fiction, review

Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel

At a time when racial/religious intolerance toward others has rapidly become a daily spectacle almost everywhere, we totally need to sit down and read something thought-provoking like Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel, the prose version of a widely popular poem with the same title by one of the most famous senior Indonesian writers, Sapardi Djoko Damono. Some readers with little perception might merely find the novel a cheesy romantic love story, and failed to see the criticism of people’s common narrow-mindedness Mr. Damono throws at almost everybody in his almost every page. It’s not only about race/tribe, or religion, it’s also about our (Indonesian) deeply rooted idea: in marriage, love only will not be enough.

Pingkan and Sarwono love each other, so much so that you might be sick of them. But there are doubts, and hindrances. Sarwono is a Javanese Muslim, while Pingkan is a Christian, of Manado descent. When they don’t talk about jazz and poems they talk about their identity, which is a dangerous topic everyone should talk about in a hush, at least in this country of ours. But they are not some bigoted people who get so much as a twitch in their eyes when someone says something about their religion or tribe. They talk about it in an open, hilariously smart way that you won’t think they’re trying to offend each other. Their love is stronger than anyone’s attempt to put people into boxes labeled with their identities. Even stronger than Pingkan’s extended family’s secret evil plan to separate them and make her marry another man with the same background as her. Still, Sarwono has his doubts, not about their future but Pingkan’s faithful heart. He’s always in doubt. He’s jealous and melancholic and writing poems for newspapers just so she can read his helpless love for her. When Pingkan, a lecturer in Japanese, is sent to study in Kyoto by her department, Sarwono can’t help but feel sad and jealous of other men in Japan who might get her attention.

Hujan Bulan Juni is indeed a romantic book, mostly describing how deep Sarwono’s and Pingkan’s love for each other is and how jealous and hopelessly melancholic he can be, but that doesn’t mean it’s short of sting to shock readers and make them see. As hinted earlier, Mr. Damono uses tribal/racial and religious issues a lot as the background of the story and cannot stop rambling about them throughout the book. He even makes Sarwono a lecturer in anthropology who endlessly does research on tribal and religious conflicts in the east part of Indonesia where it’s not such an unusual thing for those kinds of conflicts to happen, and what he finds out is predictably unpleasant. Through Sarwono’s voice, Mr. Damono seems to want to say that all these conflicts are obviously so pointless. Nothing will we get from them but more and more conflicts and disintegration. Idealists always say something about keeping our unity and tolerance, but in reality, under the perfect surface, most of us still see people of different tribe, race, and religion as liyan (the word for others in Javanese), and we secretly do not want “us” and “them” to become one. And the identity problem doesn’t stop there. Pingkan, described as only half Javanese and a Christian, never thinks that she belongs to any tribe, often confused about who she really is. When other people think it’s hard to accept the unity inside the country, she feels it’s very difficult to accept the unity inside herself. Unity, it seems, is a very slippery thing.

The novel is told from a third person’s point of view, although we might occasionally sense Mr. Damono taking more of Sarwono’s side when it comes to expressing emotional thoughts, making the book sound more male and lose the balanced voice it could have had. I don’t mind, though, because I love the critical, romantic tone he sets for the story. It’s just what I’d prefer to get when reading a novel. And the humor is brilliant, too, it’s truly clever and I could really get it like it was my own joke. I don’t mean to sound boastful, but I have been for a long time suspecting that Mr. Damono and I are actually of the same mind. That’s probably the reason why I always subjectively love his works. Speaking of his works, Hujan Bulan Juni also has the same short, dense, effectively punching narrative as his other ones. It’s briefly elaborate, with five chapters only: some of them are quite long while others only go so far as one or two page. It’s safe to say that it has the economy of a short story because even though you can finish it in a blink it still has an effect on you. What I found lacking about it is the editing. Always the editing. I can never understand what it is with Mr. Damono’s books and editing. Every time I read his fiction work it’s always poorly edited—the sentences, the spellings, almost everything. And this time I had to deal with some missing sentences and paragraphs that sometimes the prose read incoherently. Other thing I found a bit depressing was its lack of focus. I have to say that Mr. Damono seems to not really know where to put his emphasis on: the racial/religious issues, or Sarwono’s acute jealousy?

Be that as it may, Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel is still a marvelous work. I will never regret making it one of my best reads this year, and also one of my favorite books ever, along with Mr. Damono’s Trilogi Soekram, of course.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Mussel Feast

The Mussel Feast, written by the German author Birgit Vanderbeke just before 1989, may or may not be a reliable account of living in a divided Germany back when the Berlin Wall was still up and sturdy, but it definitely showcases the life of a family that lives a dangerously double life under a patriarchal tyranny. Telling from a first person point of view, the narrator without the least hesitancy pulls the reader deep into her monologue so they can get an insight into what her family is actually like. Unfortunately, this firm attitude is not followed by a certainty in what the main issue is.

The narrator, the daughter of said family, welcomes the reader to her home when it’s already the time to make preparation for their special dinner. It is special because they will be celebrating her father’s promotion at the office, which is virtually in the bag. And every time there is something to celebrate they will have a mussel feast, for mussels are her father’s favorite dish, though none of the other family members care for them much. However, it’s quite unlikely that he will be home any time soon, because even after the exact dinner time, which is six on the dot, he doesn’t show up. He is never late, they never have dinner late, except when he is away on business. This is very rare, and the three of them—the mother, the son, and the narrator—have to wait until he comes home for there is no way they will have dinner without him. The waiting drags terribly on and on, and still the father doesn’t show up. It is at this point then that the narrator starts to lay bare everything about her family: her mother’s habit of switching to “wifey mode” when her father is nearly or already at home and why she would do that, the story of their move from the East Germany to the West, their usually failed attempt to become a proper family according to the father’s ideals. And finally, as they are getting tired of waiting, the narrator hints at her family’s tiredness in dealing with the father’s controlling attitude; and when the waiting seems to almost come to an end, the narrator cannot tell whether her family is happy and looking forward to his arrival.

