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 He bought them (which were originally made in Germany) in a Chinese shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hence their ability to speak Chinese.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

Yang Fana Adalah Waktu

45672761421_bdea8c9e40While in Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel Sapardi Djoko Damono dares question identities, and later unfolding the disturbing restlessness of divided feelings in Pingkan Melipat Jarak, here in Yang Fana Adalah Waktu the acclaimed senior writer doesn’t seem to show the slightest inclination to give his loyal readers an answer to the big question marks formed back-to-back in the two previous books. Instead, he poses another one, “Is it necessary to question love?” And, to make it even more complicated, is there really any line between existence and non-existence? What does exist and what does not exist?

The last of the trilogy starts with Sarwono’s surreal pondering over his feelings for Pingkan: not a question, it’s more of an affirmation that there is only them, and nothing beyond that. There is only their love, and anything else doesn’t exist. Their relationship, so it seems, is on a very straight path, no twists, no turns, not even a station to stop by. Their love is so true and unquestionable there is no need to make it otherwise.

However, what gets in their way is another’s doubt about another’s relationship. Katsuo, as we know from the two previous books is another man in love with Pingkan, asks her to come and see his fiancée Noriko, the girl personally chosen by his mother. At first Pingkan doesn’t get as to why she should meet the young woman she doesn’t even know who is engaged to the man that loves her in secret. Even if she is the reason why Katsuo feels reluctant to marry Noriko, and she’s aware of it, she doesn’t think she has anything to do with their relationship. But then she sees that Noriko rightly suspects her to be the hindrance to her engagement with Katsuo, and so demands to see her in person. Temporarily uncertain, Pingkan eventually goes to see Noriko, and, unexpectedly, Noriko likes her. So much for jealousy.

Now, the question this book seems to ask, “Is it necessary to question love?” In Pingkan’s and Sarwono’s case, the answer is definitely no. They know they love each other, they know they’re walking on the same path and that anything outside it just doesn’t exist. But they’re also aware that there is another man between them, and, in turn, that Pingkan becomes another woman getting in the way of Katsuo’s and Noriko’s already complicated relationship. And Pingkan is pretty much aware, too, of her role in that brittle engagement so she, eventually, agrees to meet Noriko and solve all the uncertainties there are. Although, in the end, she doesn’t quite solve anything because things get more and more complicated instead, as Noriko puts her engagement on hold and runs away to pursue what she wants to be.

If a question about love is not enough, then Mr. Sapardi gives you another one. In line with Hujan Bulan Juni: Novel and Pingkan Melipat Jarak, Yang Fana Adalah Waktu has also “otherness” as its issue, though not quite in the center of it all like in the first book. Being a liyan, or, that is to say, an alien, is something that Pingkan and Noriko share, as a Javanese-Manadonese and American-Japanese respectively, something that makes it hard for them to be accepted the way they are. But it is what happens most of the time to people like them—people of mixed blood, people who seem to have their feet at two places at the same time and can’t even decide who/what they are, much less getting people’s recognition. This, and its complexity in marriage, is actually a very interesting issue which I don’t think will get old anytime soon and that the writer addressed so well and so thoroughly in Hujan Bulan Juni. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the same here in the last installment. What Noriko has to face as an American-Japanese is merely sort of put on there as an adornment and never gets more attention.

And that is precisely the shortcoming of this novel: that barely anything getting explored properly—not Pingkan’s and Sarwono’s quirky but sweet relationship (they too much talk about somebody else’s), not Katsuo’s and Noriko’s planned, conflicted engagement, not even the “otherness” issue that deserves more room here. Everything appears to run halfway and then stop without further explanation. Well, Mr. Sapardi said that he had promised this series would be a trilogy, so a trilogy it is. But even so, there should be something completed, one or two things concluded. I won’t blame him for leaving the story hanging, but at the very least he could just talk about the sense of alienation more the way he did in Hujan Bulan Juni and so made the narrative strong enough to read. This book, in my honest opinion, is not the end of a trilogy. It’s a goodbye without saying why.

