richelle Mead
  4. Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
  5. Hujan Bulan Juni, a poem collection by Sapardi Djoko Damono

*Indonesian books typed in red.

At the beginning of 2015 I made a pledge to read more and more Indonesian books, simply because, well, I’m an Indonesian. I realize that I’m an Indonesian who has a greater passion for contemporary foreign literature, so I need a self-encouraged commitment to read and appreciate the literary work of my own country. Hence the need for said pledge. And what a surprise! Last year I managed to read 11 Indonesian books. Well, that’s not many, I know. But I’ve been progressing, at the very least. And I have to say that those 11 books were mostly not disappointing. In fact, some of them made most of my best books list.

So, what are the books which made into my best reads last year? They are Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa, The White Queen, Hotel Iris, Silent House, Trilogi Soekram, Cantik Itu Luka, and Halaman Terakhir. It’s a surprise even to myself that four of them are Indonesian books. When I started the Indonesian Literature Reading Challenge at the beginning of last year I never thought that I would find so many gems of my country’s literature. But the list has proven I was wrong. The interesting thing is, however, when the whole world has been talking about Eka Kurniawan a lot (I, too, was swept by the “Beauty Is a Wound” wave), I found myself attracted more to Sapardi Djoko Damono. Finding and reading his works were not only like finding a gem, but a soulmate. Trilogi Soekram is truly, truly the best of the best reads this year, Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty Is a Wound) can’t even compete with it.

And what’s the worst book? I have to, or rather, am sorry, to say that it’s Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Rumi, but using his wisdom to justify your unwillingness to fix your miserable life and your husband’s betrayal and your running off to “someone you love” instead seems like a complete nonsense to me. Even the Fifty Shades Trilogy has a better premise than that. Really.

Ah, well, I think that’s it for now. I still have no idea about what I will read this new year and what this blog will be in the near future. All I want is to read as many books as possible and get my hands on more and more Indonesian literary works. I also hope that this blog will be “bigger” and can get a wider readership. Happy New Year, everyone!

P.S.: What about you? You can drop comments below on your best and/or worst books of the year, feel free!

fiction, review

Cameo, Revenge

Cameo, Revenge is a two-stories-become-one musical novel by two Indonesian writers, Yudhi Herwibowo and Ary Yulistiana. To be honest, I was totally unfamiliar with their works until Herwibowo kindly gave me this book as a review copy. As far as I know, Herwibowo is best known for his historical fiction works, so I didn’t know till today that he would write something more commercially popular like this. But I went into it without a hint of cynicism, though with so much caution as to what I would discover, and turned out quite amazed by it.

The two stories are connected by the occasion in which the two bands whose members are the main characters of both titles compete in their town’s music competition to get some cash. In the title Cameo, Yudhi Herwibowo brings out the story of a rock band formed spontaneously to enter the said music festival. They have all they need to be the champion: great talent, musicality, a good song, a convincing performance. It is no wonder then that they really win it. But that’s not the end of it. As they rise to fame, the media start to put them on the front page and dig deep into their private lives. Having their dirty pasts out in the open seems to be what any celebrity is afraid of, especially when they’re at the peak of their career and everybody is looking at them. That’s no different with Cameo. Their quick fame starts to take its toll on them, breaking their group into pieces. Unfortunately, this break-up doesn’t seem picky in getting victims. Their competitor Revenge, also the title of the second story, have to suffer the same condition but for a completely different reason. Their being the runner-up has flared up anger inside the heart of the vocalist. Her hunger for fame and a bigger, full-album deal totally blinds her to the core. Thinking that the other members of her band do not want the same thing as she does, she then dumps them out one by one, even through the meanest way imaginable, and joins in another band formed by the most evil manager/producer in the music industry.

