fiction, review

Sepasang Sepatu Tua: Sepilihan Cerpen

Sapardi Djoko Damono’s Sepasang Sepatu Tua might have just been released last year, but the contents are surprisingly not new. Most of them are recognizably included in the short story collection Pada Suatu Hari, Malam Wabah; so Mr. Sapardi’s readers might get the feeling of reading the “same” book twice coming from different publishers. The reason behind this decision to republish many of the same contents over a short period of time was not known, unless one wants to speculate the later publisher merely intended to use the late senior writer’s popularity to boost their sell, for this was not the first time they―or any other publisher―did so with senior writers’ old works.

Of the nineteen pieces (short and rather long) included in this collection, only seven which are definitely outstanding, mostly for their unusual themes and styles of narratives, and some for the way Mr. Sapardi twists the plot. The first on the table of contents, the titular story, is such a one. Told in subtly hilarious tone, Sepasang Sepatu Tua narrates the close relationship between a university professor and his newly bought pair of shoes. He bought them (which were originally made in Germany) in a Chinese shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hence their ability to speak Chinese. Yes, the shoes speak, and the professor can hear them though is unable to understand what they say since it’s a foreign language to him. Over a period of time, however, he’s come to get their daily conversations and, inevitably so, started to feel annoyed at the same time.

Rumah-Rumah is also a giggle-triggering one. In quite the same style as Sepasang Sepatu Tua, it tells a story of “talking” houses in a complex bad-mouthing each other the way human neighbors usually do. They whisper about how the house number eleven is never in peace, the family living there are always in a row, not a single time do they ever keep quiet. Meanwhile, the house number thirteen is a mere uninhabited one being let by the owner but never gets rented. Worst of all, the house number fifteen is only half-built, because the owner doesn’t have any money any more to finish it. These “lonely, bitter” houses are just like the human dwellers: envying each other, whispering about each other, and yet never realizing that life is merely about seeing through the tinted glass.

Two short stories in a row are talking about mentally ill people. The first one, Seorang Rekan di Kampus Menyarankan Agar Aku Mengusut Apa Sebab Orang Memilih Menjadi Gila (or, in English, A Colleague at the University Suggests that I Ask What the Reason People Choose to be Crazy) literally tells of a university professor who asks a random wandering insane person why he chooses to be crazy. The crazy man, recalling his mother’s saying to him, feels annoyed by the constant questioning and thinks that the professor himself must be out of his mind. Meanwhile, the second one, Membunuh Orang Gila (literally translates Killing A Mad Man) talks about a driver accidentally hitting a wandering mad man on the street with his car. The mad man dies on the spot. Strangely (or not?), the driver feels sad about the mad man’s unexpected, sudden death―though he claims that it’s not him hitting the mad man, but the mad man who hit him―for he has already considered the mad man his own friend, seeing him everyday on his way to Bogor. And then a question pops into his mind: who is the crazy one in this world? How did they become crazy? Are they the victims of revolution who were never proclaimed a hero? Or are they the victims of reformation who were oppressed back in the day? One thing for sure: the sane person is the one who goes wherever the wind blows.

Just like the twist he does to the legend of Ken Arok and Ken Dedes in the quite long piece Hikayat Ken Arok, Mr. Sapardi reverses the entire premise of our famous fable about a cunning mouse deer in Dongeng Kancil (The Story of A Mouse Deer). Traditionally, the protagonist mouse deer could easily play tricks on other animals (the tiger, the crocodile and the snake) and get away with it. But here, the truth is the opposite. The Storyteller has decided that the mouse deer is the one being tricked by the other said animals and even by human beings. Having objections to his “new” fate, the mouse deer sets to find the Storyteller to find out what will happen to him next. On his way, however, he is trapped by humans and being caged and prepared for a wedding feast. He has no way to run.

Jemputan Lebaran is perhaps the most reflective short story of all in this collection. It reflects on how we (the Indonesian Muslims) see the Eid ul-Fitr celebration. It’s been our tradition upon the celebration day to go back to our hometowns and do the same things and meet the same people every year. So traditional it is that we just do it automatically without thinking and without knowing what the “rituals” mean. The protagonist wants to apologize to the Eid ul-Fitr for this, and to try to understand what that particular celebration day actually means.

And, the last of the most engaging stories in this collection I was appealed to, Suatu Hari di Bulan Desember (One Day in December) is my favorite both here and in the other book Pada Suatu Hari, Malam Wabah. It focuses on the main female protagonist Marsiyam who is sentenced years in prison for badly beating her husband. No, it’s not a hoax. It’s true. She indeed did that. But here the reason behind it is the main highlight: Marsiyam was always blamed for their childless marriage, and her husband accused her of having an affair with another man. There is only so much a woman can take, and this had been beyond Marsiyam’s emotional and mental capabilities. Strangely, after being years in prison, she gets pregnant, though she never had any physical relationship with anyone there.