That’s said, Yang Fana Adalah Waktu is still a nice romance novel. The interaction between Pingkan and Sarwono is always loveable, while his with his parents is forever funny (if you understand Javanese language and culture). And Mr. Sapardi is ever poetic, though he didn’t apply that style to the dialogues, which, otherwise, would make them sound weird and unnatural. This book undoubtedly has everything I love about Mr. Sapardi’s fiction works: the jokes, the smooth and poetic narrative, the social issue and criticism (though not thoroughly elaborated), and the impartial characters (Sarwono, from the very beginning, has more or less reminded me of Soekram).

So, in conclusion, Yang Fana Adalah Waktu is basically a lovely book about love. It just lacks the thing that can make it more powerful, especially when it ends with a bit unpleasant cliffhanger. It looks like intentionally designed to be so, and yes, that’s where it hurts. So frankly speaking, among the three installments of this so-called Hujan Bulan Juni trilogy, the first book is still the best one.

Rating: 3.5/5


Apa Yang Fana Dan Kesombongan Kita

Sudah sejak pertama kali mencicipi karya Bapak Sapardi Djoko Damono (Trilogi Soekram kala itu), saya tahu beliau akan menjadi salah satu penulis favorit saya. Banyak pemikiran beliau yang tertuang dalam bentuk fiksi pada kumpulan novel pendek tersebut yang nyeleneh, tapi justru itulah yang menarik perhatian saya. Siapa lagi yang menganggap Datuk Meringgih pahlawan dalam novel Sitti Nurbaya, sementara pada umumnya dia dianggap sebagai tokoh antagonis, lantas menggandengkannya dengan si Sitti? Siapa yang berani mempertanyakan demokrasi, dan menganggapnya semata “barang impor” dari Barat? Siapa pula yang berani mempertanyakan aksi demo tahun 1998? Jujur, pemikiran-pemikiran nyeleneh yang tersusup dalam Trilogi Soekram inilah yang sangat kuat menggetarkan saya sampai-sampai saya tertawa membacanya, karena saya lebih banyak setuju daripada kurang setuju.


Maka tidaklah mengherankan jika sejak saat itu pula saya mengejar karya-karya beliau, terutama yang dalam bentuk fiksi, dan saya baca satu per satu. Karya-karya Pak Sapardi tidak pernah mengecewakan saya, meski ketika membaca Pingkan Melipat Jarak saya agak terganggu, itu pun bukan karena pemikiran beliau, melainkan karena narasi yang tidak jelas. Yang jelas, tak (atau belum) satu pun karya Pak Sapardi yang membuat saya marah hingga mendepak beliau sebagai salah satu sastrawan pujaan saya. Dan tidak mengherankan pula bila setiap kali beliau pulang kampung ke Solo untuk mempromosikan bukunya, saya akan selalu hadir andai tak ada halangan. Saya mungkin tidak terlalu mengejar kesempatan untuk berfoto bersama atau meminta tanda tangan beliau, tapi saya ingin sekali bisa melihat beliau dan mendengarkan pemikiran-pemikiran beliau secara langsung. Dan jumpa penggemar dalam rangka promosi novel Yang Fana Adalah Waktu minggu lalu merupakan salah satu kesempatan emas tersebut, terutama ketika banyak dari hadirin yang melontarkan pertanyaan-pertanyaan yang memicu Pak Sapardi mengeluarkan opini-opini beliau secara blakblakan dan agak meledak-ledak.

Mbak Indah, moderator acara, membacakan sepenggal novel Yang Fana Adalah Waktu sebelum acara dimulai.

