fiction, review

Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa

48123715498_5e39c308fc“Kenyataan adalah hal yang paling mudah dicurigai kebenarannya.” Apalagi jika kenyataan tersebut berlapis-lapis. Apalagi jika kenyataan kita dipegang dan dikendalikan oleh orang lain, sebagaimana kita memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan orang lain. Apalagi jika kenyataan saling bersengkarut dengan khayalan.

Raymond Carver Terkubur Mi Instan di Iowa, karya terbaru Faisal Oddang, dibuka dengan adegan di mana kamu (pemegang kenyataan pertama) sedang sibuk berusaha merampungkan novelmu lantaran sudah dikejar-kejar editor. Di tengah-tengah usahamu itu kamu didatangi oleh seseorang, pria tua berbadan gempal yang berdiri menghadapmu sambil menenggak vodka. Kamu mengenalinya: Raymond Carver, seorang penulis cerpen dan puisi yang (seharusnya) sudah meninggal tiga puluh tahun silam akibat kanker paru-paru. Tetapi orang itu ada di hadapanmu, dan meminta tolong padamu agar mencabut nyawanya. Sampai di sini kamu mempertanyakan apakah ini nyata atau tidak.

Nyata tidak nyata, demi iming-iming sejumlah uang, kamu lantas mengiakan dan menandatangani surat perjanjian. Yang menjadi masalah kemudian adalah, di saat kamu harus segera menyelesaikan novelmu, kamu juga harus mencari cara untuk membunuh Ray Carver tanpa ketahuan orang lain.

Ini tidak mudah. Novelmu saja sudah menguras pikiranmu. Plot yang kamu ciptakan buntu, terutama ketika kamu justru membuat kekasih si tokoh utama mati di tengah jalan. Lantas bagaimana kelanjutannya? Apakah Clevie, tokoh utama dalam novelmu—sang pemegang kenyataan kedua—harus kaujadikan kambing hitam dalam kasus pembunuhan yang kaukarang? Namun, mengingat kau masih harus mengurus kematian Ray, pertanyaan tersebut belum bisa kaujawab.

Sebelum membunuh Ray, kamu sempat memberinya makan mi instan yang kamu bawa dari Indonesia, dan ternyata Ray sangat suka. Dia berkata pernah menikmati mi instan bersama mantan istrinya, Maryann, tapi menurutnya yang kamu beri adalah yang paling enak, maka ia kemudian membeli sekotak untuk dimakan sendiri sebelum mati. Setelah Ray puas, kamu segera melaksanakan rencanamu. Sayang, percobaan pertama pembunuhanmu gagal. Ray nyata-nyata masih hidup. Kamu pun harus memutar otak dan mencari cara lain untuk melakukannya lagi. Tetapi anehnya, sebelum kamu sempat melakukan percobaan pembunuhan yang kedua, Ray telah ditemukan mati di bak mandi di kamar hotelnya dalam keadaan telanjang, berdarah, dan terkubur di bawah tumpukan mi instan dengan hanya kepalanya yang terlihat.

Kamu tahu bukan kamu pelakunya, melainkan orang lain: Tuan Monaghan, suami dari Nyonya Monaghan yang diketahui berselingkuh dengan Ray. Tetapi Nyonya Monaghan sendiri merupakan salah satu tokoh dalam novel yang tengah kamu garap, yang kamu jadikan kekasih gelap Clevie dalam narasimu. Bagaimana mungkin ia tiba-tiba keluar dari khayalanmu dan suaminya membunuh seseorang yang “nyata” dalam hidupmu?

Tapi apakah hidupmu memang benar-benar nyata? Bukankah kamu juga hanyalah tokoh dalam buku karangan Clevie? Secuil khayalan dalam kenyataan hidup Clevie? Bukankah kehidupanmu, kenyataan yang ketiga, juga hanya merupakan fiksi di tangan Clevie?

“Orang-orang hanya ingin mengerti apa yang mereka alami.”

Faisal Oddang (dalam kenyataannya sendiri, tentu saja) memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan semua tokoh utama dalam khayalan masing-masing. Meski teknik penulisannya terkesan tidak istimewa (dan bahasanya terkesan seperti hasil terjemahan mentah), caranya menghadirkan kenyataan yang bertumpuk-tumpuk mampu membuat pembaca bertanya-tanya manakah sebenarnya kisah yang “nyata.” Keingintahuan ini sebagian juga didorong oleh keinginan pembaca untuk benar-benar meresapi dan mendapatkan “jawaban” dari pengalaman membacanya, oleh keinginan untuk mengendalikan sendiri mana yang nyata baginya dan mana yang tidak. Singkat kata, pembaca (sebagian besar) tentu tidak ingin dan tidak suka dibuat bingung oleh sesuatu yang “tidak nyata”.

“Kamu tak perlu memberinya identitas,” Allisa memotong Clevie, “biarkan itu jadi olok-olok pada kehidupan dan juga kenyataan.”

Karya fiksi memang merupakan ranah khayalan di mana kita dapat bermain-main dengan dan “menciptakan” sebuah kenyataan. Ketika menulis cerita rekaan, kita—sebagai pemegang kenyataan kita sendiri—mengendalikan kenyataan orang lain dalam khayalan kita. Namun belum tentu kehidupan kita lebih nyata daripada khayalan kita. Pun diri kita, identitas kita, bisa jadi merupakan hasil pengandaian semata. Identitas kita, jangan-jangan, juga bukan merupakan sesuatu yang “nyata.” Setidaknya bagi orang lain yang tidak memegang dan mengendalikan kenyataan kita.

“Jika kamu berjalan mengelilingi dunia lalu mendengar setiap orang dari setiap tempat berbicara mengenai kehidupan, maka segala yang bisa kamu pahami semata-mata omong kosong. Jika kamu berjalan mengelilingi dunia lalu mendengar setiap orang dari setiap tempat berbicara mengenai kenyataan, maka segala yang bisa kamu pahami semata-mata omong kosong.” — Robert Barry, pemenang Nobel Sastra 2018*

*) Kutipan ini, tentu saja, tidak berlaku bagi pembaca yang menganggap pemenang Nobel Sastra 2018 tersebut benar-benar nyata.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Cinta Tak Ada Mati

48956873901_70691273c6Cinta Tak Ada Mati (or, Undying Love in English) is not a short-story collection where Eka Kurniawan tries to be romantic. As we know of him, lovey-dovey narrative is never his way, and love stories, even if he ever made one, have never any intention other than to display people’s characters, actions and reactions which then lead to, or exist in, something bigger and mostly shocking. Consisting of thirteen of his old pieces, this book takes the reader to a journey of history, politics, religion, women empowerment, horror, sex, and, to my surprise, martial arts world (or what we usually call jianghu in Chinese).