Through her brief, dense, no-holds-barred monologue, the narrator describes each character of her family members. But mostly, along her continuous ramblings, she tries to make it clear for us to see that her father is a tyrannical, chauvinist, haughty man who cannot take no as an answer and is attempting very hard to make his family impossibly perfect in every way. This horrendous nature alone has already rendered the father dominant both in his family and the narrative, and it’s made all the more unbearable by the narrator’s unrelenting depiction of him, so much so that he seems to overshadow all other characters, even the bold, stubborn, rebellious, smart narrator herself. That’s not what particularly draws me to it, though. It is the way the narrator appears to allude to communism, the nature of East Germany, by giving the portrayal of her father. At first it is only vague, but then it’s nearly vivid as the narrator and her mother and brother look almost relieved when the father is not coming back, because what’s the West fears of most is anything related to the USSR.

And that’s the point where The Mussel Feast is perilously ambiguous in the issue it wants to deliver. In one way, looking at the already-laid-bare character of the father, the book seems to intend to display the characteristics of something, some idealism, that people see as terrifying and thus are happy to be separated from (imagine the narrator and her mother and brother are freedom-loving people of the West in opposition to the always-controlling, dictatorial father). In the other way, however, it looks like Vanderbeke wants to put forward some gender issue. It is perfectly clear in the sexist way the father look down on his “repellent”, physically ungirlish daughter and in the hope that his son will become the manly, smart boy he deems “normal”. It is also showed in the way the mother always switches to her “wifey mode” every time the father is coming home, and the fact that she is the one who does the housekeeping stuff because it is not the father’s “thing”. A cry for feminism is practically echoing throughout the narrative, so loudly that we cannot help but hear the sound more clearly than the issue of warring isms that kept dividing the Deutchland before it finally was united again. Well, that’s said, Vanderbeke has really it in her to create an engrossing writing. The ramblings might only look like a bunch of uncontrolled recollections, but it actually is a focused monolog delivered by the narrator not to tell readers about her family, but to show them the kind of life she lives back when her country is severely divided by isms and the silly desire to self-claim what’s the best to implement. The premise is pretty brilliant, and it has a flowing plot and sarcastically hilarious tone, even when the narrator has to tell of her hard times. All the characters are vividly drawn, too, making us able to see that this is the “real” family, a family that is so naturally pretentious and secretly troubled.

Though ambiguous in some ways, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke is a light yet very thought-provoking story. The narrative is wearing sometimes, especially when we have to follow wherever the narrator’s recollections take us to, but it’s not boring. It’s simple and nice, and if you have time, you can finish it in one sit.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Introduction to Hercule Poirot: A 2-in-1 Review

It is an inevitably shameful fact that I was so belated in recognizing Agatha Christie’s world-famous detective stories, the Hercule Poirot mystery, but I just hope it wasn’t too late. It’s not that I never knew the Dame, only between the recent craze for the modern TV adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and pursuing my wish list books, somehow I didn’t have time to even think to get my hands on them. I did eventually, though, find myself an opportunity to read one, randomly picking Murder on the Links, and I was instantly captured. It is safe to say, I think, that I’m not safe from its beguiling plot and intricately woven mysteries, as were millions other people before me. And thus, I picked up without the slightest hesitation another Poirot book, which was Death on the Nile, to devour. So this post is especially dedicated to elaborating my opinion and impression after reading my first (and not last, I hope) Hercule Poirot mysteries.

2011 Indonesian edition's cover
2011 Indonesian edition’s cover

Murder on the Links begins with Captain Hastings meeting a mysterious acrobat girl on a train back from Paris. This accidental meeting is already mysterious enough to be put aside, but unfortunately that has to be forgotten for a moment. Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective famous for his small body and funny mustache, and Hastings’ close friend, received a letter from someone named P.T. Renauld, who is very well-known for his tremendous wealth. The letter sounds as if the rich man is in unimaginable danger for knowing a certain secret. Thus, Poirot and Hastings immediately set out for Merlinville where the Renauld family spend their summer in France. But when they get there, Mr. Renauld has already died. Stabbed in the back, literally. Mysteries swirl around wildly, suspicions thrown at everybody, including Mr. Renauld’s secret lover, Mrs. Daubreuil, and his own son, Jack Renauld. But if it’s true that Mrs. Daubreuil is the murderer, why would she do it when she can always blackmail her victim? And if it’s Jack Renauld, does he really have a strong enough reason to do the horrible crime?

2011 Indonesian edition's cover
2011 Indonesian edition’s cover

Unlike Murder on the Links, Death on the Nile has a somewhat different approach to introducing the case. It, perhaps in an attempt to explain its premise and strengthen its foundation, tediously tells the background of Linnet Ridgeway, the young and unbelievably rich woman who is used to have everything her own way, including when it comes to love. She has no qualms about snatching away her best friend’s fiancé, and that unquestionably triggers hatred and vengeance in the heart of Jacqueline de Bellefort, that friend of hers. Subsequently, of course, the deep loathing Jackie has for her friend spurs her to do the unthinkable. She threatens to kill the woman she deems to have betrayed her, she follows her and her new husband everywhere, even to Egypt. And there, right on the Nile, the unthinkable really comes to reality. Upon Jackie’s argument with Simon Doyle, the man who becomes the problem, Linnet Ridgeway, or Mrs. Doyle, is found dead in her bed on the ship taking them along the river. But then, considering the evidences and alibi, is it really Jacqueline who does it?