Salah satu pertanyaan yang menarik datang dari kawan saya, yang intinya adalah mengapa ada kata-kata kids zaman now dalam buku Yang Fana Adalah Waktu, dan apakah memang perlu memasukkan istilah gaul itu ke dalam karya sastra? Mungkin tidak akan aneh bila Pak Sapardi memberikan jawaban yang nyeleneh, tetapi saya rasa cukup mengejutkan bahwa alih-alih menganggap istilah kids zaman now sesuatu yang menyimpang dari kaidah bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar, beliau justru menganggap frasa tersebut suatu produk bahasa yang “canggih”, lantaran terdiri dari dua kata bahasa Inggris dan satu kata bahasa Arab (saat saya dan beberapa dari hadirin mengatakan bahwa “zaman” merupakan kata dalam bahasa Indonesia, beliau langsung menyalahkan, tetapi memang harus diakui di situlah letak kebodohan dan “kebutaan” kami). Lebih jauhnya, Pak Sapardi menjelaskan bahwa sastra adalah seni berbahasa, dan apa yang tertulis dalam karya sastra adalah bahasa lisan, yaitu bahasanya orang-orang biasa, bahasa manusia pada dasarnya. Mengingat bahasa lisan bersifat fana sedangkan tulisan bersifat abadi, maka orang-orang zaman dulu mencetuskan untuk mencetaknya dalam bentuk gambar (gambar adalah huruf, huruf adalah gambar) agar tidak punah/hilang. Apa yang diucapkan manusia itulah yang kemudian dituliskan, dan lebih jauhnya digunakan dalam menghasilkan karya sastra. Maka kesimpulannya: sah-sah saja memasukkan bahasa gaul ke dalam karya sastra.

Dengan ini Pak Sapardi seolah ingin menegaskan bahwa sebenarnya tak perlu ada batasan antara “bahasa sastra” dan “bahasa populer”, yang ada hanyalah perubahan zaman, perubahan penggunaan bahasa, dan apa yang mudah/sulit dipahami. Sebagai contoh Pak Sapardi membandingkan puisinya dengan puisi karya Chairil Anwar, keduanya tentu menggunakan kosa kata dan gaya penulisan yang berbeda karena mereka hidup (menulis) di zaman yang berbeda pula, tapi toh karya keduanya tetaplah puisi. Apakah, hanya karena puisi Pak Sapardi menggunakan bahasa Indonesia yang modern dan santai, lantas puisi beliau bukanlah karya sastra? Tentu seyogianya kita tidak memandang dengan cara demikian. Sudah sepantasnya bahwa karya sastra mengikuti perkembangan zaman, bahwa setiap karya sastra mempunyai “zaman”-nya sendiri-sendiri, dan bahwa karya sastra adalah karya yang populer.

Menanggapi pernyataan terakhir di atas, salah seorang hadirin bertanya haruskah karya sastra bersifat populer? Menurut Pak Sapardi itu bukanlah sebuah keharusan tetapi keniscayaan. Pak Sapardi bercerita bahwa dahulu di Inggris muncul pengelompokan seni menjadi seni kelas atas, menengah, dan kelas bawah sebab terdapat perbedaan strata dalam masyarakat sebagaimana yang disebutkan. Apa yang dibaca kaum pembantu yang hampir-hampir buta huruf tentu saja berbeda dengan apa yang dibaca majikannya yang lebih berpendidikan. Pertunjukan balet tidak mungkin ditonton kaum pembantu, hanya oleh mereka-mereka yang berasal dari kalangan atas (yang pergi menonton dengan mengenakan tuksedo dan gaun), karena toh kaum pembantu tidak akan bisa mengerti/menghayati balet yang memang tidak diajarkan kepada mereka. Padahal semua orang tahu tari balet, jadi artinya tari balet adalah tarian yang populer. Contoh lain adalah wayang. Semua orang Jawa dan hampir semua orang Indonesia pasti mengenal wayang, yang berarti wayang bersifat populer, tetapi apakah semua orang menikmati wayang? Belum tentu. Pertunjukan wayang hanya dapat dinikmati oleh orang-orang yang paham betul cerita-cerita wayang saking sudah sering menonton atau mendengar cerita-cerita wayang sedari kecil. Jadi, jika boleh saya simpulkan, yang menjadi perkara bukan apakah suatu karya seni (apa pun itu) bersifat populer atau eksklusif, tetapi penggolongan masyarakat beserta tetek bengeknya, termasuk pendidikan. Karya seni lazim bersifat populer karena dikenal oleh khalayak luas, tetapi siapa yang bisa menikmatinya? Tentu hanya orang-orang yang memahaminya. Semua orang kenal William Shakespeare, tapi siapa yang bisa menikmati karya-karyanya? Tentulah orang-orang yang mampu memahami karya-karyanya, yaitu mereka yang terbiasa atau terdidik untuk membaca karya-karya tersebut.