It should have been clear that Kurniawan has always stood for women, what with his implied “protests” in Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is A Wound) and Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash). And here, in the first short story on the list he once again stages a protest and this time against the underrated role of a domestic woman in history. Yes, a domestic woman. What can such a woman do in the middle of the fights against colonialism? What can she do to help free her country of the profit-driven tyranny? Most people must have difficulties imagining her able to do anything. But Diah Ayu can do something.

In Kutukan Dapur (Kitchen Curse), Diah Ayu uses secrets of local ingredients and seasoning to poison her Dutch superiors and successfully kill them all. And, as she also teaches her fellow local cooks, she manages to get rid of not only one or two, but so many Dutch people unrightfully invading her motherland. It’s a massive killing and success, but does the history appreciate that? No, obviously. Not a single word told about her fight, not a single truth said about her person. Instead, people make and spread false rumors about her which only give her a bad name. Why? Is it because she is a woman? Or is it because she is fighting from the depth of her kitchen which is deemed too domestic to put into the masculine historical record?

As if it’s not enough yet, Kurniawan’s second piece Lesung Pipit (Dimples) also forces readers to put themselves in women’s shoes. Our unlucky protagonist here is a very beautiful girl whom her father sacrifices as an offering to a powerful shaman in order to save his own life after being beaten by a poisonous snake. Lesung Pipit (the titular name of the girl) is understandably unwilling. Who would want to marry a smelly shaman who has already had wives everywhere? So she sees no other way to fight for her freedom but to sacrifice her own body, inviting four unknown men to have a one-night stand with her. By the wedding night the wicked shaman knows it, inevitably, and divorces her at once.

Now if we talk about repression, we cannot help but have a tyrannical regime crosses our minds. This kind of regime is obviously, and undoubtedly, driven by fear: fear of losing its power, fear of having to face justice for the heavy-handed methods it uses to retain order, fear of challenges and upheavals. But what people in power fear most is that someone knows about their brutal actions and spread the word. And this is the basic idea of Mata Gelap (Dark Eyes). A man has been a witness to a mass killing of one million people in the midst of political upheavals, and the authority is frightened of the idea that he might have visually recorded the entire bloodshed. And so seven people are sent to him and demand that he removes both of his eyes. Not blind them, but remove them, and making him eat them to boot. Unfortunately for the authority, his being unable to see leads to his sharper hearing, and of course it is afraid that the man who is now called the Dark Eyes might hear some dangerous political rumors and demand him to cut his ears, too.

It is not enough, however, for a regime with such a paranoia. Next, the seven men order him to cut his nose, for there is a possibility that he smells something fishy and scandalous. And seeing that the Dark Eyes can still talk and tell (mostly funny) stories, they come again and cut his tongue. After that, it’s like they can’t get enough of their brutality: they cut his penis (for the sole reason that he can still make love to his wife) and all of his limbs so he cannot move at all. Lastly, they behead him and disembowel him. These horrendous actions might seem exaggerated, but it looks like Kurniawan wants to warn us readers that a regime that is so afraid of losing its grip on power can and will do much worse things than what he has described.

As always intriguing as the themes of brutal regimes and women’s problems might be, religion is perhaps what gets our attention more. It is undeniably so in a society where people wield their belief to show, and affirm, their superiority over “the others”. But Eka Kurniawan here doesn’t tell readers about how people in our society do that, for Surau (Mosque) is rather talking about rituals. Muslims who say their prayers five times a day might wonder, or complain, why they should do so but keep doing it anyway. This compulsory ritual has been an integral part of a muslim’s life everywhere, but what if some do not feel the need, or the urge, to do that? This seemingly simple yet profound short story tickles us readers to ask ourselves: when we do religiously compulsory rituals such as praying five times a day, are we truly sincere in doing it, or is it only for a show? And if we’re not whole-heartedly doing it for the sake of God, why bother?

The most interesting piece in Cinta Tak Ada Mati, however, is Ajal Sang Bayangan (The Death of the Shadow), where we can finally see Kurniawan gather all of his writing skills to pen something wuxia. Wuxia stories are not unfamiliar to Indonesian audience, and we have our own version of them. Seeing Kurniawan himself is a fan of the genre, it is only naturally exciting to see how he would craft his own jianghu adventure. It is not disappointing, fortunately, and surprisingly a bit philosophical in its idea.

Ajal Sang Bayangan tells the story of a pair of martial arts brothers who have been ordered by their master, Ajisaka, not to leave Majeti and to guard the treasure kept there until the master says the otherwise. But both disciples, Dora and Sembada, cannot sit still and do what they should. They are restless, thinking always that they are merely each other’s shadow and keeping a desire to banish it. So they abandon their duty and set to have a fight. But it is doomed from the start, looking at how alike they are in everything, just like, as it is already narrated, each other’s shadow.

Though stories like Penjaga Malam (Night Watch) and Jimat Sero give the feeling that Kurniawan doesn’t really fit into horror writing, Persekot and Caronang have quite shocking premises and twists, and are horribly satisfying at the end. Meanwhile, the titular piece, Cinta Tak Ada Mati, offers the reader another way of looking at undying love: how frustrating and exhausting it can be.

All in all, Cinta Tak Ada Mati displays not only thought-provoking themes and how unusually the ideas are crafted into narratives, but it also shows Eka Kurniawan’s talent and unquestionable ability in doing so. His prose is undeniably beguiling and his style is so beautiful without necessarily being dramatic. All of his short stories here are an embodiment of completeness in writing, and he seems very capable of that. No wonder he is one of our best writers today.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Srimenanti

48076836522_f7ba53d209Joko Pinurbo is not the first poet to suddenly shift gear and write prose, but this is definitely his first time ever. Srimenanti, published earlier this year, is a very short novel guaranteed to give fans satisfaction, linguistically if not thematically. The sure thing is we can still have a laugh reading it, as we always did with his other works.

Subtly looking back to the past history, here Pinurbo presents a story told from two alternate points of view: one of a young, mournful girl whose father was mysteriously kidnapped (supposedly by the authority) and who is a painter, and one of a poet-cum-employee who is a huge fan of Sapardi Djoko Damono and strangely seems to have seen her in the description of a girl in one of Mr. Sapardi’s poems, Pada Suatu Pagi Hari. Having the same interests in arts and literature, both Srimenanti, the titular name of said girl, and the so-called poet are inevitably in the same circle of friends and so interact with each other as often as he can wish to. But that is not the only thing connecting them, for they seem to have had the same encounter with a buck naked man with bleeding genitalia strutting out in front of them. He frequently hunts them, stopping them everywhere they go and shouting, “It hurts, General!” as if he is in a terrible pain. One day he vanishes without trace and Srimenanti inexplicably gets anxious about it, waiting for him right under the lamp post where he is last seen.