Every detective has their own way of solving cases, and Hercule Poirot is no exception. He is not one to rely on theories, because he thinks theories sometimes do not accord with facts. He uses his “little grey cells”, as he puts it, not just observing things but thinking them through, too. He doesn’t care to do deduction, for in his cases the mysteries are so intricate that doing deduction might be very much prone to misleading conclusions, and accusing the wrong person. The cases of Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile prove to be almost impossible to solve that readers will always be in the dark until Poirot decides to reveal everything at the end of the story. Unless, of course, we can be faster than him and really, really use our little grey cells. What’s unique about Christie’s method of investigation in her Poirot books is the presence of Captain Arthur Hastings. He might not be present in all Poirot books, as far as I know, but the fact that he is there accompanying Poirot in some of his investigations cannot be deemed insignificant. Somehow Hastings’ simple, rather sentimental imagination forms an assumption on the course of action taken by the culprit and thus provides the reader with a glimpse of clue, and much fun, too. Such a shame this isn’t applied in Death on the Nile, where we will only meet Colonel Race who doesn’t seem to have any significance nor do anything but standing silently beside Poirot and leaving everything to him.

I may not have read many crime/mystery novels yet, and I am definitely still new to Agatha Christie, but I can tell that the mystery in both Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile is a creation of a genius. Who would have thought that, instead of narrowing the suspects of the crimes to one or two persons, Christie would wildly cast doubt upon almost everyone except the investigators? The way Christie twists and turns her storylines has seriously made the reader have so many suspicions and nearly accuse the wrong character. Every individual seems to have a reason to harm/kill the victim, and those reasons are usually made to make sense. But that’s where Christie lays her trap. It is as if the reader is persuaded, seduced even, to believe that someone with some motive is the killer, which more often than not is not the case. What’s more captivating, the mysteries are not only vastly numerous but also arranged in puzzling layers. And the plot is fastly paced, too, which is something that I like most in a crime novel. Christie wastes no time in exploring every each character, they are described through their gestures and dialogues, while every fan of hers must have known that there are a lot of characters in each of her books.

All I can say is that I am truly, deeply fascinated. Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile are really incredible, unbelievable. Though I prefer the former to the later one. And now I’m looking forward to reading more Poirot books, and more of Christie’s work.

Rating: 4/5 for Murder on the Links, 3.5/5 for Death on the Nile.

Overall rating: 3.75/5

fiction, review

Man Tiger

English edition's cover
English edition’s cover

Man Tiger (or Lelaki Harimau in its original title) is Eka Kurniawan’s second novel and his second work to be translated into English. Longlisted for 2016 Man Booker International Prize, it concerns the life of the lower class and disintegration of family values caused by complexities in human beings. Here, as in Beauty Is A Wound (Cantik Itu Luka), Kurniawan leans on magical realism—a fact proven by his use of a white tigress resided in the body of a young man—to help embellish his realistic narrative. Unlike his previous book, though, Man Tiger is less complicated and less attention-gripping, to my thinking. It’s rather simple, in its prose style if not in its idea.

The story opens with news of Margio, a young man of 20 years old, committing a murder. The victim is Anwar Sadat, a figure of the village well-known for his promiscuous behavior. But since the first time the reader has been dimly convinced that it’s not the reason Margio sinks his teeth into and rips at the middle-aged man’s jugular to his death. The loose morals of his art-loving neighbor is barely Margio’s concern. He even often helps him at home, doing odd jobs for extra cash just as youngsters usually do. So it’s very obvious that there is no reason at all for him to suddenly kill Anwar Sadat. But he’s done it. Not less shocking, and appalling, is the way he does the killing. It’s not the way any human murderer will choose to end their victim’s life. His reminds everyone of the way a beast, here particularly a tiger, attacks its prey and finishes it off. It especially bewilders Major Sadrah, who has for some time seen Margio carrying an old, rusty samurai sword everywhere, to see the young man eventually puts aside his newly-found Japanese weapon and goes the wild way. So the mystery now revolves around two questions: Why the biting? And why Anwar Sadat, not his father, the one he hates most?

One look at the first pages, which elaborately describe the land and neighborhood of a village that will be the setting of the whole story, and the reader will quickly get that this would be about the lower-class people. The way Kurniawan tells of how the land is found and later how the neighborhood is built on it is not far from harsh criticism focusing on the problems those people often have to deal with: the poor living conditions, the dispute over land ownership, the low incomes, fighting against the wicked capitalists. As the story moves forward, the descriptions are narrowing to the poor conditions of Margio’s family, and this is the point where Kurniawan gets really sharp. Margio’s family is the true embodiment of poverty, of a reality where so many villagers with big dreams coming to big cities only to find themselves trapped in high unemployment and finally have to content themselves with low-income, unskilled jobs. Even worse, they are almost homeless, in a sense, building temporary houses on a disputed land just to have a roof over their heads. And once you live in poverty, there will definitely be a possibility of domestic violence. It’s like something you cannot run away from. And from domestic violence springs another problem: norms deviation and disintegration of family values. People with conventional thoughts will expect faithfulness and familial togetherness. But life is complex and humans are even more so. There is not a certain answer for what’s right and what’s wrong when it has come to this.