Penjelasan beliau sedikit banyak mengingatkan saya pada cerita-cerita karangan Jane Austen, yang menurut saya tidak ada bedanya dengan cerita-cerita bergenre roman sejarah karya penulis-penulis zaman sekarang seperti Sabrina Jeffries, Lisa Kleypas, Stephanie Laurens, dll. Pola narasinya pun sama. Saya juga samar-samar teringat suatu artikel yang mengatakan bahwa kategori “literary fiction” dan “popular fiction” di luar negeri hanyalah “akal-akalan” penerbit demi penjualan.

Selain soal bahasa/karya sastra, satu pertanyaan yang menarik menyangkut pandangan Pak Sapardi perihal adaptasi novel ke dalam bentuk film, karena tampaknya si penanya kecewa dengan film hasil adaptasi novel Hujan Bulan Juni. Menurutnya, film adaptasi tersebut mengurangi esensi novelnya. Jawaban Pak Sapardi atas pertanyaan ini boleh dibilang tidak istimewa, karena saya sendiri pernah mendengar seorang sutradara juga mengatakan bahwa novel dan film merupakan dua jenis media yang berlainan, dan cara mengerjakannya berlainan, sehingga apa yang dihasilkan pun berlainan. Rasa-rasanya tidak adil jika pembaca/penonton menuntut isi novel dan film haruslah sama. Akan tetapi, yang menarik dari jawaban Pak Sapardi adalah penjelasan beliau mengapa novel dan film (walaupun adaptasi) tidak akan pernah bisa sama. Beliau menjelaskan dengan memakai contoh novel Sitti Nurbaya karya Marah Rusli. Beliau sedikit menjabarkan penggambaran tokoh Sitti Nurbaya yang berkulit begitu putih bening hingga ketika minum akan terlihat air mengalir di tenggorokannya. Nah, jika penggambaran ini diadaptasi mentah-mentah ke dalam layar, maka filmnya tidak akan menjadi film drama tetapi film horor. Lalu bagaimana jika di dalam novel digambarkan seorang wanita memiliki mata seindah janda yang baru bangun pagi? Bagaimana sang sutradara harus menerapkan penggambaran itu dalam filmnya? Apakah dia harus memakai aktris yang sudah janda? Tentu saja tidak.


Satu hal lagi yang menarik adalah perihal judul dari buku terakhir trilogi Hujan Bulan Juni. Mengapa Yang Fana Adalah Waktu? Selain karena dipilih oleh kru di penerbitan, judul ini ada kaitannya dengan apa yang fana dan apa yang kekal dalam dunia dongeng. Pak Sapardi berkata bahwa waktu akan selalu berlalu, zaman berubah, tetapi tokoh dalam dongeng akan selalu abadi, seperti tokoh Sitti Nurbaya selalu diingat oleh pembaca dari dulu sampai sekarang dan kelak sampai kapan pun. “Saya akan mati, tapi Pingkan akan abadi,” ujar beliau terkait tokoh Pingkan dalam trilogi ini.

Sayang seribu sayang, kisah Pingkan dan Sarwono ini tidak akan “abadi” karena tidak akan berlanjut lagi, lantaran Pak Sapardi sudah telanjur menjanjikan bahwa kisah ini hanya akan menjadi trilogi. Jadi, bagaimanapun akhir cerita Yang Fana Adalah Waktu, maka begitulah akhirnya. Mengambang atau tidak, pasti atau tidak.