All characters filling the book from page one to the last are not heroes without sins nor wrongdoings—if you’d just forget the saying “to err is human”. They are all opportunist, selfish, ambitious, and neglectful of others. These characterizations, which, I believe, are purposefully shaped by the authors to set and show their narrative goal, are quite well described and very neatly elaborated through their own voices in each character-dedicated chapter. The hindrance of their nature being thoroughly explored is that some of them do not get the same portion, or should I say the same length of chapter they need to be so. But the writers have pretty been successful in giving voices to those complex characters so that they can be reliable, trustworthy narrators of the stories and get the hidden moral out of the lines. What baffles me, though, is that Herwibowo sounds so feminine even when he “narrates” the male characters. On the other hands, Yulistiana sounds very male at her every male characterization in the story Revenge. Maybe I shouldn’t be bothered about the “gender” of the characters’ voices produced by the writers, or maybe I should think that narratives should be gender-free, but I always have this opinion that a writer should be able to produce exactly, correctly, the voices of the their characters, male of female.

Cameo, Revenge have actually an interesting basic idea and their plots are quite nicely woven together. Such a shame that the writers, both Herwibowo and Yulistiana, do not deliver their stories in a way that I could call “naturally flowing”. In Cameo, Herwibowo doesn’t seem to know how to formulate a “youngsters’ language” to use in a novel like this. His dialogues are too formal and stiff that they feel unnatural and awkward, even poetic sometimes. Be that as it may, his style of storytelling is pretty good. He can keep some mysteries at the beginning to eventually be put out at the climax, which is quite attention-gripping. Conversely, Yulistiana has a more sophisticated writing style in delivering her story the right way. Her dialogues are natural, not over the top, and safe from unnecessary poetic tone. It’s just a shame that the plot she sets up is not that extraordinary: lacks of surprises, too straight forward and simple. At the end of Revenge, it only feels like it ends the way it should and nothing else.

Overall, Cameo, Revenge is a not-bad package of two stories. Whatever the weaknesses it has, it’s still a fun read, especially for young readers. The packaging is even very attractive, with an elegant cover to match the idea.

Rating: 3/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, review

The Gathering

Indonesian edition’s cover

When we delve into the past we’ll often find anger somewhere inside it, as being heavily implied in Anne Enright’s The Gathering. We can rarely make peace with our past, holding it responsible for what happens to us in the present. It might need forever for a particular event to ooze out of our bad memory and lead us to the lane directing our actions, but it will one day finally happen, and we’ll never like it. Enright, through the story of an Irish family torn apart by secrets and the choices they make, deftly presents to readers this idea of dealing with the past and all the heartache accompanying it.

The sudden death of her brother Liam means that Veronica has to break the news to her somewhat mentally unstable mother, a bitter fact she has to carry on her shoulders along with the realization that she’s the only one among her many siblings reliable enough to do it. But if you think dealing with the task and bringing Liam’s body back to Ireland are not hard enough for her, then you haven’t seen all. She has also to discover the shocking, heart-shattering fact behind her beloved brother’s death: that he’s actually committed suicide. It immediately brings back deep-buried, saddening memories she has almost forgotten, memories involving her grandparents and their landlord, Lamb Nugent. Of course, these memories are not ones which are so real as Veronica seems only to imagine everything. But there are some about her and her brother, about the life they live in their grandparents’ house that wouldn’t spring to her mind if Liam didn’t drown himself. These vaguely-recalled, real recollections then break open their family’s secrets: their uncle’s mental illness, the constant absence of their grandfather, the mysterious, continuous presence of Lamb Nugent in their grandparents’ house, the death of their brother Stevie when he is still a baby, Liam’s drinking habit, and the horrible incident that might be the reason why Liam decides to die.

Through The Gathering, Anne Enright uncovers the unavoidable nature of having and being in a family. It seems like she peels every single layer of that nature and force the core of it on the reader so they’ll see the fact: that no family is a normal family. It’s no exaggeration to say that all families are dysfunctional, in their own ways. More or less, Veronica has made a correct statement that being part of a family is the most tormenting way of living. And having secrets is what’s most tormenting about it. People have secrets, family keep secrets. But to what extent does it affect their condition? One secret of the past can torture someone for their entire life and lead them to an action their own relatives won’t understand. Once again, Enright chooses the right means to deliver this whole idea of dysfunctionality. Throughout the narrative, she appears to say that not every member of our family can understand us, completely or not. Sometimes we just keep ourselves too much to ourselves, sometimes our family are just too much busy with themselves to get involved in our lives. And when something terrible happens, it’s already too late for them to try and understand the reason. There’s even no point in revealing the secret anymore.