Man Tiger is not as extraordinary as Beauty Is A Wound, in my opinion, although it has rather neater narrative. Kurniawan cleverly makes the plot layered in a string of subplots to reveal the mysteries one by one, intending perhaps to present the whole story as some kind of whydunit fiction. It’s so seamless, the way he arranges it all, and very shrewd, too. So shrewd it is that he manages to keep the answer of the why till the end of the story. Admittedly, the element of surprise really works here. It is not, however, a grand creation in its entirety. Perhaps it’s because the premise is somewhat unexceptional: domestic violence spurred by the shattered dreams of prosperity. Or perhaps, it is the development of the premise that prevents it from becoming something more than this. It is pretty boring, too, at the opening, a bit stretching too long for an explanation of everything but the background of Margio’s family, which Kurniawan puts later after the half of the book. And that is not all. If there is one thing which is as bothering, it is the holes I found in some parts. One or two holes at least, and one of them is where Major Sadrah seems to recall seeing Margio carrying a samurai sword some time before the young man kills Anwar Sadat, but then there is no further explanation about the weapon. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or if Kurniawan really forgets about it after all.

Despite it all, Man Tiger is still the work of Eka Kurniawan that I know, with its explicit sex scenes and dark, subtle humor. It’s quite disappointing on the one hand, but also relieving on the other. So it’s pretty hard to decide whether this work is good or not. But it’s definitely not as good as Kurniawan’s first novel.
Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Botchan

2009 Indonesian edition’s cover

People anywhere in the world these days would not want to be told what is right and what is wrong, or to have some literary works showing the moral standards they deem old-fashioned pushed under their nose. But just in case you forget how this world somehow works and how to be true to yourselves, the Japanese classic Botchan by the prominent, highly praised author Natsume Sōseki might be the tool to remind you of the way. First published in 1906, this Indonesian edition firstly appeared in 2009 with the same title, the humorous book is one of Sōseki’s notable works that brings to the reader not only a good (though not strong enough) story, but also a character that is so honest and appealing.

Botchan, actually a term of endearment for the son of an employer in Japanese, is our leading character and narrator. The story begins with him telling the reader of his grim childhood as an unwanted child: deemed useless by his father, unloved by his mother, cheated constantly by his older brother. But lucky him, his devoted servant Kiyo loves him so much and often spoils him. As the story moves forward, we’ll see Botchan loses both of his parents and his brother sells everything they have, giving him his share of 600 yen which he then uses to enroll in a school of physics and study mathematics. After graduation, he accepts an offer to teach math in a small town’s middle school in Shikoku Island. It is there, subsequently, that he gets to see a wider world than he ever saw before and experience the unpleasant life of a rural area. Aside from a bunch of naughty, troublesome students—which is not unpredictable for a teacher to handle—Botchan has to face a failed education system which is so far away from educative, and an unwise principal who always seems to humiliate him. Worse still, he has to deal with two deceitful teachers, whom he calls the Red Shirt and the Clown, trying always to discredit him and play him off against another teacher.

“Kalau orang jujur tidak bisa menang

di dunia ini, siapa lagi yang bisa?”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan gets through it all with his steadfast honesty, outspokenness, and unwavering stand on justice. It is this character which is the main attraction of the book, not really the story. Throughout the narrative, Sōseki looks like he wants to make Botchan’s characterization stick out above any other aspect so that the reader can see what he means to show us: that a good character, no matter what we think about right or wrong, is all that we have to navigate this rotten world. Botchan is not an embodiment of high moral principles or an angel, since he has some flaws—impatient, emotional, hot-blooded—which shows that he is just a human being like any other. But his keeping a tight grip on honesty and justice at least teaches us how having integrity is something worthwhile and that’s what we should do, not littering this old, tired world with our evil deed.

“Kalau dipikir-pikir, sebagian besar masyarakat malah

mendorongmu bertindak jahat. Mereka seolah percaya

tanpanya, kau tidak akan bisa sukses dalam kehidupan.

Pada kesempatan-kesempatan yang langka, ketika me-

reka melihat seseorang yang berbicara terus terang &

jujur, mereka meremehkannya dan menyebutnya hijau,

tidak lebih daripada anak-anak.”

(Indonesian translation by Indah Santi Pratidina)

Botchan is an engrossing story, such a page-turner. From the beginning to the end, the book appears to intend to drown the reader without mercy into its depth of narrative. It really has something about it that drags you along so that you’ll forget everything but everything in it, particularly the character aspect. The thing that I found lacking is its untidy storyline from which Sōseki often brings out sudden conflicts, of which solutions seem unclear until much later, and out-of-the-blue statements about the characters—for example, when Botchan suddenly says he has huge respect for Koga, the English teacher. But these few flaws are made up for by the humor scattered in many places. You’d think a novel about honesty and justice would feel or at least sound so serious, but this one is not. You’d either giggle or laugh, no less. Some of you will perhaps even read it as a satire criticizing the world and how rotten it is, especially looking at the way Botchan innocently narrates his story and speaks out his mind. This feature is helped very much by the fast pace and the nice flow of the plot. I have to admit the mess of it is pretty annoying, but during my reading I couldn’t help but feel like I was lost in the flow, reading on and on without wanting to stop, even though I knew my eyes had already been weary and watery.

All things considered, Botchan by Natsume Sōseki is one of my best reads so far this year, and definitely one of the best Japanese literary works I’ve read to this day. And thanks to Indah Santi Pratidina for translating it from whatever language it is so I could have fun reading it. It’s a recommended fiction work for you who have forgotten how to say the truth.

Rating: 4/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku

Early 2016 edition’s cover

Add a poetic style to surrealism and you’ll get beautiful narratives contained in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku. First published in 2002, and then later in a new edition in 2016, this book by senior Indonesian writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma brings to the reader a whole new reading experience like nothing else. It’s not only a collection of short stories meant to read as one composition, and it’s not only a pack of gorgeous writings with deep meanings, but as a whole it’s a vibrant literary work with an almost perfect quality in every aspect. By the time you finish it, you will want nothing more than enjoying your reading hangover.