Saya memang, sampai artikel ini ditulis, belum membaca novel Yang Fana Adalah Waktu, tetapi perbincangan (atau lebih tepatnya sesi tanya-jawab) pada acara jumpa penggemar dalam rangka promosi buku tersebut bagi saya sangatlah berkesan. Bahkan jauh lebih berkesan daripada acara peluncuran resmi novel Suti yang saya hadiri sekitar dua tahun lalu di tempat yang sama. Sungguh bahagia dan puas rasanya mendengarkan jawaban dan pemikiran seorang Sapardi Djoko Damono dalam menanggapi pertanyaan-pertanyaan hadirin, yang menurut saya tak kalah menggelitik. Penjelasan-penjelasan yang beliau berikan memicu saya untuk berpikir. Benarkah selama ini kita telah begitu sombong, memisah-misahkan “karya sastra” dan “karya populer”? Benarkah selama ini kita telah terlalu sombong, memisah-misahkan “bahasa sastra” dan “bahasa populer”? Benarkah selama ini kita telah sangat sombong, menganggap bahasa Indonesia adalah bahasa Indonesia, dan bukannya bahasa asing-bahasa asing yang “diambil” oleh masyarakat kita yang terdiri dari berbagai bangsa, yang menghuni gugusan pulau yang dulunya merupakan tanah kosong tak berpenghuni? Benarkah selama ini kita sebagai pembaca telah teramat sombong, menuntut setiap adaptasi berupa film harus sama dengan novel yang diadaptasinya?

Tampaknya, kita harus merenungkan hal-hal ini kembali.

N.B.: Disarikan dan dirangkum dari sesi tanya-jawab pada acara jumpa penggemar bersama Bapak Sapardi Djoko Damono di Balai Sudjatmika, Gramedia Surakarta, 21 April 2018.


poetry, review

Melipat Jarak: Sepilihan Sajak

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ia suka berpikir,” kata Siapa,

(“She likes to think,” says Who)

“itu sangat berbahaya.”

(“that’s very dangerous.”)

Rating: 4/5

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


Can a woman ever choose? Can a woman ever be powerful enough to say no to the fate life has forced on them? Suti, Sapardi Djoko Damono’s recently published novel, reflects these questions and their possible answers. Set in 1960s’ Solo, the book largely describes Javanese society with all their local customs and habits, typical characters and behaviors. Nothing typical about Suti, though, as Mr. Damono has intended for all the readers to see.

Suti, a very young woman living on the outskirts of Solo, is married off by her mother to a middle-aged man with no particular permanent job just for the sake of shutting people up over her inability to find a husband. Suti is in no position to refuse. So there she is, leading an empty, unhappy married life with her husband Sarno. Nothing seems to change, until one day come the Sastros, a noble family of the lowest rank from Ngadijayan, to their village Tungkal. Suti instantly admires Mr. Sastro, the head of the family she likens to Kresna in a famous wayang story, and wins Mrs. Sastro’s maternal affection as she helps her do everyday household chores at their home. It is at this point that Suti’s life starts to change, becoming complicated and all the more so when she realizes she’s fallen in love with Kunto, Mr. and Mrs. Sastro’s elder son. She never knows, and can only guess at it, if Kunto has the same feeling as her. He never says nor does anything to show it, and his cryptic attitude toward her only leaves her muddled. After living an empty marriage without ever having any chance to feel love, now Suti has to choose between real admiration and seduction, or love she might never reach.