The presence of this naked man might strike readers as odd in the middle of Pinurbo’s blatant attempt to quote, revamp and/or retell Mr. Sapardi’s poems in his own narrative prose and style. Some might even find it entirely unnecessary, and not funny at all, while Pinurbo is throwing jokes and amusing (though still meaningful) lines here and there. But let’s not forget that the senior poet is most probably talking about, or discreetly criticizing, the New Order. The mysterious man might actually denote the ghost of our past, hunting us still with repression, dictatorship and all kinds of bad memories. His shouting, “It hurts, General!” is not only a joke we usually hear or say casually (Indonesian people will surely understand this), because we know who the general is. And if all those symbols are not enough to make readers see clearly what Pinurbo intends to say, then the line, “Piye kabare? Ngeri zamanku to?” (“How are you? It’s scarier in my time, wasn’t it?”) might do the deed. Again, it’s another joke symbolizing something that is not funny at all.

Joko Pinurbo is widely known for his wit and amusing lines, and both are very much displayed here in the book. The name Srimenanti itself is a clear proof of his ability to think of something which is highly unlikely to cross others’ minds. What woman in Indonesia, particularly of Javanese tribe, named Srimenanti? I mean, I can’t even start to try to translate or explain what that name means. Sri is a typical name of Javanese women, and menanti is an Indonesian word for waiting. So what does that mean, then? The woman who waits? Well, it may refer to her waiting for the comeback of the mysterious naked man at the end of the story. But that is just my ridiculous thought.

And you cannot read any of Joko Pinurbo’s works without laughing or smiling at the very least. The joke is everywhere, like when a bank account says to our protagonist, “Aku merasa terhormat bisa menjadi bagian dari ketidakpastian rezekimu” (“I am honored to be part of the uncertainty of your finances.) Or when at some point Pinurbo parodies one of Mr. Sapardi’s famous lines into, “Kopi dan saya tidak bertengkar tentang siapa di antara kami yang lebih pahit” (“Coffee and I do not quarrel over who among us is bitter.) And they are not at all without meaning. They are more often than not sort of a slap in our face, knocking our conscience, stating hurtful facts, a little bit philosophical sometimes, especially when he says, “Kita adalah cinta yang berjihad melawan trauma” (“We are all love fighting against trauma.”) However, there is this one line that truly punches us so strongly about what happened in 1998:

“Saat itu sedang berlangsung demonstrasi menentang kenaikan harga BBM yang diikuti dengan merosotnya harga manusia.”

(“There was at that time a demonstration against gasoline price-hiking, which was followed by a plunge in the human value.”)

But his lines can be Pinurbo’s undoing as well, seeing how they are formulated here in the book. He seems trapped in his own style, “unable” to differentiate between prose and poem. (I put the word unable under the quotation marks because of course I know he is very able to do that). If you ever read even only one of his poems-collection books then you’ll know that he often writes poems in an almost prose style, and here in Srimenanti he appears to write paragraphs in rhyme that sound just like poems. This might seem revolutionary, or merely nothing-to-fuss-about, but for Pinurbo’s readers it can be outright boring. I mean, when you do two different things in one same style then what’s so new about it? He might just as well not write any novels at all, for his poems have already delivered stories to us.

Be that as it may, Srimenanti is still an enjoyable read. Anyone can read it merely for witty entertainment without having any literary expectation. And let’s not forget that it still has the ability to shake our conscience and emotions, and remind us that some pasts are still lurking behind our back and if we’re not careful they might come out and strike again.

Rating: 3.5/5

NB: all translations were unofficially done by myself.

poetry, review

Raksasa Bermata Biru

46894931364_94b5a1482b
Indonesian edition’s cover

Sepertinya masih sangat jarang kita temui, atau bahkan mungkin belum ada sama sekali, karya sastra Turki dalam bentuk puisi diterjemahkan dan diterbitkan dalam bahasa Indonesia. Raksasa Bermata Biru karya Nazim Hikmet yang diterjemahkan oleh Bernando J. Sujibto ini bisa jadi yang pertama. Sebagai sebuah perkenalan kepada pembaca Indonesia, kumpulan puisi ini berisikan sejumlah tulisan yang memang tepat untuk memberitahukan tentang siapa seorang Nazim Hikmet.

Perkenalan dengan Hikmet ini dibuka dengan puisi berjudul Otobiografi, yang menceritakan tentang Nazim Hikmet secara keseluruhan: kapan ia lahir, di mana ia menimba ilmu, kejadian apa saja yang pernah dialaminya, kisah cintanya, sifat-sifatnya, kecenderungannya yang tidak tertarik pada kekuasaan maupun jabatan, juga kerendahan hatinya. Namun dari sekian banyak hal yang diceritakan melalui bait demi bait dalam Otobiografi, yang paling menarik adalah sifat-sifat sang penyair. Salah satu contohnya sebagaimana yang tersirat pada bait pertama:

“aku tidak akan kembali lagi ke kota kelahiran

aku tidak suka kembali ke belakang”

Dari dua baris ini tampak jelas bagaimana seorang Nazim Hikmet memandang masa lalu. Ia sama sekali tidak tertarik untuk menengok ke belakang, mengenang-ngenang kembali yang sudah lalu terutama asal-usulnya. Mungkin baginya tidaklah penting ia terlahir di mana dan bagaimana masa kecilnya. Mungkin yang penting baginya adalah apa yang saat ini dijalaninya.

Sifat Hikmet lain yang menarik adalah kemandiriannya, yang sedikit banyak memperlihatkan betapa tinggi harga dirinya, seperti yang dapat dilihat pada dua baris yang berbunyi:

“aku berbohong karena malu mengendalikan orang lain

aku berbohong demi tidak menyusahkan orang lain…”

Hikmet tak mengelak bahwa ia telah berbohong pada orang lain, tetapi itu dilakukannya agar ia tak perlu menyusahkan atau merepotkan orang lain, agar ia tak perlu meminta orang lain melakukan ini dan itu (maka mengendalikan). Jika membaca jalan hidup Hikmet sendiri yang dijabarkan pada bagian pembuka oleh Bernando J. Sujibto, maka ini tidaklah mengherankan. Jalan kesendirian yang ditempuh Hikmet ini juga terang ketika ia berkata di salah satu bait bahwa ia “tidak pergi ke mana orang pergi.” Hikmet bukanlah seseorang yang suka menggerombol dan mengikuti arus, ia lebih suka berjalan sendiri.

Bisa jadi, jalan kesendirian inilah yang membawa Nazim Hikmet pada pilihan ideologinya. Dengan memilih untuk menjadi seorang komunis, ia melawan arus di negerinya sendiri dan harus menanggung julukan pembelot. Hal tersebut disinggung dalam puisinya yang keenam di buku ini, yang diberi judul sesuai dengan pandangan pemerintah Turki pada saat itu terhadap dirinya, Pengkhianat Negara. Puisi ini menyajikan ironi, karena ketika di satu sisi pemerintah menganggapnya pengkhianat negara, di sisi lain mereka telah “menjual” negeri mereka sendiri kepada Amerika Serikat dan menyediakan tempat bagi pangkalan militer negeri Paman Sam. Hikmet secara terang-terangan menunjukkan siapa sebenarnya yang telah mengkhianati negara, dan siapa yang tidak.