The collection is divided into three parts, each of them contains several loosely interlinked stories with various themes. The first part is Trilogi Alina, of which opener is the already well-known Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku (has been translated into English with the title A Slice of Sunset for My Sweetheart by Michael H. Bodden). It tells the story of a man who is so crazily in love with a woman that he will do anything for her, and in this case it’s slicing sunset above the seashore. Literally. He then sends the slice in an envelope to said woman as a proof of his love for her. The short story is written in the form of a love letter, and some people may read it as one, but deep inside it lies a criticism of the emptiness of life where beauty is something rare to see and to find that someone has to snatch it up from nature. The second number in this first set of short stories, Jawaban Alina (translated into English as Alina’s Reply by Michael H. Bodden) is a letter the woman referred to in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku writes in reply to it. However, opposed to what readers might expect, the woman doesn’t reply in a loving manner. With angry tone, she firmly states that she doesn’t love him and doesn’t expect him to do such a stupid thing as cropping sunset for her. She even condemns him for damaging nature that later ends up in environmental disaster. The last installment of the trilogy, Tukang Pos dalam Amplop (or The Postman in the Envelope in English, translated by Michael H. Bodden), is quite straying from the main path but still in the same theme. It’s about the postman who delivers the love letter from Sukab (the crazily-in-love man sending a slice of sunset) to the woman living at the top of Himalaya. In accord with the woman, the postman laments the destruction of nature at the hands of people. His rather strange experience as a fish shows the reader an awakening view on knowledge and the destructive behavior it provokes in humans.

While in the first part Ajidarma implicitly talks about the destruction of the earth, in the second one he focuses more on humans and humanity. In the story entitled Jezebel, for instance, he describes the slaughter of people in a large number which, ironically, becomes something of an art: beautiful and invoking a sense of drama. Another example that supports this theme of severely damaged humanity is Kunang-kunang Mandarin (The Mandarin Fireflies in English, translated by Wawan Eko Yulianto) which is an account of the dark days of modern Indonesian history where many Indonesian citizens of Chinese descent were massacred in the 1965’s communist hunt. Ajidarma doesn’t give an explicit description of the historically known tragedy, but conceals it in a story of a man who breeds fireflies born of the nails of the slaughtered Chinese people. Ironically, it is on this firefly breeding business that the natives of the setting town build their economy. Now you must have guessed what Ajidarma tries to imply.

Some other short stories in the second part, like Rumah Panggung di Tepi Pantai and Senja Hitam Putih, particularly examines how most of people view the world. The former tells of a man who refuses the traditional way and builds his house facing the seashore (so that he can enjoy the sunset), hence being called crazy. While in the later, which has been translated into English with the title Twilight in Black and White by John MacDougall, Ajidarma criticizes how most people often see the world they’re living in as something black and white, when everything has different colors. The rest of the second part, along with the third, Atas Nama Senja, explore the theme of reality. What is reality? Perhaps that’s what stories like Senja di Pulau Tanpa Nama, Perahu Nelayan Melintas Cakrawala, and Senja di Kaca Spion want to ask us as readers. When something real is unreal, and vice versa, nothing is certain about our existence, about anything in the world. And then we will ask ourselves: is something there? Or not? One of my favorite quotes from the book is the question posed by the narrator of Perahu Nelayan Melintas Cakrawala, “Apalah yang kita ketahui tentang dunia ini?” (What do we know about this world? —my translation). To my thinking, the entire third part is not only surreal but also very thought-provoking.

The elegant prose of each number, rendered so by the poetic, surrealistic style, is the key point of the book’s grandness. And the main theme of every part only strengthens the already profound effect the book has on the reader. The only weakness, and it won’t appear until you scrutinize the whole text, is the spelling system. To be honest, I have doubt about the spelling of some words because it’s not the standard one I know. Nevertheless, in general, Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku by Seno Gumira Ajidarma is a big work of literary fiction. It’s a rare gem, and it’s really, really shining bright from its pages.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

All She Was Worth

Indonesian edition’s cover

“Case solved” is always what people would expect from a crime novel. But, what if it doesn’t work that way? All She Was Worth, a work of Japanese crime fiction by Miyuki Miyabe, provides us with an alternative. Taking a different route from others in the same genre, the book combines the thing that you call “whodunit” with “whydunit” to form a twisted narrative which will take you to nowhere near a solution. Forget about the not-so-extraordinary premise, at the end of the game you will only find yourselves asking, “Will the culprit ever give up?”

Set in the early 90s’ Japan, the story starts when Shunsuke Honma, a detective on leave upon getting injured on his last duty, gets a visit from his wife’s cousin’s son, Jun Kurisaka. The young banker never cares about the Honmas, he doesn’t even come up when his aunt dies, so it’s only obvious that now he comes with a problem: his fiancée has gone missing. Honma is told that they are about to get married, but suddenly, after an argument over making a credit card, she disappeared. There’s no telling whether Shoko Sekine, the girl in question, is being kidnapped or not, but Honma has a suspicion that she ran away for fear of being found out on something. True enough, the first investigation step Honma takes leads him to the fact that Sekine has been declared bankrupt in the court for her inability to pay her debts. The thing is, Kurisaka knows nothing about this, not because Sekine never tells him, but because the girl who is his fiancée never knows that she has been bankrupt. How could it be? What actually happens? The winding path of further investigation brings Honma to a confusing discovery that the Shoko Sekine Kurisaka thinks he knows is not the real Shoko Sekine. So, who is she? Why is it that she seems to be someone who is not her?