Mr. Damono has made it clear throughout the plot that Suti is about traditional society in the past, and it’s so marvelous of him that he creates such an unusual character like her. She is not a woman you would imagine living in the 1960s’ Solo. Being only a servant, Suti is remarkably smart and full of curiosity, daring and talkative, has no qualms about getting along with bad boys, and loves reading and watching movies. It is her who plays the key role in stirring the entire narrative, and also who eventually raises questions in our heads: Will she, a daring and intelligent woman, be able to jump out of the line of her customs and traditions and get the love she’s been craving all along? Or will she just give up and shift her aim to fulfilling her secret desire? Will she, as a daring and intelligent young woman, just stay silent without even trying to say something to the one she loves? The character of Suti, and all the stories Mr. Damono weaves around her, show us what position a woman can have in traditional society, what they can and cannot do when tied to an unhappy marriage and local customs no one dares to even think to break.

There is one more character I still cannot get out of my mind. It is none other than Mrs. Sastro. She is not just another woman, she is a woman with strength of her own. She can be strong just by being quiet and taking any challenge coming to her way, and when she is angry, she can spill it out with immense dignity. She may not be as interesting as Suti, and she may be just a typical married Javanese woman anyone would expect, but it was her willingness to go through every storm in her life that fascinated me. How many women are there in today’s society who will keep fighting in unfaithfulness and face so many trials and tribulations? Once again, Mr. Damono shows us what it feels to be a woman, especially when our society doesn’t let us be free to break the rules and customs.

The outstanding features of Mr. Damono’s fiction works—his brilliant ideas, his riveting narrative knits, his usually against-the-tide view of the world—are easily seen in Suti. His writing style is like already a trademark anyone can guess. But Suti is not a boring heap of sentences. It’s tightly plotted, steadily paced, and to the point. Everything is so neat and dense that you could say Mr. Damono doesn’t waste any space here. As for the character, I have to say I very much marveled at how real and vivid Mr. Damono is in describing all of them. They are so human, so gray. It is them who render this story alive and down-to-earth, effective and gripping without being “fantastical”. One problem, though: there are too many typos and double words that I start to suspect that the manuscript was not edited at all. Such a shame. It could have been a perfect book otherwise.

That flaw aside, I still loved Suti. It’s already the third time I read Mr. Damono’s fiction work and this book has made me love him even more. Suti is an embodiment of thought on gender and women’s issues, and it is so amazing for me to see that we have a male author who has no doubt to stand by females and show people what is wrong with our (traditional) society.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah

In terms of packaging, Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah might look like Sapardi Djoko Damono’s recently-released other book, Trilogi Soekram, where it is actually a bundle of his old, separately-published stories. This bundle of two short story collections however, which first came out in 2013, offers so much more than what Trilogi Soekram can: deviation from common folktales and thoughts beyond our reach. It was just difficult for me to get into some of them.

Pada Suatu Hari Nanti

This first short story collection is filled with narrative jokes, critiques, and twists in response to folktales commonly known and passed on to (Indonesian) people. The legendary tales of Rama-Sita, the neglected stepchild, the sly mouse deer, Ken Arok-Ken Dedes, and Malin Kundang are made into their deviated versions. The results are truly beyond what the reader could imagine: some are geniusly funny, some are sharply critical, some are just playing around, some are imaginations of what it would be if the situations were the other way around or completely different, and some are what happens when the writer merely uses the characters of a story to make a totally new one.

Malam Wabah

The second collection consists of short stories originally composed by the writer and have never been published before. They are as unique as those of the first one, going beyond what we call humanity and trying to represent the animatedness of non-living things (if that’s even really possible). Here, Mr. Damono doesn’t only play with narratives, but seems to give “things” air to breathe and a chance to express themselves. Stories like Rumah-rumah, Sepasang Sepatu Tua, and Daun di Atas Pagar clearly prove the idea. Houses, shoes, and even leaves on the trees in our yard are made to look like they have feelings and thoughts and are capable of speaking up their minds when something happens to them, minds unknown to or unheard by human beings. There are stories about humans, too, ones which delve into their deeper parts of hearts and souls. Here, the writer attempts to express what happens to both when something unusual occurs, what we wouldn’t think about or take seriously even if it has such a great effect on us.