Hikmet juga menyindir Amerika Serikat lewat puisinya Nelayan Jepang, sebuah puisi pilu yang ditujukan untuk mengingat tragedi uji coba bom hidrogen di tahun 1954. Pada puisi tersebut, Hikmet mengandaikan kapal di laut sebuah keranda berwarna hitam, siapa pun yang berada di sana pasti mati, dagingnya pasti membusuk, yang tertular pasti tak akan selamat. Uji coba semacam ini tentu sangatlah keji karena melibatkan dan mengorbankan banyak manusia tanpa pikir panjang dan tanpa pandang bulu. Ketika dalam satu baris Hikmet bertanya, “wahai manusia, di manakah kalian?”, sesungguhnya yang ia pertanyakan bukanlah di mana keberadaan manusia, tetapi keberadaan “akal sehat” dan “belas kasihan” mereka yang menciptakan senjata demikian.

Puisi-puisi Hikmet dalam buku ini yang menyindir pemerintahnya sendiri pun tidak sedikit. Ambillah contoh Rezim dan puisi berjudul 5 Oktober 1945. Dalam Rezim, ia berkisah tentang Presiden Adnan Menderes yang mengirimkan tentara panggilan untuk ikut bertempur di Perang Korea. Melalui pilihan kosakatanya (atau setidaknya yang digunakan oleh sang penerjemah, Bernando J. Sujibto) terasa jeritan pilu para prajurit yang dikirim bukan untuk membela negeri sendiri, melainkan ikut campur perkara negara lain demi aliansi politik. Di sisi lain, ironisnya, sang presiden bersenang-senang dan menikmati kekuasaannya, tubuhnya sehat, benaknya tak memikirkan mayat-mayat prajurit yang diutusnya.

Sementara itu, pada puisi 5 Oktober 1945, Hikmet mencurahkan kekesalannya kepada pemerintah lantaran abai terhadap rakyat. Negara membiarkan mereka kelaparan, kedinginan, kelelahan sampai mati (akibat kerja membanting tulang) dan berpisah (dengan keluarga dan orang-orang tercinta). Untungnya, kata Hikmat, rakyat belum sampai pada tahap saling membunuh. Untungnya lagi, rakyat biasa bukan tak mungkin punya kuasa atau daya untuk menunjukkan kepada pemerintah cara-cara kemanusiaan dan mencintai.

Bicara soal cinta, Nazim Hikmet tidak melulu berbicara tentang dirinya, perjuangan, maupun mengkritik ini-itu. Dalam kumpulan puisi Raksasa Bermata Biru ini, sang penyair juga berbicara soal cinta—suatu hal universal yang dirasakan oleh setiap insan—pada puisi berjudul Salju Membelai Jalanan misalnya. Selain cinta, sang penyair juga berbicara tentang kehidupan dan kematian. Pada puisi Tentang Kematian, Hikmet berkata kepada istrinya Hadijah Pirayende bahwa ia tidak tahu siapa di antara mereka yang akan lebih dulu mati dan kapan, di mana, serta bagaimana kelak mereka akan mati. Sedangkan dalam puisi berjudul Laut Malam Itu, Hikmet mengingatkan bahwa nafas (atau kehidupan) kita adalah pemberian Ilahi, maka dari itu jangan sampai kita lupa kepada sang Pencipta dan lupa bahwa yang abadi justru adalah kematian: kehidupan setelah kita mati.

Raksasa Bermata Biru secara langsung maupun tidak langsung merupakan otobiografi Nazim Hikmet sendiri, yang bercerita tentang riwayatnya, kisah cintanya, pilihan politiknya, kritik-kritiknya, juga apa yang diperjuangkannya. Setiap puisi tersaji dalam pilihan kata yang mengundang dan mengandung pilu, ironi, serta sendu. Hasil terjemahan Bernando J. Sujibto mampu menyalurkan ketiga rasa tersebut kepada pembaca, sehingga pembaca juga dapat mengenal nada dan gaya berbicara Hikmet pada bait-bait ciptaannya.

Selain dengan Nazim Hikmet sendiri, buku kumpulan puisi ini juga merupakan perkenalan pembaca Indonesia dengan perpuisian Turki. Pembaca Indonesia tentu sudah tidak asing lagi dengan karya-karya fiksi karangan Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak, atau O.Z. Livaneli, tetapi mungkin kita belum mengenal pujangga-pujangga Turki secara luas. Buku ini bisa menjadi jalan pembuka bagi diterbitkannya lebih banyak lagi karya-karya puisi dari negeri dua benua.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat: Sepilihan Cerpen Amerika Latin

48123172453_e03a49bc90I’ve been wanting to join the Spanish Lit Month since a long time ago but this is my very first time ever truly making it true. And for this first edition I chose Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat, which has been on my TBR pile for almost an eternity, to read and review. You might be familiar with the English title, and it’s true that it is taken from the short story by Augusto Roa Bastos, but it is an anthology curated and released by Indonesian publisher Diva Press, consisting of fourteen short stories and one lecture.

Encounter with the Traitor is of course one of the pieces listed on the table of contents, and it’s also one of my few favorites. It is about an ex-prisoner who was years ago convicted of leaking information on rebels and once again encounters one of the victims of his deed. As the slow-but-sure storyline progresses, however, we will see that the so-called traitor was not actually the one who brought all the rebels at the time of war to their total demise. It was his brother, who then died and has been since then remembered as the hero. This short yet dense story clearly and cleverly shows us readers that wars, a particular period where everything is so tricky, deceiving and victory is the ultimate goal, can make a false hero out of the true culprit. We never know who our true enemy is behind the foggy lines.

Concerning Señor de la Peña by Eliseo Diego is the second on the list of both the contents and my favorites. Like the previous one, this is a story of deceitful reality. What you see is not always what is real, that’s pretty much the idea. Or maybe what you see is not what other people see. A new owner has come to live in a huge mansion at the border of a village, and since his arrival there all the servants try to figure out who he actually is, or rather what he really is like. Each of them sees their new master from a different point of view and therefore has a different opinion. It causes an endless debate among them and pushes them to go and take a look at him together, to see who is right and who is wrong about his person. But still, no agreement has reached, until finally the master’s brother-in-law comes and says, “What are you all looking at? There is nothing there.”

Why Reeds are Hollow by Gabriela Mistral is my most favorite of all stories that already left deep impression on me. People always dream of equality and ceaselessly, fearlessly fight for it. But at what cost? And to what extent do we need it? The reeds are throwing certain propaganda for the entire vegetation to have equal height. However, once this is realized, everything is in total chaos: clover as high as cathedrals, bushes grow dozens of feet, flowers get dried, lilies divided in two. And that’s not all. Animals are also badly affected by the so-called equality: get lost, cattle losing their fodder and finally human beings are starving. In short, the effect of equality campaigned by the reeds on the lives of all living creatures is not the good one. It ruins them, and not the other way around. You might wonder why but the answer is actually very simple: because everything and everyone is unique, they have their own characteristics, duties, functions and benefits. Everything and everyone do not need to be the same in every sense of the word, in every aspect. The world needs balance and that’s what differences are for.