The Gathering has a very strong narrative and the plot is ever so carefully, neatly organized that the reader can feel its cover peel off little by little and reveal everything within. At the beginning, it feels a bit hard to get into the introductory chapters, as they feel more imaginary than real and are difficult to catch up. Thankfully, as the next ones unfold, readers can eventually sense the power of the story Enright has woven, especially the voice of Veronica as the narrator. Through her, Enright breaks open one by one what becomes the secrets of the family she describes, along with all the emotions bottled up between her lines: sadness, anger, revenge, regret, and hatred Veronica has for her family, which, to her, only makes her life more miserable than already is. The language Enright uses to write all of those feels too much difficult to stomach at times, rendering our “burden” while reading the whole book doubled. However, it also somehow manages to drag us into a whirlpool that is Veronica’s mind, and lets us see what flares up within. The core idea, which is the breakdown of a family, might not be as exceptional as anyone would think, but Enright has a brilliant way to develop it into a heart-tuggingly engaging tale, forcing us to recognize its beauty and excellence.

The Gathering by Anne Enright is not a masterpiece, in my opinion—despite its winning the Man Booker Prize—but it is truly a huge work of contemporary literature. It seeps through our mind and gets us thinking: are our family just fine? Do we really love them? What influence do they have on us? This book can be thought of as the antithesis of romance, posing a question we wouldn’t dare to ask ourselves: is there really something called “living happily ever after”? After marrying the one we love, will everything end just there?

Rating: 3.5/5

autobiography, memoir, review

The Road to Becoming a Survivor

road-becoming-survivorEverybody has a story to tell, but not everybody has enough courage to tell it. R.R. Hayden is definitely one of those who has no qualms about washing her dirty linen in public and risking people she cares about throwing furious anger on her way just so she can free her mind of traumatic childhood memories she has and heal. Writing each of those memories out is the only way she knows to accomplish them. So The Road to Becoming a Survivor is her medium to tell the life story which shaped her into a survivor that she is now, and she holds nothing back.

The Road to Becoming a Survivor is an autobiography telling of the writer’s struggle to change herself from a helpless victim of sexual abuse into a survivor. Hayden, a sufferer of Dissociative Identity Disorder, would tell the reader about her unfathomable pleasure of inflicting pain on her own body, namely cutting herself, and how she often did something unbelievably crazy without even realizing it and eventually hurt people she cared about most. She seemed to think that those were the only ways to wash away her recurrent depression and cure herself of deep wounds she had been carrying since childhood. As the narrative unfolds, we will all discover what she had had to go through for the most part of her life: sexual abuse by her father, older brother, neighbor, (ex-) boyfriend, and even someone she barely knew. She had also had to face the situation of her family, where, mainly, her mother didn’t treat her like a mother should have and love her sincerely and then just broke their family into two by filing for divorce. Until she met a man she loved so much and a counselor she could trust, she had to live with her deep-buried trauma and herself being a victim of not only unfair, abusive treatments she got but also of her own past.

Though pretty inspirational, The Road to Becoming a Survivor is not something exceptional, to be honest. The theme and narrative are all what we can expect from any other autobiographical account of sexual abuse victims, and the writing style doesn’t help, either. It is understandable that Hayden writes it the way anybody would write their secret diary gone public, perhaps she wants to make the reader feel related, but I actually expected her to put a lot more effort to make the prose more than just a form of personal ramblings. It is interesting, though, to see how Hayden puts her book together, in which she peels her memories little by little without an orderly chronicle, the way flashbacks work. It seems unintentional, but Hayden will take us to one moment of her life without any explanations, and then a few chapters afterward she will drag us to her past which explains everything. It’s an intriguing way of storytelling, actually, if only the story were more than what we get from the book. It’s not that I don’t have any sympathy for Hayden, but personally, I have heard of so many stories like hers, especially in my country, where children can be victims of sexual abuse by their own fathers/brothers/uncles/even grandfathers. And those children could have gone through a lot worse situations than what Hayden had to and couldn’t even survive. All I’m saying is, had the writing style been better or the form been more of semi-autobiographical fiction, then the story wouldn’t have been a problem at all. It could have even been a blast. Sometimes it’s not about what you write, but how you write it.