It is not unusual for Mr. Damono’s narratives to have typically simple, uncomplicated plots and style of writing or dialogues that do not seem extravagant, but they always contain deep meanings and/or sharp critiques of things rarely occurred to readers of his work. The short story entitled Dongeng Rama-Sita bears this very feature, where Mr. Damono reverses the narrative of its original tale (if you’re familiar with the tale of Ramayana) and makes Sita refuse to come back to Rama and choose to stay with Rahwana instead. At this point, readers might think that Sita is a fickle, unfaithful woman. On the other side, however, Mr. Damono seems to want to portray her as a woman who is free to choose, not a woman who is merely resigned and accepts anything predestined for her, as her character should. The number entitled Dongeng Kancil also interestingly talks about destiny. As (Indonesian) readers might have known, Kancil (mouse deer) is always described as smart and sly that it can trick any other animal. But what if Sang Juru Dongeng (the Storyteller) doesn’t want it that way anymore? What if, instead, the Storyteller makes the mouse deer tricked by another animal? This kind of twist is not the only main attraction of the book, for Malam Wabah short story collection is also packed-full of hidden criticisms as its feature, especially in the number entitled Membimbing Anak Buta. On the outside, it appears only to be about a mother who’s taking her son wandering around a big city by bus. But that’s not the point. Along the journey, Mr. Damono seems to criticize the chaotic, unruly condition of the big city. He also discreetly criticizes the character of our nation, where we are famously “rich” but so proud of getting “aid”.

Mr. Damono’s Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah can be thought of as an exceptional work. It has peculiar stories and unusual ideas, despite the simple language and narratives. It doesn’t mean, however, that all of the short stories contained here are obscure and beyond us, although it is also true that some of them feel strange and difficult to stomach, such as Ditunggu Dogot and Malam Wabah, the title story. Here Mr. Damono, so much like in Trilogi Soekram, shows off his penchant for criticizing things in a neat, gentle, sometimes absurd and often funny way. Beside Membimbing Anak Buta, it’s also proven in the quote below, taken from Membunuh Orang Gila:

“Mereka pasti akan lebih tak bisa terima jika kukatakan bahwa si Gila itu adalah korban reformasi. Aku tambah ciut ketika membayangkan orang ramai akan menuduhku yang bukan-bukan hanya karena menyatakan bahwa orang itu gila sebagai akibat dari usaha kita untuk memperbaiki keadaan.”

All things considered, I have to say that Pada Suatu Hari Nanti, Malam Wabah is a work of a genius. The only problem was at times I felt hindered from understanding every single idea, from immersing myself in its obscurity.

Rating: 3.5/5


#novelSuti Launch Event

novel-SutiFour days ago, on 21th November 2015, I was lucky enough to attend the launch event of Sapardi Djoko Damono’s latest novel, Suti, at Balai Soedjatmoko, Solo (my hometown). You may not know, but ever since I read Trilogi Soekram earlier this year I’ve become a big fan of the very famous senior writer so I was very happy that I could make it to the event (I should thank my blogger friend Sulis for that). And what a fantastic night it was.

Mr. Yunas handed over the cover of "Suti"
Mr. Yunas handed over the cover of “Suti”

The event was organized by Balai Soedjatmoko and had one of Pawon members (our local writers’ community) as the master of ceremony. It was opened with a symbolic handover of the (big) cover of the novel from the publisher, represented by Mr. Yunas, to Mr. Damono himself. Then the ceremony immediately moved to the more relaxed agenda: reading one small part of the book by a member of Pawon, and then a few words from Mr. Yunas which was soon followed by expressing opinions on Suti by some people who were lucky enough to be the first to read it. All had their own opinions, interpretations, and of course, ways of appreciations. But one thing for sure, all were amazed by the book.