My last favorite piece in this anthology is One Sunday Afternoon by Roberto Arlt. It might not be one with the newest or the most shocking premise, but its twisted, unpredictable plot will surely make readers feel tricked. When there is a lonely, bored wife – who is frequently being left at home by her busy, indifferent husband – inviting her husband’s friend for tea it wouldn’t pass the reader’s mind that she actually tries to seduce him while her husband is not around. What a perfect timing for unleashing her pent-up desire, and what a perfect person to do it with, too. But while you think that this woman is unfaithful, you’ll see that Eugene Karl, our male protagonist here, is having another idea. He might look so reluctant for a black-and-white reason, but then he’ll show you that he is not that good of a person. Later, after a very long, deep conversasion between the two, Eugene points out that the desire to get into bed with someone who is not your spouse is something normal in an empty marriage, and that any marriage will go through this particular phase, too.

It is such a shame that of the fourteen short stories contained in this rather thin book only four I could consider great and became my favorites. The rest just passed by without leaving any particular impression on me, not even those written by the greats such as Gabriel Gárcia Márquez (The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship), Isabel Allende (Toad’s Mouth), or Jorge Luis Borges (Parable of the Palace). This might sound so odd, but I probably couldn’t see their premises as interesting. Or perhaps it’s their narratives, or the translation. And the worsts are those with very, very unacceptable ideas like Axolotl by Julio Cortázar and Yzur by Leopoldo Lugones. I cannot say anything but that they are not my kind of stories.

Perjumpaan dengan Pengkhianat is not actually a bad anthology, but the short stories it consists of just didn’t interest me. I initially had high hopes for it, as it has many famous, great Latin American writers stamped on its front cover. Unfortunately I didn’t feel connected when I read most of their works here, hence my conclusion it’s merely so-so.

Rating: 3/5

fiction, review

Circe

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Indonesian edition’s cover

What is power? This might not be the right question to ask for it’s more than likely that everyone knows the answer already. And it might not be wrong to conclude that everybody agrees it’s about controlling others, domination, making decisions on what others should or should not do. Madeline Miller pretty much (if not completely) shows this through her 2019-Women’s-Prize-for-Fiction-nominated novel, Circe. She shows how the gods have total control over humans (or, any creature below them), how men dominate women (also the undercurrent counter-attack they never realize), and how those with strength can do whatever they want to those who are less powerful.

The book, founded on and centered around the Greek mythology, tells about a nymph (a lower-class, powerless deity) named Circe who was born to a Titan father, Helios, and a naiad mother, Perse. She’s so physically imperfect, with unpretty appearance and bad voice, that even her own mother despises her. But she has a heart of compassion and determination that one day, when she knows she shouldn’t, she comes near Prometheus and asks, “What is human like?” while giving him some nectar to survive after his punishment. That might be a simple question asked out of curiosity, but it looks like a particular one the writer wants us readers to ponder about while scrutinizing her characters not as deities nor Titans, but as human beings.

And while you’re at it, Circe falls in love with a human herself, a charming fisherman named Glaucos. Helplessly head over heels and willing to do anything in order for them to be together forever, she ventures into Knossos and picks the flowers known for their ability to change somebody into somebody else (or, rather, into their real selves). She uses them on Glaucos and changes him into a sea god, but the result is not what she has expected. He becomes as arrogant as any deity or Titan you might encounter, and he falls in love with another nymph, the pretty and mean Scylla. Jealous and desperate, Circe uses the same flowers to change Scylla into a monster, which brings her to her demise: imprisoned for the rest of her life on a remote island.

But that’s her turning point. There on that secluded place, she starts to see things clearly, understand more the way of the world and herself, exploring her true power and using it. She meets sailors (men, to be precise) and comes to know how the opposite gender thinks that a woman living on her own is a weak creature easily intimidated and made a target of their animal desire and abusive behavior. Without her willing to, she has to help her sister Pasiphaë give birth to a monster and learns that if you don’t use your every power and trick to control men, men will control you. She meets Daedalus and finally feels what true love is. She meets Odysseus and knows that she can’t make the same mistake again and so secretly bears him a son, a descendant, walking steadfastly  into the realm of motherhood. Through her centuries of experience, she can finally see that she is the master of her own destiny and can do whatever she deems right, or necessary.

Circe’s transformation is perhaps that which people see as ideal these days. Initially innocent and letting herself be bullied for what she is, she then fights back with all she has. She is still a compassionate person at heart, but she no longer takes anybody’s nonsense thrown her way. However, the most interesting thing most readers will never probably miss out is how Miller, through the story of Circe’s ups and downs she has constructed, lays out blatantly the bitterness so many women have to endure. She bewails the notion that unpretty women (here being symbolized by ugly nymphs) are considered useless and unvalued, having no possibility of marriage, a huge burden to their family, dirt staining the world. She cries out loudly that women can actually totally independent: living on her own, fighting on her own, making her own decisions and being held responsible for them. With this lone wolf that is Circe, Miller wants to push into our face the fact that women can rely on their own capability and on themselves. And one more thing that we have to praise Miller for is her audacity to criticize the divinity—how the gods want humans and every creature beneath them to always worship them, pray to them, and sacrifice anything for them to the point that they will do just anything: manipulating, threatening, creating troubles and giving ordeals. This is not a mere criticism. This is how the world truly works.

Circe is, on the whole, a story about women. It’s about how all women on this planet can have their own power and the right to wield it. And Madeline Miller makes it clear through her engrossing narrative. It’s like pieces of cards being piled up neatly into a pyramyd the top of which readers will finally see, where Circe eventually decides her own final destiny and goes through what she has to. Miller also describes every character very well, displaying their seeming personality traits and then gradually revealing their true colors, making them so complex and natural and “human.” With this way of characterization you cannot even hate Pasiphaë, though Circe has time and again fallen victim to her cruelty. And you cannot also love Odysseus whole-heartedly, though he is one of those men who can understand and cherish her. Miller shows you people as they truly are.

Last thing to say, Circe is a fantastic read, fast-paced and enjoyable. And though there is nothing new in its idea or structure, its being “realistic” and powerful is enough to move you.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Kumpulan Budak Setan

39891352403_a67d0e2216Kumpulan Budak Setan is some kind of a tribute to Indonesian horror fiction writer Abdullah Harahap. The three renowned contributing authors—Eka Kurniawan, Intan Paramaditha and Ugoran Prasad—have recreated and re-represented Harahap’s famous narrative in their own styles and with their own ideas. First published in 2010, the anthology delivers a total of twelve short stories bearing each writer’s typical character of storytelling.