All She Was Worth is not a mystery novel in which everything is kept secret till the last page. Somehow the questions of who and why dunit have been solved at the last 1/3 of the book. The novel itself is not actually about mystery, on the whole. It’s about crime, and whether the perpetrator will do it again, just to save her life. So anyone looking for a conventional crime fiction book with usual features and plot will definitely be disappointed. There is a thrill, of course, and it steadily lasts till the end. But the thrill itself is not something readers would usually expect from this kind of book. It’s not a thrill of suspense, it’s a thrill of tracking and investigating. As unusual as it is, though, All She Was Worth doesn’t have an out-of-this-world idea, what with the murder case and stolen identity and all. That’s said, there is a message buried deep under the narrative. It’s something to ponder about: how we live in consumerism, greed, stifling credit system, deceitful capitalism, and how people tend to imagine their dreams and happiness come true in the form of worldly goods. Our endless desire for more has turned us into mentally weak people and plunged us into deep hole of debts. And the next thing we know, we start to kill each other in cold blood.

What makes All She Was Worth a fascinating, enjoyable read is how meticulous Miyabe is in arranging every detail so that they develop into a sturdy body of plot. And it’s a tricky one. At first, I found myself baffling as to why Miyabe woud reveal “everything” just after the first investigation she makes Honma do. But then the storyline brought me to further discovery and more shocking facts, even more and more questions for me to try to find out the answers. There are more twists and turns than you’d think and, strangely enough, they won’t make you scratch your head during your reading. You could say that Miyabe is very careful with the way she lays her tricks and sets the pace into a fast, steady one. What’s more interesting is that Miyabe weaves together every detail and fact found at every step of investigation into a vivid character of the culprit. At the end of the story, we will be able to see clearly what kind of person she is, although not quite clearly what she will do, or what will happen to her, next. Every aspect of the novel is well constructed and carefully written. And Miyabe doesn’t try to waste our time with too much drama or too long explanation of each characterization. She cleverly elaborates every character through their actions, ways of thinking, and brief dialogues without being too much about it.

Overall, All She Was Worth is a work of crime fiction I’d expect to be, or at least the kind I’d prefer to read, case solved or not. Not too much drama, compact, exciting, and enjoyable. The thing that becomes my complaint here is the translation. Not that it’s bad or something. It’s just, in my opinion, there are some translated sentences that are not carefully considered, and thus become quite literal in their meanings. But that’s not really a problem, though, because it’s not so bad that it will ruin your reading. It’s still a crime novel I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone fond of the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Go Set A Watchman

One might wonder, what was Harper Lee thinking when she started to write Go Set A Watchman? Did she intend to write a story about racial discrimination and segregation? Or a story of a man who tries to use his reason, rather than to act heroically, in the time when race is an issue capable of dividing a country into two? Whatever it was, what I’m pretty sure is that she couldn’t have been thinking to make an angel out of him when she wrote this book like the one she had in To Kill A Mockingbird, for this was the first manuscript she finished before she finally switched direction and wrote the later, phenomenal one.

The story opens with Jean Louise Finch coming home to Maycomb County to spend her two-weeks yearly vacation. The county is not only her home, it is where she spent her childhood, where her father taught her (and her brother Jem) justice and equality. Until then, her father, the well-known, heroic lawyer Atticus Finch, is her idol, her rock, her role model. Everything she knows about humanity, about what’s right and what’s wrong, she learns from Atticus. But one day, she finds an appalling pamphlet in their living room, of which content is about supporting racial segregation and discrimination, defying the idea that black people are equal to the whites. It breaks her heart to discover that the pamphlet is her father’s, and that her father and boyfriend, Henry Clinton, are together in an effort to “keep the black people in their place”. She feels betrayed, hurt, resentful. It is at this point that she realizes her father is not someone she knows anymore.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a hero of justice and equality, defending against all odds a young black man accused of raping a white girl, whom he’s certain is not guilty of anything of the sort. But his character suddenly becomes controversial with the release of Go Set A Watchman, chided and hated. Here in the “lost manuscript”, he is described as racist and supporting segregation, believing that Negros are inferior to the white people in every aspect. There is no explanation, I think, for this huge gap between the two characterizations other than that they are two totally different persons: the Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t hesitate to act heroically for the sake of justice, while the one we encounter in Go Set A Watchman is a man who tends to err on the side of caution and use his logic to solve the racial problems eating away his part of country as he sees fit. If we would just stop and ponder over Atticus’ argument when he has a clash with Jean Louise in his office, we will see that he actually tries to be realistic, considering Southern black people’s lack of capacity at that time for them to be granted political right to vote. So, if To Kill A Mockingbird is a body of idealism, then Go Set A Watchman is an embodiment of unpleasant reality. What makes To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as its version of Atticus Finch, long-lasting and much beloved is that people like to dream and won’t give up hope whatever happens. While the reason Go Set A Watchman, along with the cruelly realistic Atticus Finch making appearance there, becomes inevitably unpopular is that people don’t like being slapped in the face by the hand of reality.

Truth to be told, I found Go Set A Watchman a bit lacking. It’s raw and not properly worked on. Harper Lee spends 1/3 of the book just to make space for the character of Jean Louise to describe herself: her attitude and behavior, her opinion, her way of thinking, so on and so forth. Only after that comes out the real problem, what makes her relationship with her father a brittle one. Even at this point, Lee doesn’t care enough to elaborate the conflict more for the reader to understand, providing merely a quick flick into Atticus’ horrible fault and nothing else. And then, after a terrible shock on Jean Louise’s side and some more flashbacks, the plot glides fast to the final confrontation between Jean Louise and Atticus where Atticus is given only a little room to explain himself while Jean Louise has so much to pour out her anger and idealism. The road to the conclusion is even faster and unconvincing. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, it’s just too fast to believe. What makes it still bearable is definitely the characters: they are all flawed and human.