Q&A with Mr. Damono
Q&A with Mr. Damono

That wasn’t the best part of the event, though, at least to me. The best part came as the audience were all brought to the Q&A session. The discussion wasn’t really about his newest novel in particular, but more about why Mr. Damono writes fiction and about his creative writing process. His loyal fans, or perhaps people familiar with his works, must know that Mr. Damono is actually a poet—he gained his national and international fame/acclaim by writing poems and had received so many awards for it—but he recently released more works of fiction than poetry. People might question this “change of course” of his career, especially at his now very old age, but when asked why he now seems to write fiction more, he only said, “Why can’t I?” And everybody at the hall were laughing. In an act of recollection, he told the audience that the very first time he started to write, that was when he was still in middle school, he actually wrote a short story. He tried and sent it to a newspaper (or maybe a magazine? Sorry if my memory didn’t serve me well, I was so in awe of him that I became half deaf), but the editor rejected it, saying that it didn’t make sense. It didn’t stop him from trying to write again, though, and in high school he started to write poems. He thought, at that time, that poems didn’t need to make sense, that poems could be as strange as we happened to write them, that we could make them any way we wanted them to be. I assume it was the starting point of his career as a poet. And only 15 years ago did he understand what it took to write a story: causality, a logical storyline. The world of fiction works just exactly the way our real world functions, but it needs a “plot”. Nothing in stories can happen “suddenly” without any explanations as it often happens in our life—if you’d just remember the saying that “truth is stranger than fiction.” And so, in 2000, Mr. Damono started to write short stories again, and released a story that now has become one of my favorites, Pengarang Telah Mati.

Mr. Damono discussed about creative writing process
Mr. Damono discussed about creative writing process

In the middle of the Q&A session, which I cannot tell you more about here since I have a very short memory, Mr. Damono had important messages for the audience, especially those who have a passion to write and to become a writer. He said that a writer has to have a very good mastery of language because that’s the weapon to “handle” the reader. In writing, it’s not about what we write, but how we write it. Love story has been told for so many times from the Creation era to this day by so many writers, but what has made them different from each other? It is, definitely, the way they write it. So a good mastery of language is important. What’s not less important is for a writer to master the background they use in their stories. Write what you know, if you only know your life experience, then use it. That’s why Mr. Damono also pointed out that using our real life as a story background doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is about us. He emphasized it by stating that the story in Suti is not about him, even though some (who know him) might think so. Fiction is fiction, it’s a world of creation.

Really, if only I could remember every detail of the discussion last Saturday night I would have written them all down, but my short memory stopped me. Be that as it may, there’s this one thing that stayed long in my mind. One woman, apparently his former student at the University of Indonesia, asked him which young Indonesian writer(s) today he deemed bright and have the potential to become a literary star in the future. Instead of answering this question, Mr. Damono only said that he didn’t want to say who’s good and who’s not. It all depends on the reader. However, he bravely stated that he was fascinated by the mastery of language of our today’s young writers. He thought that they can master language far better than he could when he first started to write at his young age. And it’s because of the technology we have today. We have the computer, we have the Internet, and he didn’t have those in 1960s. So that’s why his third message to the audience was to make the best of today’s technology to gain more and more knowledge and master the language better as knowledge and language are our main tools to become a great, successful writer.

Hai Hai Bung Cu performed Mongolian music
Hai Hai Bung Cu performed Mongolian music

I truly enjoyed the discussion, even though it wasn’t exactly about Mr. Damono’s new book, Suti. It ended with a music performance by a flute player, Hai Hai Bung Cu, who performed a very, very beautiful piece of Mongolian music for the audience (he also played a little to accompany two attendees who dared themselves to recite Mr. Damono’s old poems before the hall). It was really, really a great event. Thanks to Mr. Sapardi Djoko Damono for coming to our (and apparently his own) hometown and sharing his thoughts with us, thanks to Balai Soedjatmoko for organizing the launch event, and thanks to my friend Sulis for giving me a lift! 🙂

P.S.: All that Mr. Damono said that night have been paraphrased and summarized, and then translated into English for the wider target readers of this blog.

fiction, review

Trilogi Soekram

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5