Eka Kurniawan is the first to deliver his horror stories, starting with a mystery-wanna-be tale Penjaga Malam. The idea is actually there and pretty convincing, about four men on duty guarding their village in the middle of the night and later finding each of themselves vanishing without trace. The problem is, it seems to try so hard to emanate darkness and fright but fails halfway. It’s a mystery yet somehow unable to even say that it is mysterious. Strangely, or luckily, Riwayat Kesendirian, Kurniawan’s third contribution here, has more of that mysterious vibe to it. It may not have the best or the most unusual idea—a man being haunted by the ghost of a woman he had ever helped in the past—but it is definitely better written that it will surely make the reader’s hair stand on end. The last one of his part, Jimat Sero, relies much on our traditional superstition that we can entirely rely on a particular jimat to get luck. Unfortunately, this must be paid in return with something so dear to us.

Intan Paramaditha is the second to present her tales. As we know, she is apt to write stories centering on women and gender, so it is no wonder that all four of her contributions talk about women and their issues. The first horror story she tells us is about a dangdut singer. Generally speaking, (female) dangdut singers do not have a very good reputation, especially those entertaining the lower class. They are both loved and hated, admired and despised. But most of the time they are the scapegoat for men’s improper desire, for they are not only singing, they are dancing—in an erotic way, usually. So Salimah, a dangdut singer in the piece entitled Goyang Penasaran, has to find herself gotten rid of from her home village for making a man unable to control his desire while she is singing on stage. That’s not the real problem here, however. As she comes back years later, she knows how and whom she must take her revenge on—the one respectable, yet hypocritical, man who set his male gaze on her years before and let his lust show but still had the audacity to claim himself to be a religious man and condemn her profession.

“Tak ada iblis lebih ngeri dari yang menyaru sebagai nabi.”

(No evil more sinister than those wearing the mask of a prophet.)

And that’s not it. The last of Paramaditha’s contributions, Si Manis dan Lelaki Ketujuh, is even more sinister in every aspect. What’s so outrageous here, if we want to say so, is not the idea of having a man as a sex slave, but having a man as a sex slave to a super rich woman with a badly disfigured face and a penchant for sadomasochism. It challanges the beauty standard, reverses the power play, and questions the sexual, normal norm. And interestingly, Paramaditha doesn’t focus on how the ugly woman thinks or feels about their relationship (though she can be said to be the female/reverse version of any common male lead character of this type), but she displays—describes—ever so blatantly the man’s feelings and how they develop through the sequence of their sexual encounters. The man realizes that he’s been addicted and cannot let himself go off of the entanglement, that he’s sort of tempted to accept the woman’s offer to leave his wife and have an adventure together, living the life of folk tales and unimaginable stories.

Among the three contributing writers, Ugoran Prasad might prove to be the one with the most standout pieces of all. No, he doesn’t write about bloodshed, bloodshot ghosts with chilling diction to frighten readers. His stories are more profound than that. Two of them even ring with gender issues, or something like that. Hantu Nancy, where he talks about the aftermath of the murder of a beauty salon owner, subtly shows how a beauty standard can be as dangerous as the murder itself. Meanwhile, in Hidung Iblis, Prasad seems to want to employ a different angle to deliver a story on sexuality.

In this last piece of the book, Sujatmoko, the main male character, appears to point out that all men with “normal” genitals (and thus normal sexual desire) are evils prowling innocent women. Trying to “protect” his wife from those evils, he is then intent on a killing spree. Readers might think he’s just doing it for having his manly pride hurt and merely to vent his anger on other, “normal” men. They might also think that he’s such an arrogant prick seeing a wife as a property hence the need for protection. And he might really be. But what’s so intriguing, and probably important, is the fact that his wife is not what he thinks she is. She’s beyond that. She doesn’t need protection, because “danger” is something she actually ventures into, something that she likes.

On the outside, Kumpulan Budak Setan appears to be a collection of horror stories. But while that might be true, there is something more to it than merely tales of ghosts, murders, or even love and sexual slavery. Deeper, it might be a series of elaborations of how we, humans, are actually the slaves of evils (just as the book title literally translates)—we rely so much on them, we do what they say, and we are even addicted to them and the sly tricks they play on us. We apparently cannot live without evils beside us. Maybe it’s just the human nature. So it can be pretty understandable that the writing styles employed by those three contributors do not exude horrific vibe or fright or anything that will make the reader so much as believe what they give us are horror stories. They are probably not at all.

Though a little bit disappointing in some aspects (i.e. the lack of fright some readers might seek for), Kumpulan Budak Setan is basically not a bad anthology. The writings are profoundly good, the ideas are not cliché, and the characters are all deeply dug up. It is some sort of proof that the three contributors—Kurniawan, Paramaditha and Prasad—are truly great writers we have today. If only it could be a little bit more frightening, that would be better.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul

33088007498_4b3ce12be2_oBisa jadi, tidak banyak cerita bertemakan identitas nasional ditulis oleh seseorang yang justru tidak memegang identitas tersebut. Mungkin ada banyak penulis yang lebih dari sekadar mampu menuliskan kisah dengan latar negeri-negeri nun jauh bermodalkan seberapa pun pengetahuan tertulis yang sanggup mereka raup, tetapi itu hanya akan seperti melihat kehidupan orang lain melalui lubang kunci pintu yang kecil: tidak mendalam, tidak menyeluruh, dan tidak sepenuhnya bisa dipercaya. Namun Bernando J. Sujibto bukan penulis yang hanya bermodalkan mengintip dari lubang kunci. Ketertarikannya yang kuat pada hal-hal berbau Turki, lamanya ia tinggal di tanah Eurasia, kemampuannya berkomunikasi dan intensitasnya berinteraksi dengan penduduk setempat menjadikannya mampu, dan berhak, untuk menghadirkan gambaran yang lebih luas mengenai sebuah negeri yang pada biasanya hanya kita kenal melalui media dan sastra.

Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul merupakan kumpulan lima belas cerita pendek karya Sujibto mengenai Turki—mengenai orang-orangnya, melankolinya, dinamikanya, juga keresahan dan masalah-masalahnya. Bagian pertama kumpulan cerpen ini, yang bertajuk Merayakan Cinta, dibuka dengan kisah berjudul Ela Gözlü yang langsung membuat pembaca cengang dengan keindahan dan kemuraman narasinya yang menusuk-nusuk. Jalinan cerita Ela Gözlü sangat padat, sangat ringkas, namun penuh misteri akan seorang perempuan muda yang menyimpan hasrat berjuang bersama PKK. Dengan mengadaptasi hüzün, yang terasa sangat kental pada karya-karya Orhan Pamuk, penulis menghadirkan pergulatan batin seorang Berivan yang sangat ingin ikut berjuang demi kemerdekaan dan berdirinya negeri Kurdistan. Atmosfer yang nyaris terasa romantis membuat isu sensitif separatisme yang menjadi tema cerpen ini lebih lunak untuk dikunyah, bahkan sedih dan melankolis sebagaimana yang mungkin diharapkan penulis.