Reading the entire collection, it won’t be wrong to say that Mr. Sapardi keeps true to his style and narrative twists. He never merely stands and lets himself be swayed either to the left or to the right, the way he never accepts the dominant narrative as it is―which is what he does here most of the time. He laughs at the world without showing off his sneer. His writing is as quiet as usual, but strong and profound. His ideas are never the common ones, and his reflections on life are always worth to be reckoning.

The fact that Sepasang Sepatu Tua might not be his best short story collection is perhaps because some pieces are delivered in pretty boring tone, like Ratapan Anak Tiri and Daun di Atas Pagar. Meanwhile, a thought-provoking piece like Ditunggu Dogot might be too difficult for some readers to stomach.

That’s said, Sapardi Djoko Damono is a truly great writer worth to watch, and Sepasang Sepatu Tua is still good enough for readers to spend their time reading it.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Diary of a Murderer

Indonesian edition’s cover

Kim Young-ha’s dementia-themed thriller Diary of a Murderer is sort of unusual in several ways: the way it’s written, the point of view it dares to take, the plot twist it presents at the end―they all, though do not give the reader a thrill this genre should, scream uniqueness and a certain level of darkness accompanying them through its pretty difficult labyrinth. A story of a serial killer is already everywhere in the crime/thriller area, but wait until you have to encounter what’s inside their mind.

Kim Byeong-su started killing at the age of 16 when he decided to end his own father’s life. Since then, he had been going on a killing spree until he was 45, and eventually stopped when he didn’t feel any excitement from it anymore. Now he is merely a 70-year-old retired veterinarian suffering from dementia and unable to remember the most recent things in his life. He only has his daughter Eun-hee at his side, and has to keep her picture in a locket so as to not forget her face. He even writes things down in a diary, especially what he had done in the past.

As the narrative reveals more and more, however, the most interesting thing about Kim Byeong-su’s past murderous activities is that he never got caught, not even once. This was simply because he did that right in the era when South and North Koreas were in an intense war, where the northern parts of the democratic one filled with the Communist spies lurking in forests. There were not enough evidences, there weren’t any eyewitnesses, and so every murder he committed would be right away blamed on the enemy’s people. But it is exactly what makes him regret his peaceful life for the last twenty five years. He finds it so boring and thinks that he should have been arrested. Unfortunately, that never happened.

And now that he is “enjoying” his retirement he becomes unexpectedly restless, not only for the dementia he has but also because of a seeming killer who appears to be targeting his daughter Eun-hee. As an ex-murderer himself, he knows his kind when he sees one, and there is no way he will let that suspicious man get any near Eun-hee. So he makes up his mind and starts tracking Park Ju-tae, the suspicious man he thinks is trying to murder Eun-hee yet in fact, much to his surprise, claiming to be her boyfriend. Things get confusing and unsettling between the three, and Kim Byeong-su, of course, warns his daughter against seeing her boyfriend again. But Eun-hee won’t take it, saying instead that he is being unreasonable and confused. He is sure he is not confused, though his dementia has been damaging his brain more and more. Now, with this state of mind, it becomes all the more unclear what’s real and what’s not, what’s merely his imagination and what’s not. So, how then will he save his daughter?

It doesn’t feel right to say Diary of a Murderer is an intense thriller novel. It doesn’t grip you, it doesn’t haunt you that you want to finish it in one sit. It does, though, make you wonder non-stop how it will turn out and if Kim Byeong-su will be able to save his daughter at the end. But the entire narrative is clearly about what happens inside his mind, not outside it in reality. The writer, Kim Young-ha, invites us to come and play with the protagonist’s suffering mind and memory, to see and guess if what he tells the reader is reliable or the otherwise, and to pity him sometimes. It’s tricky and yet laid-back at the same time. It doesn’t want you to restlessly ask questions and demand answers, it wants you to lazily play the game like an old person that he is.

Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer is a puzzle-heavy read with an unusual narrative about a serial killer. It’s neither a whodunit nor a whydunit, it’s more like a mind trap for the reader. That’s said, the writer is not so merciless that he doesn’t give any hints of where the story is going. He does, in a very subtle way, and that’s the strength of this so-called crime novel (if we cannot call it a “mind labyrinth” one). Readers who do not get the hints will probably be angry once they reach the end of the game, but those who are aware from the beginning of what the writer intends to reveal will almost definitely say, “Ah, that makes sense.”