Aside from its lack of excellence, the story doesn’t seem to be in accordance with the title. Throughout the blatant narrative, I didn’t find anything regarding the way Hayden became a survivor of sexual abuse. I found merely long-lost memories and stories of her recent past without so much as a glimpse of how she could get through all that except for a very little bit about her coming to a counselor and a support group. There is no particular explanation highlighting her “road” to becoming a survivor that she is now. In short, I’d say that this book is not quite elaborate, or as elaborate as at least I think it should be. However, if there is one positive thing readers can get from it, then it is its message. The Road to Becoming a Survivor and everything within remind us that anything can happen to anyone, but we cannot let ourselves fall victim to it and do nothing. The only way to survive is to fight the horrible past and all the bad memories we carry in our head, and be grateful for everything we have. Be grateful is the key, because that way we will be able to see that we are not the only one suffering and that we are not alone. That we can always rise to victory after the downfall we’ve undergone.

Rating: 3/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, review

Cantik Itu Luka

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

Beauty is a wound, beauty is a curse. That’s pretty much the after-reading impression of Cantik Itu Luka, Eka Kurniawan’s beautifully-crafted, painfully-punchy feminist novel. Or is it more appropriate, though, to call it a fictional summary of the modern history of Indonesia? Either way, Kurniawan has truly managed to weave strands of events of the past, in a humorously sinister way, and philosophical views on women’s beauty into a magical story about a family that is doomed from the start.

The semi-surrealistic tale starts with the resurrection of Dewi Ayu, a native woman of Dutch descent, after twenty-one years of her death. Upon finding out that her youngest daughter Cantik, an unfortunately very ugly girl, is pregnant with a child of nobody knows who, the storyline immediately brings us travelling to the past where the curse begins. Ted Stammler, a landlord in the Dutch colonization era, takes away a poor local woman named Ma Iyang and makes her his mistress. From this affair, Ted begets a bastard whom then he takes as his legal child. But neither his wife nor Ted himself know that his crucial decision will one day cause total chaos when their son and the illegitimate daughter fall in love with each other and bear another bastard that is Dewi Ayu. No time for mourning over the fact, however, because the time flies by and soon comes the period of wars: the German invasion of European countries, the looming of the second World War, and the coming of the Japanese to Indonesia. In the middle of it all, readers will see moments when Dewi Ayu is forced to be a prostitute by the Japanese and has to live that life for years afterward, even after the independence. And as the history keeps shifting from one period to another, even to the time when communism is at its glory, the plot unfolds complicated love stories between Dewi Ayu’s startlingly beautiful illegitimate daughters and the three men who represent the historical events being narrated. But theirs are not the romantic ones we can describe as sweet and tender, for they demand blood, tears, heartache, revenge, hatred and leave those women’s lives as bitter as the history they have to endure.

2015 English edition’s cover

Cantik Itu Luka seems to come up with some ideas, materialized in its subplots and lines of narration. Women’s beauty, for instance, is being described as a power which can conquer and has to be conquered by the power of men, the brutal power of physicality. Alamanda, one of Dewi Ayu’s illegitimate daughters, affirms this paradoxical fact when she points out that before the independence men “use” beautiful women to heal the mental wound they have to suffer in the middle of wars, while after the independence beautiful women “use” their physical quality to play with men. But that’s not all. The narrative can also be considered bearing the writer’s criticism of the history of Indonesia. With his dark humor and satire, Kurniawan mocks the inevitable historical fact that after hundreds of years fighting against the colonizers, namely the Dutch and the Japanese, the fighters of Indonesian independence did not get the win they deserved on the battle field but had to live with the idea that everything was done on the negotiation table instead. He symbolizes it with the Shodancho’s remark:

“Bagaikan pemancing yang menanti dengan penuh kesabaran

diberi kado sekeranjang ikan segar oleh seseorang.”

Kurniawan also talks about the massacre of 1965 here. But instead of glorifying it like any other writers, he chooses to explain why and how communism boomed in the newly liberated, poor Indonesia. He doesn’t take sides, too, in my opinion, for he tells openly about the horrible things communists could do—getting rock-and-roll music lovers into jails and killing the high-profile generals—without any tendentious, judgmental tone on it.