Selain Ela Gözlü, ada enam cerita pendek lainnya pada bagian pertama, dan Beri Aku Kesempatan untuk Lebih Mengenalmu salah satu yang paling menarik. Penulis tidak bicara tentang Turki sama sekali, pun tidak menjadikan si bartender Turki sebagai tokoh utama. Ini sepotong kisah tentang seorang wanita bernama Jane yang memilih untuk tidak percaya pada cinta, dan justru lebih menggantungkan hidupnya pada hitung-hitungan. Jika penulis mana pun diperbolehkan bersandar pada klise, maka tak salah jika pada akhirnya Jane jatuh cinta tepat di saat ia harus menyesali sikapnya. Tetapi penulis tak membuat Jane larut dalam kesedihan dan penyesalan; Jane pergi ke Tibet untuk meresapi kehadiran cinta di hatinya.

Bagian Merayakan Cinta tidak melulu tentang cinta dua joli. Kaleköy untuk Muhammad Hasan Turki bercerita tentang persahabatan insan dua negara, sementara Senja di Osmangazi tentang rasa cinta pada bangsa dan identitas yang telah mati. Namun bisa dibilang Tokoh Fiksi yang Menjadi Orhan adalah yang paling menggelitik. Seberapa jauh, seberapa dalam, seberapa kuat rasa cinta kita pada idola? Apakah sampai menjadikannya sosok nyata di hadapan kita, bicara pada kita? Apakah sampai menjadikannya tokoh fiksi yang dikendalikan sesuka hati kita? Ini hanyalah satu contoh di mana rasa cinta bisa menjadi obsesi.

Kontras dengan bagian pertama, bagian kedua bertajuk dan berbicara tentang Merayakan Tragedi. Pada bagian inilah penulis membahas tentang gejolak, dinamika, pemberontakan dan masalah separatisme yang menyelimuti Turki. Dari delapan cerita yang disajikan, mungkin yang paling menarik adalah nomor-nomor yang bertemakan perdagangan ilegal di perbatasan, seperti Ada Dua Cara Mereka Mati, Ikuti Anjing Itu dan Kaçak Çay. Bagi orang-orang Turki bisa jadi apa yang diceritakan dalam ketiga cerpen tersebut sudah merupakan sesuatu yang “biasa”, rahasia umum yang semua orang tahu. Tetapi bagi orang-orang yang tidak tinggal di sana, bukan orang sana, atau tidak pernah melihat atau mendengar apa pun tentang dalamnya negeri sana, cerita-cerita ini bisa dibilang sungguh mengejutkan. Para pedagang barang-barang selundupan harus selalu siap mempertaruhkan nyawa di tangan para penjaga perbatasan. Ada yang demi penghidupan, ada pula yang demi membiayai gerakan pemberontakan.

Bicara tentang gerakan separatis, selain ceirta pertama pada bagian pertama, Sujibto kembali menghadirkan tema serupa di bagian kedua ini dalam dua nomor, Atas Nama Tanah dan Bangsa Kita Sendiri serta Lima Biji Zaitun Rontok. Meski memiliki tema serupa, tetapi dua cerita tersebut berbeda dengan cerpen Ela Gözlü—narasinya lebih tegas, atmosfernya lebih keras, dan akhirnya mengenas. Pada Atas Nama Tanah…, penulis bercerita tentang seorang warga suku Kurdi yang ditembak mati oleh polisi karena berani menurunkan bendera Turki di Diyarbakir. Orang ini berbuat demikian bukan tanpa alasan: ia tidak pernah merasa dirinya orang Turki; ia adalah orang “lain” dan ingin menjadi “lain”. Kaum separatis bukanlah sesuatu yang asing, dan tokoh ini adalah contohnya.

Setiap kisah pendek dalam buku Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul dinarasikan dengan bahasa yang sangat puitis hingga menciptakan atmosfer yang romantis, bahkan pada cerita-cerita bertemakan penyelundupan dan pemberontakan. Penulis juga sepertinya sangat berniat mengadopsi hüzün yang biasa terasa kuat pada novel-novel Orhan Pamuk, nada melankolis yang sudah barang tentu lekat dengan bayangan kita tentang Turki. Jika dilihat dari segi ide cerita, karya-karya Bernando J. Sujibto pada buku ini pun bisa dikatakan tidak biasa. Apa-apa yang selalu kita lihat diberitakan di televisi atau media lainnya, bahkan lebih, menjadi dasar beberapa cerita pada buku ini. Sujibto juga tidak hanya berkutat pada satu tema, dan itu menjadikan buku ini semakin memikat.

Gabungan ide cerita yang unik, narasi yang apik, serta atmosfer yang sangat melankolis membuat Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul sebuah kumpulan cerpen yang indah dan menggugah. Jika pun ada, satu kekurangannya adalah tata bahasa sang penulis. Sering kali penulis menggunakan kosa kata yang tidak tepat atau mubazir serta kalimat-kalimat yang tidak rapi sehingga terkesan agak tidak wajar. Narasi yang indah juga membutuhkan logika berbahasa, dan itu tidak selalu hadir di sini. Meski demikian, secara keseluruhan buku ini tetap dapat dinikmati.

Membaca Aku Mendengarmu, Istanbul rasanya seperti pergi ke negeri dua benua dan melihat dengan mata kepala sendiri apa yang sebenarnya terjadi yang luput dari mata media, serta ikut merasakan perasaan orang-orang yang termarjinalkan di pemberitaan. Selain bacaan, buku ini juga merupakan pengalaman yang luar biasa.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Namesake

32782023108_d92f86917dBeing different is always difficult. And there’s no better proof than The Namesake, a 2003 immigrant-themed novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. At a time when many people abandon their countries—either to escape war and persecution or to seek a better life—this book is something very much relevant. Putting aside the political aspect, it is always worthwhile to see what life of those newcomers is like and how they survive in the foreign land. Will they mingle well? Or will they distance themselves from others? Will they stay true to their motherland’s culture? Or will they blend all ideals together just so they can live a smooth life?

It all starts—despite the novel’s opening chapter—with Ashoke’s desire to travel the world upon the tragic accident that befalls him in his hometown in India, before which he meets and chats with a businessman suggesting him to go abroad at least once in a lifetime. Just before his leaving for the United States to do research and study further, his family arrange a marriage for him with Ashima, a young educated woman who, fortunately, is not disinclined to live abroad with him. But that cannot change the fact that living alone, just the two of them, in a foreign land is a difficult experience. Everything is alien to them, as they are to the nation they’re now part of. Everything is different from their inherited culture, from what they are used to, especially when it comes to naming their baby.