In conclusion, Diary of a Murderer can be or cannot be called a crime/thriller story, but it is undoubtedly enganging and convincingly deceiving. It is highly recommended to anyone who is already bored with the conventional type in this entire serial killer universe.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Die, My Love

2020-05-29_10-39-06Being different is already difficult, much more being a different woman who doesn’t live up to everyone’s standards. Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz is a blatant protest against these standards, and it never feels sorry about it. First published in 2017 by Charco Press (and co-translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), this short novel tries so hard to point out what is wrong with a marriage that obviously goes wrong in a patriarchal society which tends to see everything out of standards in a woman as wrong. You might want to prepare yourself, for this one is totally unapologetic.

The story begins with our (anonymous) protagonist imagining herself holding a knife in her hand, ready to kill her husband. Of course, it does not truly happen, but the desire to do so is there and never ceases to exist. What she never has a desire to do is having a baby, and yet there she is, with a six-month toddler to care for. Another problem wedged in her heart that surges immediately in her early narrative of stream of consciousness is the big question of why her husband picks and chooses her while there are so many other beautiful, attractive women out there. And readers might have their own big question in turn: if she doesn’t feel like it, why doesn’t she say no?

But, well, that probably is not the right question to ask, since the book is obviously not about the choices women could have, but what they have been trapped into. As the story progresses, readers can see that the protagonist is so out of place in her own world: she isn’t only unfit for marriage, but the entire household stuff, the neighborhood, the way the world “usually” works. She sees everything that is “normal” as imprisoning, a cage she’s yearning to get out of from. The only place she can feel free in is the forest next to her house, where she often sees a deer with a pair of warming eyes. It is the deer she considers her life partner instead of her demanding husband who always sees her as weird and unsettled and not the kind of wife he wants her to be. He even thinks her excessive sexual appetite annoying, not letting her get what she wants while he himself strays away and has sex with another woman.

And this is also where the problem lies. The protagonist’s husband never (or, never wants to) fulfill her huge, endless sexual needs that when she knows her married neighbor has his eyes on her, she directly jumps into an affair with him. Her husband flies into a rage, of course, but while you know unfaithfulness is never the right thing, you cannot blame her. You would demand faithfulness from the husband as well, and since he cannot give that, you would stand up for her.

But a secret affair is not the only problem wrecking their marriage. The protagonist’s unusual (if you want to call it “unusual”) sexual appetite has also created another one: the husband sends her to a mental facility. What then makes the reader feel unsettled is all the patients there are male, except her. This action by the husband can be interpreted by the reader as misogynistic, being based on an opinion that women with such sexual desire are “not normal”. Is that how the world sees them?

The entire narrative bottles up pressure and frustration, resulting in having unrestrained demons screaming for freedom inside oneself. This having demons doesn’t mean that women are evils, as misogynists might think, but that they are not liberated the way they want to be, or should be. If this book seems to be the total opposite of misogynistic, whatever you might call it, then it is. All male characters here do not seem to be a good man to the protagonist—not her husband, not her lover, and definitely not her father-in-law, who never loves his wife. It feels like the protagonist (or, the writer) wants to say that if “normal people” can be misogynistic, then why can’t we be the opposite? Die, My Love seems to want to demand justice for women, for “unusual women”, that is, in a very extreme way. And it just doesn’t care, it doesn’t want to pretend the other way around.

What might become a problem here is actually the protagonist herself. Not her demonic character, but her silence. Why does she keep silent in the entire story? Why, every time she and her husband have disagreements, she never argues or expresses her opinions? Why does she never say no? Because she never has a choice? Is that how the writer portrays all women in the world and the mentality that, sadly, get them fall under patriarchy: do as you’re told, keep quiet, don’t fight back. And if everything doesn’t go well or as you like it, turn to the backstreet, fight from the dark.

But perhaps that is just the case, and Die, My Love is the written proof of this sad situation, of all women’s frustration. And if this difficult premise is already hard enough to chew over, then readers might want to prepare themselves for the difficult writing style: no names, no quotation marks for conversations, no clear distinction between the past and the present. Everything is blended, everything is like in a daze, yet so strong and poignant and heart-tugging. And Harwicz doesn’t seem to want to give the reader a certain ending, only hope for freedom.

I wouldn’t say that Harwicz’s Die, My Love is a super marvelous work of feminist literature, and reading it might give you a headache (literally), but it’s a screaming voice that we should consider for it’s own sake. It’s something different about someone different, and not a few people might be able to relate to it.

“It’s not that I’m assuming I want to slit his throat. I’m only saying that submission pisses me off.”