Cantik Itu Luka is a rich novel with a layered narrative and complicated structure, very blunt and explicit in its telling. It is a good thing, but sometimes Kurniawan is just too vulgar and crude, especially in narrating the sex scenes. It feels unpretentious that way, though, daring to give itself a bad name for being so honest in everything, not only in its telling people what the writer has on his mind but also the way he says it. Thank God the humor helps, although more often than not the reader has to endure his stark satire. What’s so powerful and sharp about this book is undoubtedly its characters. Every single person making appearance here is very well portrayed and elaborated, not only through their narrated descriptions of physiques, emotions, and also behaviors and attitudes but through their dialogues, too. Kurniawan has truly done a great job on that, looking at how many characters he creates to people this book with. If I have something to complain, then it is the feeling I got that it’s too “Latin American”, with its magical realism formula. The (Indonesian) grammar is also a problem, with incorrect marks and horrible sentence arrangements. Not that it matters too much, though. Some readers might not even notice them.

Overall, Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka is a fabulous work, despite its few weaknesses. It summerizes our bitter history in a surrealistic, satiric way some people might not be capable of doing, and provokes our thoughts on women’s physical beauty. It triggers our (cynical) laughs, without (actually) trying to be funny. And it gets us thinking, without (really) trying to be serious.

Rating: 4/5


Layar Terkembang

In 1936’s Indonesia was barely on the verge of its independence, but the pressure for gender equality seemed greater and greater. Through Layar Terkembang, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana appears to imply that the urge to embrace modernity, in every aspect possible, couldn’t be held back anymore. Told in a form of short novel, the thought-provoking story of this classic Indonesian work unfolds what it was like in the past when an independent woman fighting for a place in society had to war with her own desire for love that demanded her letting go of her stand and cause.

The book opens with two young women visiting an aquarium one morning and encountering an attractive young man by the name of Yusuf. The two sisters catch his attention instantly, but it is Maria, the younger one, who sweeps him off his feet for her sheer beauty and easy manner. It’s not that he doesn’t find Tuti, Maria’s older sister, attractive, but she is made of sterner stuff and more difficult to please that Yusuf can only admire her as a smart woman and nothing more. Tuti herself is not a woman to fall for a man so easily and chooses to stay single in order to focus on fighting for her cause: gender equality for the local women of a country which is still a Dutch colony. Over the times, though, as Maria and Yusuf forge a strong bond of love and affection, Tuti starts to feel jealous and lonely, missing and desiring for something Maria has and she doesn’t. She even almost—almost—accepts her fellow teacher’s proposal just so she can fill her empty heart and know what it is like to have someone who loves her. But she finally declines it for she knows that she can’t marry without love and that she can’t be with someone who is not equal to her in everything. However, at the end Alisjahbana shows us that even a woman as strong and stubborn as she is cannot fight the destiny, especially when Maria is dying and asking her to fulfill her last wish.

Tuti and Maria are poles apart, there are stark differences between them. While Maria is prettier, weaker, easier to love and dependent, Tuti is stronger, stubborn, tenacious, self-reliant and has no qualms about saying what she thinks is right and coming up with harsh comments on everything. Between the two there is Yusuf, a young man with an open mind and love for nature. He is a man who has respect for women and can appreciate women’s intelligence and thoughts, but he is also an average man who chooses beauty over brain. His character is a bit disappointing and too much confusing, especially when he, conscious or not, can fully understand how Tuti sees things and thus defends her opinions everytime there is a chance. Perhaps, to my thinking, Alisjahbana describes him in that particular way not only to show how men generally see women, but also to state that between two different qualities women can have, a man can turn to a path more worthwhile.

Layar Terkembang is not a tale of a love triangle, precisely, it is about women and how a relationship between a man and a woman should be. The writer wants to show that even in 1936 when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, the more developed a nation or society, the bigger the demand that women got equal rights to men in many if not everything. Women also, as represented by the character of Tuti, demand that a marriage should not anymore be an institution where women have to give up everything and only say yes to anything arranged for them, but rather a relationship where two people love each other and realize each of their rights and responsibilities and have equal positions. This book is a subtle embodiment of the urgent need for modernity wrapped up in the urgent demand for gender equality in a country that was still crawling towards independence. Quite unfortunately, however, this grand idea is not elaborated in a detailed plot. Short and compact, Layar Terkembang really doesn’t have an adequate storyline. So short is it that it feels as if the events hop from one scene to another without further explanation, and some readers may think the narrative has an irrational time structure. What helps the book to engage the reader other than its feminist message is definitely its characterization. The three of them, Tuti, Maria, and Yusuf are very well drawn, vivid and strong and drawing sympathy no matter what they do and how they behave.