Overall, Go Set A Watchman is an imperfect yet intriguing work. It has flaws here and there. I think To Kill A Mockingbird is so much better written than this one. However, I like the way Lee describes the racial issues in this book: it triggers our sense of humanity and yet forces us to see the issues from two different points of view.

Rating: 3.5/5

poetry, review

Melihat Api Bekerja: Kumpulan Puisi

Membaca Melihat Api Bekerja karya M. Aan Mansyur serasa membaca kumpulan cerita yang dipuisikan, dengan kalimat-kalimat serta kata-kata sambung yang sering kali dipecah-pecah secara sembarangan demi memunculkan rima yang teratur. Dalam setiap puisinya, Aan menarasikan bukan hanya perenungan dan perasaan, tetapi juga kritik dan sindiran terhadap hal-hal yang bisa jadi kita anggap “biasa saja” dan tidak perlu dipermasalahkan. Layaknya buah karya seniman pada umumnya, Melihat Api Bekerja, jika boleh dinilai, merupakan perwujudan diri Aan secara hati dan pikiran.

Membaca Melihat Api Bekerja juga merupakan tantangan besar, karena dari 54 puisi yang tersaji, tak banyak yang gampang dimengerti. Beberapa memang mudah dipahami, namun banyak yang lainnya menggunakan kiasan yang teramat kental serta gaya stream of consciousness yang sulit diikuti ujung pangkalnya sehingga dibaca sampai berulang kali pun tidaklah cukup. Di antara yang sulit “ditangkap maknanya” tersebut, yang sangat menarik perhatian adalah salah satu bait dari puisi Mengunjungi Ambon:

“Menjadi diri sendiri adalah filsafat yang sekarat dan alat kontrasepsi yang sudah bocor sebelum dimasukkan ke kemasan dan dijajakan sembarangan.”

Jika dibaca terpisah dari bait-bait lainnya, maka potongan puisi di atas dapat menimbulkan efek cengang dan memicu perenungan. Pertama-tama, apa yang dimaksud dengan “menjadi diri sendiri adalah filsafat yang sekarat”? Apakah, sebagai sebuah pandangan hidup, menjadi diri sendiri sangatlah sulit dilakukan? Begitu sulitnya hingga tak banyak orang yang mau menerapkan lantas ditinggalkan begitu saja menjadi filsafat yang terlantar, nyaris tak bernyawa dan hampir tanpa napas? Lalu, apa pula maksudnya “menjadi diri sendiri adalah alat kontrasepsi yang sudah bocor sebelum dimasukkan ke kemasan dan dijajakan sembarangan”? Apakah menjadi diri sendiri dianggap sebagai alat pelindung diri yang tidak berguna? Karena merupakan alat yang “bocor”, yang menguak bagian kita secara gamblang, prinsip tersebut hanya sia-sia belaka karena memang tak bisa digunakan untuk “melindungi diri”? Begitu pelikkah menjadi diri sendiri di dunia ini? Mungkin demikianlah yang ingin disampaikan bait tersebut.

Jika diperhatikan, Aan banyak berbicara tentang cinta dan kepedihan dalam kumpulan puisinya ini. Banyak sekali kiasan yang digunakan untuk menggambarkan cinta, seperti “Cinta adalah hidangan di atas meja, pelan-pelan dingin dan kau tidak lagi lapar” (dalam Tentang Sepasang Kekasih); “Mereka tidak tahu jatuh cinta dan mencintai adalah dua penderitaan yang berbeda” (dalam Melihat Api Bekerja); “Cintaku kepadanya melampaui jangkauan kata. Aku cuma mampu mengecupkannya dengan mata” (dalam Barangkali); dan “[…] cinta juga bisa membunuhku. Berkali-kali dan berkali-kali lebih perih” (dalam Kau Membakarku Berkali-kali). Dari kutipan-kutipan puisi tersebut, mungkin dapat diambil kesimpulan bahwa bagi Aan cinta tak lain adalah kepedihan yang bertubi-tubi: jauh, dingin, dan menyakitkan. Apalagi jika dilihat dari puisi berjudul Mengisahkan Kebohongan, di mana kata-kata cinta bisa jadi cuma omong kosong belaka. Atau dalam puisi Menikmati Akhir Pekan, di mana Aan berkata bahwa ia lebih suka berada di antara orang-orang yang patah hati, yaitu orang-orang yang jujur dan berbahaya (jika memang jujur itu berbahaya). Mungkin, bagi Aan, orang-orang yang biasanya bermesraan di akhir pekan bukanlah orang-orang yang sejujurnya bahagia, meski punya pasangan dan cinta.

Seperti yang sudah disinggung sebelumnya, selain perenungan dan perasaan, Aan Mansyur juga secara “sembunyi-sembunyi” melayangkan kritik dan sindiran kepada pihak maupun suatu hal tertentu. Seperti yang jelas-jelas ia layangkan kepada sosok-sosok terkenal dalam puisi Pameran Foto Keluarga Paling Bahagia, juga seperti yang tersirat dalam puisi Kepada Kesedihan, di mana pada salah satu baitnya ia berkata, “Memejamkan mata berarti menjadi politikus”. Di sini Aan seolah menyindir kaum politikus yang selalu menutup mata terhadap apa pun, termasuk dan terutama terhadap kebenaran. Atau bisa jadi Aan sebenarnya ingin mengatakan bahwa dengan “menutup mata” terhadap kebenaran, berarti kita telah menjadi seperti para politikus: busuk. Karena itulah di akhir bait tersebut ia menambahkan, “Aku memilih hidup sebagai penjahat yang ceroboh—cuma tahu melukai hidup sendiri”.