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Teh dan Pengkhianat

2020-05-29_10-38-57Never or rarely do we have histories written by the opposite side of a war or, to be precise, by the enemies. There might be some, but they do not see the entire event from the opposite point of view. Historians tend to write them from their own. But that’s not what Iksaka Banu dares to do. He writes short stories about the hundreds of years of Dutch colonization of Indonesia entirely from the viewpoint of the Dutch themselves. Teh dan Pengkhianat is one of his collections that gives affirmation to this. First published in 2019, it has thirteen short pieces on what the Dutch might have thought about the colonization, the land they had been occupying, the people they had been living with, and should they have just gone away when the time had finally come.

Among those thirteen short stories, some seem to have similar specific themes. Tegak Dunia and Variola are the first pair to talk about the same thing: science versus religion. For those who endlessly witness the tiring debates about whether the earth is a globe or flat, Tegak Dunia might be an interesting narrative piece. Jan van de Vlek is an orphan of Dutch origin raised in an orphanage in the East Indies. His late father wanted him to be a sailor and his uncle spares no effort to realize it. But Jan is reluctant, being told by his priest that sailors are liars, that it is impossible for people to sail because the world is, according to the Bible, flat, not a globe as they confidently state. Meanwhile, Variola is a story very relevant to today’s society everywhere which is mostly skeptical about vaccines. To stop the spread of smallpox in Bali, Dr. Jan Veldart suggests doing vaccination as quick as possible. But it is 1871 and vaccination is not a process as easy as clicking one’s fingers. He needs ten healthy children (with willing parents) to become the media, and Mr. Adriaan Geest tries his best to acquire them, difficult as it might be. He manages to obtain six, and goes to an orphanage to see if he can get another four. But here lies the obstacle: a priest named Van Kijkscharp, who condemns vaccination like it is a grave sin. To him, vaccination means stopping the destiny from actually happen, namely the death determined by God. In short, doing vaccination is against God’s will.

The second to deliver a common idea are Di Atas Kereta Angin and Belenggu Emas. Both imply the unavoidable, unbearable white supremacy in the time of colonization, where the Dutch really think that they are way superior to the natives and therefore not to be “too kind” to or get in touch “too much” with them. But Belenggu Emas generally talks more about women’s emancipation, in which Cornelia, our protagonist, is put in a “cage” by her husband Theo, not only because she is a woman, but also because she is a European, someone who’s supposed to give examples to the “uneducated” natives, and not imitate them instead.

The third and the last pair, Tawanan and Indonesia Memanggil, show the reader what it is like when the Dutch is on the opposite end in this entire colonization. The narrative doesn’t tell readers about what they had been through in the second World War, but it points out blatantly that what they’ve been doing to Indonesian people is nothing different, if not worse. The Dutch protagonists in both stories seem to try to make their fellows see that if they do not like what the Germans did to them, they should’ve not done the same to Indonesians.

Those pairs of common-themed pieces might appear pretty engrossing, but the titular story is not less appealing. Teh dan Pengkhianat (or, in English it would be Tea and the Traitor) will grab the reader’s attention not only for its interesting premise, but also its thought-provoking quality. Back then, there were a lot of Chinese labor from Macau working in tea plantations of Wanayasa and Sindangkasih. They were going out on a rebellion for the unfair payment they got from the Dutch. Captain Simon Vastebonden was being tasked with quelling them, something that he found very hard not for the task itself, but for the partner chosen to work with him. Alibasah Sentot Prawirodirjo was a native who had once fought against the Dutch alongside Diponegoro, but then he had switched side and was now working for the colonists. This had made Vastebonden raise a doubt in himself: could he trust him? The man who betrayed his own motherland for money? And now given a chance to prove his loyalty to the Dutch by quelling the Chinese labor rebellion? What kind of man doing that?

But basically this short story collection in its entirety is talking about traitors, if we see the native-supporting Dutch people as traitors to their own nation. Except that from the native point of view, they are the kind-hearted, considerate persons who take pity on the people of East Indies and disagree with their own. In fact, the way we see it, the traitorous Dutch in each of the story does not agree with colonization and does not see Indonesians as inferior to them. This quality is, of course, considered good in the eyes of the colonized, but what about their fellowmen?

Every piece in Teh dan Pengkhianat is an insight into what colonization is, what it means to the land and the nation being colonized. But they mainly, as I have mentioned above, try to depict what the colonists think or feel about what they have been doing for hundreds of years. Some might say this is too ambitious, because, as part of the nation being colonized back then by the Dutch, how could Iksaka Banu be sure that what he describes here is exactly what some of the Dutch did think and feel about their nation occupying the East Indies? What right does he have?