Layar Terkembang by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana would have been a completely perfect novel had it not lacked the narrative elaboration a reader might have expected. Nevertheless, I think this book is still worth reading and being labeled as one of the classic works to remember. It’s something we would call an eye-opener.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Trilogi Soekram

Trilogi Soekram is a collection of novellas by Sapardi Djoko Damono, a senior Indonesian poet, essayist, and fiction writer. First published as one in 2015, it contains three separate, unrelated stories which only appear to read in continuity like a series, barely connected by the main character. Surprisingly, when read as one, they become an engrossing, compelling unity.

In the first story, Pengarang Telah Mati (which was first published in 2001), the reader immediately meets the main character himself, Soekram, who addresses them directly from the page he is written and lives. He complains about his current situation in which he is left hanging with no certainty over his fate after the death of his creator. The unnamed writer, who’s supposed to finish the story of Soekram, dies and leaves his last work in separate files in his computer. Anxious and upset about the run and ending of his story, Soekram then “jumps” out of the page and meets the writer’s friend, asking said friend to find those files and edit the contents so that his story can be finished the way he wants it to be. However, when readers come to the beginning of Pengarang Belum Mati (first appeared in 2011), it turns out that the writer is still alive. In a way so much like Soekram, his invented character, the writer complains about people thinking him dead already, and the way Soekram spreads the false news to everyone and manipulates the run and ending of his story. He comes to his friend and asks him to publish the finished book of his version. The friend’s so astounded that he cannot think of anything to say but that he is sure the writer has died. At first he is reluctant to do what the writer tells him to, but then he sees an opportunity in publishing two different versions of a story at almost the same time. The last number, Pengarang Tak Pernah Mati, seems so disconnected from the other two. Soekram, now “the master of his own destiny”, creates a story of his own where he lives with his “fellow characters”. The story he relates strays so far away from the core idea and involves figures well-known to Indonesian readers, both factual and fictional. The funny thing is, those figures start to do and behave uncontrollably on their own, leaving Soekram reeling and confused over what has happened to his story despite the fact that he is the one writing it.

As a whole, Trilogi Soekram implies the fundamental relationship between a writer and their work, the question about the eternity of a writer and the long-lastingness of their work. Which one will exist longer than life? Is it the writer whose name will never cease even when their physiques are deceased and gone, or is it their work of which pages will always be printed, read, and living in readers’ shelves and minds? As I read through the pages, the question of who controls the entire writing process also emerged. The efforts Soekram makes to gain control of his story and the way he tells his own story by going back to the past, where he lets his “fellow characters” do as they please and sometimes get him reeling at his own plot, show the reader the true core of writing: that a writer’s imaginations cannot be controlled nor limited, and that what’s important in writing is to let the story go with the flow.

The thing that’s very intriguing about Soekram is that he is not an apolitical character, even if he seems so. Instead, he is described siding with nationalism. Nevertheless, it is the point where he is perilously questioning his participation and his own ideas: is he really with those nationalists, or does he only believe what his father tells him to believe? In Pengarang Telah Mati, Soekram even questions the 1998 reformation movement and the violent way the young generation took at that time to take down the then-current government, instead of glorifying them. He also questions democracy, the implementation of foreign ideologies in our country, religions, God, and ethnicity. His mind can’t never seem to sit still and idle, and he never seems to be sure about anything. He can’t even force himself to be attached to anything or anyone, and that’s why he’s also described as unfaithful to his wife, or any woman he is with, for that matter.

I found Trilogi Soekram a unique unity, very close to rare. Readers do not have to read it or even think of it as a trilogy, but I’m sure the connection drawn by the character of Soekram is enough to make it one. The writing is exceptional, too. Every line has a poetic quality to it, making us feel as if we’re reading poems in narration. The prose style is one that will make readers gasp in awe: at first it feels just real, but then it strongly feels surreal. I immensely enjoyed the book, despite the annoying, overwhelming use of the suffix “-nya” and the word “itu” in every sentence, which often disrupted my reading. Trilogi Soekram is truly a beautiful book, almost everything about it is stunning.