And here’s the unfortunate event where our main character gets his name, Gogol Ganguli. It has been a Bengali tradition that the grandmother of the mother will give her baby a name—a good, official name, to be precise—but alas! The letter containing this supposed name is lost between India and the US—it’s in the late 1960s so you can imagine the difficulties—and so when the hospital, as per usual in the country, asks Ashoke and Ashima to give their baby a name to fill the birth certificate, so they can take him home, they are forced to put a “pet name” on it instead, unwilling to breach the tradition by giving their baby a good name themselves. From then on, their son is Gogol, a name quickly picked up by Ashoke from his favorite author, the one who always inspires him and reminds him of  the near-death tragedy in his early life.

But Gogol is not happy with his name. It’s neither Bengali nor American, and its original owner had a tragic life Gogol cannot bear to know. He’s already a foreigner in a foreign land, and having a strange name is another burden to him. More than that, he hates his cultural background, his burdensome family tradition, his ties with his homeland. He spends almost his entire life defying all of that, including changing his name and make it a “good, official” one and dating Caucasian girls though he very well knows that his parents must want him to marry any Indian girl of their choice. However, he then meets, and falls in love with, Moushumi, a childhood Bengali friend of his. Their wedding later is quite predictable, though it’s not for the blessing their parents give them, but rather for their shared fate and will to escape their inherited identity and traditions. Unfortunately, this proves a mistake, because Moushumi’s character, and her sense of rebellion, make her realize that Gogol is not someone she wants to be with in her life.

It is easy to see how all main characters in The Namesake suffer from a sense of alienation. But while Ashoke and Ashima try so hard to hold on still to their culture and embrace that of Americans’ at the same time, Gogol wants none of that. He doesn’t like being who he is (a stranger with a strange name) and all he wants is to be assimilated totally and successfully into the American society. He only wants to be a “normal” person in the land he was born into, and to have a “normal” name which doesn’t make anyone around him stop and question him. At the same time, Moushumi, who is in the same generation as Gogol himself, shows the same strong will and determination. She even once pledged to not marry an Indian/Bengali man just so she can break her parents’ hopes and expectations as Bengali people living in America—a pledge which she accidentally breaks and brings her to her demise.

All this shows that assimilation is a tremendous feat that can be very much personal. There is no way Jhumpa Lahiri doesn’t know it perfectly, and she succeeds in narrating the whole process. Her narrative is open and clear, her language is simple and direct. She doesn’t take on lavish, pretentious writing style to tell her tale so readers can really see through all the characters: what they think and feel, and their development toward the end of the story. What’s a little bit disturbing (I wouldn’t say disappointing) here is that some parts are pretty boring to follow, and some are even too much predictable. You can almost foresee what is going to happen even before opening the next page. It may be because you already know it, or perhaps it is just the way it should be. Putting all that aside, the plot development is still as good as that of the characters, and the atmosphere created by Lahiri’s diction can truly drag the reader down with subtle yet stormy emotions.

All things said, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a very satisfying book in many aspects, if not all. It might not provide readers with what immigration or assimilation is actually about, or with all the struggles immigrants have to go through in the foreign land. But it surely gives the reader some insights into how immigrants could or should blend in with their new society, and how “being different” is also a part/process of creating a melting pot.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Human Acts

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Indonesian edition’s cover

Humanity and repressive governments will always be interesting topics to discuss in literature, for in this realm all traumatic experiences of living under bad regimes can be perpetuated, forever stay on papers and in people’s mind, if not solved. Books are an effective medium to pass over to the next generation the painful history they should know, though they may not have the capability, or will, to make it right or give justice to those who had been wronged in the past. Human Acts, the wonderfully narrated novel by Han Kang, is clearly intended to do just that, so people will never forget there was a certain dark period in South Korean modern history.

The novel starts—in an atmosphere that’s more than merely depressing and in a somewhat vague manner—with a young boy looking for his missing friend, dead or alive. There has been some sort of a riot, as it is later gradually told, where the government-backed military fired bullets blindly to random citizens on the streets and killed many people, even those who weren’t actually part of it. Dong Ho, the young boy, keeps wandering through the Provincial Office to find Jeong Dae, this friend of his, but to no avail. He lingers there however, still in the hope of finding Jeong Dae, and helps sorting and dealing with corpses. Never does he know that Jeong Dae’s body, dead already, has been stacked somewhere behind bushes and slowly decaying. He only knows that he actually saw Jeong Dae when he was shot, and left him in the middle of the riot.

It needs a string of subtle guilty on Dong Ho’s side and slow paces of storyline to get to what truly happens to the two young boys, and what truly happens to the country. Throughout the next chapters, readers are told how the government becomes more and more tyrannical—tightly censoring books, imprisoning innocent people on false charges and treating them like worthless animals, causing incurable trauma across the nation—and how South Korean people at that dark period have to live their lives where committing suicide and insomnia are not something unusual.

The main event told in the book took place in the early 1980s and 1990, when an authoritarian ruler had been assassinated only for people to see another one coming up and making even bigger chaos. It was a horrible time South Korean people in the past had to experience—and hopefully won’t repeat itself in the future—when even a self-claimed democratic government used an excuse of banishing northern infiltration from their southern part of the peninsula to punish people without mercy and oppress them just to maintain the status quo. It was when university students held demonstrations on the streets and got arrested, when common people were dragged—voluntarily or not—and got shot. In fact, this particular period seems very common everywhere. Here in Human Acts, both innocent and guilty people are imprisoned and being questioned inhumanely, left hungry for days before being released after a very strange, without-any-evidences trial. Traumatized, some of them even commit suicide, or, worse, try to kill people.

Han Kang tells the depressing, goosebumps-giving story from the points of view of those who are involved in, or become victims of, the riot handled with cruelty by the military: from the young boys, the prisoners, the eyewitnesses, to the writer herself. And though Han does make an enough effort to introduce all those characters early in the first chapter (alongside with Dong Ho), but still the plot, and subplots, where they dwell are not easy to deal with. The narrative is so “thick” that readers need to peel it layer by layer in order to see crystal clear where the storyline goes. Han doesn’t make it easy for readers to enjoy her tale—as if she wants them to suffer together with the victims—and forces them to really follow each of the characters to know exactly what happens inside and what effects it has on them.

Han’s writing style in Human Acts is neither truly realistic nor the opposite. To describe all the hardships and violence, Han doesn’t shy away from taking the realistic approach to display horrible scenes as explicit as possible. On the other hand, Han uses an almost surrealistic style to tell about the trauma all the victims have to endure. It is perhaps to make it more dramatic, sharper that readers can’t help but feel uneasy and disturbed upon absorbing the fear, the restlessness, the insanity brought about by dictatorship prevailed in that era. It is really hurtful to see those things written blatantly on the paper, and Han Kang really pulls it off.

All in all, Human Acts by Han Kang is a book that is so depressing, so sad, so hurtful to read, not only for the dark period the reader has to experience through letters, but also for the way Han Kang wrote and presented it to her audience. If anything, it is a book that forces the reader to see inhumanity clearly through its heavy words.

Rating: 4/5