Secara keseluruhan, Melihat Api Bekerja merupakan kumpulan puisi yang kompleks: mengusung berbagai tema, menerapkan berbagai bentuk, menceritakan berbagai hal, dan menggunakan rima-rima yang mengandung berbagai jebakan baca. Namun justru itulah yang membuat Melihat Api Bekerja menjadi sebuah karya yang kaya. Ditambah lagi, puisi-puisi Aan Mansyur juga ditemani ilustrasi-ilustrasi hasil guratan Muhammad Taufiq yang sangat luar biasa, yang berperan merepresentasikan hasil tulisan Aan tersebut dalam bentuk gambar. Bisa dibilang, selain kompleks, Melihat Api Bekerja juga merupakan karya yang komplit.

Saya akan menutup resensi ini dengan salah satu bait dalam puisi yang berjudul Menyunting Sajak Untukmu, yang sedikit banyak mewakili kompleksnya isi dan makna puisi-puisi Aan yang terkumpul dalam buku ini serta kesulitan saya dalam mencernanya:

“Singkirkan semua yang cuma kata. Baca dan baca lagi hingga hilang maksudku menuliskan sajak ini. Apakah kau sudah merasakan hal yang sejak mula kupikirkan? Baiklah, akan kuhapus dan memulainya lagi.”

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

1Q84

Indonesian edition’s covers

Truth is stranger than fiction. Or so they say. 1Q84 is a work in which Haruki Murakami proves to us that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but it could be stranger than anything. Divided into three parts, the big chunk of a book leads the reader into a world of impossible possibilities, rather “irrational” belief, and unimaginable-yet-feel-so-real events. Here, the atmosphere is so different from that of Norwegian Wood I remember, but Murakami still keeps his peculiar nature of storytelling.

The story begins with Aomame, a woman with an obviously weird name, being on her way to accomplish a deadly mission dropped in her lap. Sitting in the taxi taking her to her fatal destination, stuck and bored in heavy traffic, Aomame cannot do anything but listen to the music played on the radio inside the car: Sinfonietta by Janácěk. She has no idea as to how she can know that it is Sinfonietta by Janácěk, she just knows. It’s already weird enough that the taxi is such a fancy car and has such a luxurious radio playing such music, so the fact that she can recognize the music she hears then and there almost misses her attention. Weirder than that though is the fact that, in the middle of the traffic jam, the taxi driver suggests her to get off the vehicle and take the emergency stairway down to the National Highway 246. She knows, with no doubt, that there is no such emergency stairway.

On the other hand, Tengo Kawana, a young math teacher with no bright future but secretly keeping a strong desire to be a novelist, is faced with an impossible offer: ghostwriting a novel for a young debut author. This is a very good opportunity for him, says Komatsu, the editor of the book in question, to sharpen his writing talent and ability before he can publish his own work. Tengo feels reluctant, at first, because he knows it’s a crime, morally if not legally. But there is something about the book, Air Chrysalis, that attracts him the way no other books ever do. There is something about the story, which is a form of fantasy tale, that pulls him into a state of wonderful amazement and forces him to say yes to the ambitious editor. Not only that, the entire narrative of Air Chrysalis also pulls him into a world that is not here. A world that is similar to the one he is living in but just not the same in any ways. And, unfortunately, a world he has to rewrite to make it a perfect tale to read.

As the story progresses, both Aomame and Tengo find themselves immersed in that world, doing unconsciously what the “other force” seems to make them to do and fighting it at the same time. They also, in their own ways, find the fact that they never cease to feel in love with each other and still want each other even years after their last time in class together. But in the world of 1Q84, a strange world with two moons and Little People, they cannot be together without sacrificing one of themselves. Aomame knows this, and she’s willing to do anything to have the slightest chance to meet Tengo again. Even if she has to fight the Little People and face the possibility of losing her own life.

1Q84 can be classified as metafiction. Murakami seems to keep reminding the reader that this is fiction about fiction, about something unreal happening out of our usual world. Even the characters are aware of it. To make it a successful work of this kind, Murakami would even painstakingly divide the plot into layered subplots where the characters realize their existence in the shifting world as the storyline moves on. Thankfully, the reader need not painstakingly track the path since the entire plot is so easy to follow. It’s like the characters directly talk to us while they are experiencing chapter by chapter of their unbelievable lives. What makes the narrative a little bit lacking here is the pace, which has different speed in each part and makes the reader quite exhausted at the end of the book. This is where Murakami fails to keep his story as a neat, maintained piece. The pace is, I’d rather say, unstable: enjoyable at first, too fast at the second part, and then too slow to swallow all the explanations at the end. It’s almost as if being a big chunk is entirely pointless, while the book has actually so much to say.

What might keep the reader’s interest in the whole story is probably the characters. They are very well written, strongly described. Each characterization is so powerful it stays in our mind, especially that of Aomame. I’m not sure if Murakami is being a feminist here, but he describes her as strong, decisive, resolute, overall better than the well-built-but-meek Tengo. But I won’t judge him unfairly here, because I, too, find myself in him: his unwillingness to be tied to anyone or anything, his love for writing, his determination to get the answers for all the questions he has about his past, his fondness for living in the simple way he likes. However opposite their characters are, I could feel that they really are made for each other, hence the attraction to be together.

To some extent, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a great novel. I enjoyed most of it, despite the weakness in the run of the story and some irrational scenes. It’s a wonderful work where Murakami succeeds in convincing us that the unreal is also real, that realities could blend together with imaginations, that truth, once again, can be stranger than fiction. Than anything, even.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.