Rating: 4/5

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

The Silkworm

Indonesian edition’s cover

Robert Galbraith’s second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, came out with a new idea, and I could imagine readers would have expected a more challenging crime story than the first one. And it apparently is, mostly. I just didn’t see the drama get a lower dose, nor the plot get any tighter, though I can say it didn’t feel any less enjoyable. More than that, the tone was very much bothersome, and the atmosphere didn’t emanate much suspense.

The crime drama begins with the disappearance of an eccentric, infamous writer, Owen Quine, after finishing his latest manuscript. His wife Leonora comes to our private detective, Cormoran Strike, for help since it is not Quine’s nature to “disappear for so long”. While Strike is desperate for a well paid gig, he cannot deny the temptation of finding the missing writer and cracking the mystery. He finds him, eventually, but not in a state anyone might imagine: dead, both hands tied behind his back, his stomach sliced open and hollow. Everything Strike discovers at the crime scene no doubt indicates murder, and questions of who and when, as usual, flow relentlessly into his head. It is not rocket science to see that the scene of the murder is set exactly the same as the last scene in Quine’s latest novel, and it doesn’t need a genius either to conclude that the murderer must be someone vaguely, and horrendously, described in the book, someone real. Someone who doesn’t want that book to be published and endanger his/her reputation.

Cormoran strike is portrayed as dramatically gloomy as he is in the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Some readers might find it hard to stand his depression and sadness, but we all know that J.K. Rowling a.k.a Robert Galbraith always wants to describe her characters as human as possible. So if that includes showing off some overwhelming feeling of brokenhearted within an ex-soldier private detective, then we have to accept it. Unfortunately, Galbraith/Rowling chooses this moment of broken heart to reveal Strike’s way of thinking, resulting in a depiction of a common man who stresses great importance of beauty and pretty looks in a woman and doesn’t really consider her personality until he regrets it and then finally turns his back on her. The way he treats Nina Lascelles might also force the reader to think of him as a man who doesn’t feel any reluctance to take advantage of a woman for his purpose. Unfortunately, again, the narrative seems to justify this depiction. It’s either because Galbraith wants to show herself as a male writer (even though she is actually a woman) so much that she immerses herself in manliness, or she’s just so sexist (I don’t want to play with the word “misogynist” here) as a woman. Anyway, putting it all aside, there is still an irresistible attraction in the whole characterization, especially among the suspects. Daniel Chard really caught my attention. His portrayal is so appealing to me not for his subtle homosexuality, nor the way he suppresses it inside him and the emerging rumor around him, but for his obvious anxiety about himself. The way he talks, the way he avoids eye contacts with people talking to him, the way his hands twitch and move… all those gestures make the reader able to feel his anxiety and bottled-up anger.

As a whole, The Silkworm is pretty much better than The Cuckoo’s Calling, but there are some disturbing weaknesses getting in the way of me enjoying it completely. If the opinion of certain characters is the voice of the writer, then Galbraith/Rowling has openly looked down her nose at romance/erotica genre in this second crime novel of hers. I didn’t expect that. I thought as a woman—though she disguises herself as a man—she would be more respectful toward works of popular fiction written by “female writers” (if that term has to exist at all). It turns out, however, that through some characters depicted working in the publishing industry Galbraith/Rowling has called romance/erotica “trash”. Well, however disappointing the tone is, I can say that The Silkworm has a good premise, a believable elaboration, and a trickier plot than its predecessor. Unlike the previous installment of the series, this book didn’t let me guess the murderer just after the first few chapters, and dragged me along the storyline to find him/her at the end of the climax instead. The many suspects with their unsettling behaviors have really fooled me and prevented me from stopping all the guesses in my mind. Many of the dialogues are also made in cuts so the reader won’t be able to know exactly what is going on in the investigation process. Despite the still dominating drama, the arrangement of the plot is enormously enjoyable. I’d forget about the lack of the suspense atmosphere here, because it might have been deliberately set so by Galbraith/Rowling to make it easier for the reader to devour than any other crime stories.