It’s not that the entire collection is a bad idea, it’s merely highly questionable. And what becomes more of a problem is actually how Mr. Banu tells the stories. His writing style is, sadly, not engaging enough to make the reader stay awake till midnight and stomach what he’s trying to say. All the premises are pretty interesting, but how they are executed is quite far away from impressive. It lacks the soul, the grippingness of a powerful narrative. It’s as if it’s merely telling you something, and not exactly describing to you something.

Overall, Teh dan Pengkhianat by Iksaka Banu is a pretty good collection. It tries to push the “national” boundary and depict the run of the history from the “enemy’s” point of view. Whether it fails or succeeds, it’s up to the reader. Whether he’s right or wrong to do so, it’s also up to the reader.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Mr. President

Indonesian edition cover

Totalitarianism seems to be an always relevant topic to discuss, for there is still one or two countries applying the said system and having the world amazed and scared at the same time. It cannot be helped since total freedom seems what people want most, and democracy has become some sort of a god. People worship it, people idolize it. And people do not want any regime to control any part of their lives. And so any contrast to it will be talked about forever, especially in literature where people are sharing and spreading what they are thinking.

Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is only one example of this kind of medium. First published in 1946, it depicts how bad life under a dictatorial regime is, how turbulent times affect people living under such regime, and how politics works in such country.

It opens with an unintentional killing of one colonel José Parrales Sonriente by a deeply traumatized, mentally ill beggar in front of a public church. The witnesses are there, so it should not be difficult to investigate and close the case as such. The problem is, however, Colonel Sonriente is one of Mr. President’s close friends and his murder is deemed an act of treachery. In short, it is considered impossible for a higher official with such connection to be murdered by a crazy beggar who doesn’t even know whose life he has taken. Therefore, quite intentionally (I would say so), the blame is laid on the president’s enemies: General Canales and the lawyer Carvajal. They in fact are not even his true enemies, they merely have a different opinion from his.

And so, as is predicted, the hunting begins. Both Canales and Carvajal are charged with murder and treachery, and given the death sentence. The president then asks his another close friend, Miguel Cara de Ángel, to pretend to help Canales run away (so he will definitely look “guilty”) and sets to catch him in the act. Unfortunately, the general really manages to escape while Miguel gets his hands on the general’s beautiful daughter, Camila, making him unable to hold his ground and change sides. But it might not seem strange in the middle of political turmoil to switch sides and betray each other, for General Canales, innocently charged with betrayal himself, eventually sees why he should take actions against the president.

Rulers of this kind of regime can be very paranoid and manipulative. And that’s not a very good combination. The president of the fictional republic described in the book is obviously so afraid of losing his power and position that he must suspect everyone and anyone even those who innocently (or, unconsciously) express an opposing opinion to his. He deems everything against him as a thread, not only to him but to the entire country. Hence the law is literally blind before everything and everyone. One can be punished for saying the truth, and another can be rewarded for telling lies. It’s all for the sake of maintaining power and sovereignty, as is described by Asturias.

For all his unfair treatment of the people, Mr. President here is the central and interesting character to look at. People are not being bad or cruel without any particular reason. Though this is not what the writer intends to convey, it’s coming out through his words nonetheless. Mr. President, both the protagonist and antagonist of the book trying to control and silence everyone under his regime through any possible, imaginable means, is actually a mere weak person who is deeply hurt by his horrible past. Basically from a poor family with no privilege whatsoever, he has to survive and fight his way to the top—where he eventually has power to make the unfair society pay for what they have done to him. On the one hand, it could be (I say it could be) understandable that he becomes the dictator that he is. On the other hand, however, we will perhaps question his mentality and sanity and ask, “Do people become a leader just so they can seek revenge for their past? Is becoming a tyrant is a way to prove yourself?” Most of us will surely say no, but a leader with Mr. President’s mentality will likely say yes, it is.

Mr. President has a very powerful narrative and the president himself, though rarely seen and mostly described through his enemies’ or friends’ words, is a very strong character. The reader should not be worried about the so many side characters (those enemies and friends) because Asturias tells about their entanglement pretty clearly, despite their changing sides and whatnot. The realistic and surrealistic parts of the story are also nicely woven, so seamlessly, however, that readers might not be able to recognize which is which—which then becomes a hardship rather than pleasure. It also ends rather openly, but instead of giving hope (after all the characters have gone through), it only affirms that authoritarianism might not see its end very soon.

Overall, Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is undoubtedly a great novel, almost technically perfect and engaging. It’s just exhausting at times, for its surrealistic parts and for the military tortures done by the president’s cronies which seem to never stop.

Rating: 4/5