All in all, The Silkworm is not an entirely satisfying read, but I liked it. Rowling fans do not have to worry about her characteristics in writing because they’re all still there. She pays much attention to details, she’s elaborative, and a true creator of natural characters. I just wish she didn’t use that tone in it.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Remains of the Day

I first discovered Kazuo Ishiguro when I stumbled upon Never Let Me Go and was spurred to read it. The surreal, dystopian novel was the only work of Ishiguro I’ve read, and I never thought it was really my thing. In fact, I didn’t think I would read any works by him again, ever. But that was until I got to read several reviews on The Remains of the Day. I got intrigued, and was determined then and there to hunt the book. First published in 1989, The Remains of the Day was a Man Booker Prize winner of the same year, and, despite the simply written narrative, what it brings out from within assured me in some ways that it deserved the award.

Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall, is going on a long journey to the West Country after accepting an offer to have some vacation from the present owner of the noble house. At first Stevens feels reluctant and doubtful about his new employer’s invitation, but then arrives a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall with whom he’s worked about 20 or so years ago, so he eventually changes his mind. On the road to Little Compton, he is swept by a wave of nostalgic memories, ones of his much younger time when he’s served Lord Darlington, the original owner of Darlington Hall, and when all eyes are on Germany. It is the time when he’s performed his duties at best, had his loyalty to his lordship more than anything, and when he’s witnessed the turmoil of the European politics with quietness of a very devoted butler. His devotion is not limited only to his services, but beyond that. He seems to defend his employer’s opinions on everything, however wrong they might be, and unaware of his lordship’s political mistakes.

Throughout the story, we can see that Stevens is described as rigid, work-minded, loyal, devoted, insensitive, and rather unwilling to enjoy his life. He portrays himself as having this particular thing he calls “dignity”, something that every gentleman has to have. Most of the time he is so frustrating that the reader might want to scream at him, knocking some sense into him that life is not only about work and professional attitude. However, as much as Stevens’s personality is quite annoyingly gripping, at some point I found my attention drifted to that of Lord Darlington. He is one of those old-fashioned English lords, questioning the essence and practicality of democracy that the common people hail.

“If your house is on fire, you don’t call the staff into the drawing room and discuss the best method of escape for an hour, do you?”

— Lord Darlington

That quote above might seem so silly for some people/readers, serving only as a defense of aristocracy and feudalism and dictatorship, but I see it differently. It is true that Lord Darlington’s ideas and doubts on democracy won’t certainly be relevant anywhere, especially in today’s world that demands absolute freedom of everything. But I imagine there must be some situations in which “strong leadership”, as Lord Darlington puts it, is urgently, totally needed. How can you listen to so many people with different ideas while you’re in such chaotic situations?

The entire narrative of The Remains of the Day seems to me to be pretty simple and bear nothing of extraordinary nor unusual. With its series of flashbacks, the plot runs very smoothly without so much as a bump and is very enjoyable to follow. Even the subtle conflicts (of dignity and politics) did not trigger off much tension in me while reading it. Perhaps it’s the way Ishiguro’s writing that drowned me without me even realizing it, or maybe it was just me. The story is told from Stevens’s point of view, which lets us know what’s inside his head and how he perceives everything. Uniquely, it is from this viewpoint of his that the reader can see what Stevens himself cannot: Miss Kenton’s feelings for him and Doctor Carlisle’s prejudice against him. Only at that failure, instead of the political turmoil, could I feel the most blazing of a fire of the whole storyline and wake up from my slumber of smooth reading. Be that as it may, I think it’s the political views and English gentlemen’s character entangling with said views which are the true core of the story. The portrayal of Stevens and his lord employer elaborates the stance on democracy and Germany and shows how it then brings his lordship to the fall of his politics and aristocracy. More or less, in general, this story seems to want to criticize and blame old-fashionedness for the English weak and brittle position in war. On the other hand, it also shows that there is still tomorrow and that there’s always a chance to change direction into something or someone better, at least that’s what Stevens implies.

Finally, I have to say that I quite liked The Remains of the Day. It is a very simple read yet subtly provokes so much thought, although not so much tension and excitement. I can only say that it is a grand story in its own way.

Rating: 3.5/5