fiction, review

Orang-Orang Bloomington

2016 reprinted Indonesian edition by Noura Books

Budi Darma’s narrative is always a place where readers will find the darkest sides of human beings: hatred, envy, spitefulness, loneliness, indifference, anger, obsession, resentment. If anyone ever read his works before (for example: Hotel Tua, Kritikus Adinan, or Olenka), they’ll know right away that the late Indonesian author never describes human beings as “okay” (literally or figuratively). People have ill-intentions, they have their own evil; and the tone in which Mr. Budi portrays them can always drive the reader even more to that dark corner where they wish (or deny) that they are not one of them. Orang-Orang Bloomington is no exception. Every piece of the seven short (and rather long) stories on the list brings us disturbing narrators who let us see more characters with even more disturbing behaviors and attitudes and thoughts, which often result in sort of saddening situations.

Laki-laki Tua Tanpa Nama is the starting example. Through the eyes of the ever-curious, and disturbingly anxious, narrator―who rents an attic room in Ny. MacMillan’s house, which is one of the three in a row in Jalan Fess―the reader will see an old World War II veteran who plays with a gun in his own rented room and carries it to crowded places, causing confusion (and cautious amusement) among people.

But under this worrying situation―at least according to the narrator―what becomes a bigger problem is the indifference of the people around him, and how it clashes with the narrator’s unreasonable, growing fear. On the one hand, readers have to witness how―for some people―an old, senile man carrying a gun (loaded or not) is “none of my business”; on the other hand, the narrator keeps nagging his lady neighbors about the old man and his gun and trying so hard to get to know and befriend him so that he can stop him. It’s not something pleasant to read; it shows how people―in their comfortable space―try to draw a clear line between other people and themselves and end up misunderstanding others and then taking an unnecessary, fatal action. It also shows how our unstoppable desire to meddle in other people’s business can bring about their bad ending.

Another disturbing story is Keluarga M. However, here, instead of giving a disturbing vibe of a character, the narrator seems more of a dark-hearted, vengeful person. The Meek family is poor, and though both parents (Melvin and Marion) are working, the children (Mark and Martin) still cannot get enough food and clothing, and they definitely do not have toys to play with. That, quite understandably, leads to both often having fights with other children in their apartment complex over toys and trivial stuff.

Mark and Martin, however, also do not have the best of characters, and do not always do the best of actions. One day the narrator finds out that the younger brother has scratched his car’s passenger door, so he demands justice from their parents. But Melvin and Marion defend their children, and they already apologize so there’s nothing the narrator can do about it. Unfortunately, the narrator’s mind cannot rest until he can make Martin pay for what he’s done; and somehow, in his action of revenge, he hurts the other family’s child instead.

In Yorrick readers will meet a worse narrator (not the worst, if they can understand the annoyance and the broken heart he has to suffer) and an annoyingly worse character who (very much strangely, as the narrative shows) is very likable among people around him. For some inexplicable reason, Yorrick―this annoying man, at least according to the personal experiences and opinions of our narrator―can be very friendly toward others (but not toward the narrator) and can even snatch the attention of the girl our narrator falls in love with. If we put ourselves in our narrator’s shoes, we can probably understand why he hates Yorrick (and everybody around him) so much; but if we step back and observe everything from another point of view, then we won’t probably agree with all his actions.

Not all stories here are bleak and dark, though; some are pretty warm to read―with a tinge of grittiness still. Orez is a story of a man who’s determined to marry the woman he loves despite knowing what bad things could result from their marriage, and who still loves his son however his condition is and whatever he’s growing up into. There’s a fleeting moment when he almost kills him but fortunately doesn’t have time to because once he gets back into his car, that moment’s gone away. Ny. Elberhart is also heart-warming, although it is actually a reminder to the reader that we, people, at the end of our days, will always be old and lonely and have no one to accompany us day and night, unless there’s someone who is sometimes willing enough to take care of us―someone who doesn’t necessarily like us, for that matter.

Through these “unpleasant” stories, in general, we kind of able to see our true faces reflected like in a mirror. It’s not to say that we are all as bad and pathetic as those characters drawn by Mr. Budi, but at the very least we are as complex as they are. None of us are saints, and sometimes, not to say that it is right to, we can hate someone who has treated us unfairly or has merely annoyed us to the core.

Mr. Budi treats all his characters in this book very humanly, giving them a chance to speak out their minds through their narratives and let the reader see not only their personalities but what makes them decide what they do. And Mr. Budi’s profound writing style lend more strength to their each characterization so they look, feel and sound so real that readers would not probably be able to bear it sometimes. Some points in some pieces feel too cruel, too painful to “enjoy”. For some readers it would probably be like, “I’ve had enough of this life I don’t need it to be written on a piece of paper.”

But that’s not actually the flaw of Mr. Budi’s writing here; it’s the grammatical errors and the diction. Orang-Orang Bloomington was written and first published in 1970s and 1980 respectively so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mr. Budi didn’t use today’s standard of Indonesian language. But the book being reviewed here is the reprinted edition from 2016 and they should’ve edited some incorrect sentences and confusing diction but apparently they didn’t. It makes the writing a bit off and awkward; and just imagine reading it in the middle of putting so much effort to sit still and face unacceptable characters.

All in all, however, Orang-Orang Bloomington by Mr. Budi Darma is a classic to start off if people want to know more about Indonesian literature, though not about our culture because that’s not what he’s talking about here. But at least people get to know our kind of literature and that there are still more fields yet to explore. This book is already translated into English by Tiffany Tsao and published by Penguin Classics for those who are interested.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Joyride to Jupiter

Quietly vibrant, or brimming with subtle emotions―perhaps that is the way to describe Nuala O’Connor’s Joyride to Jupiter. It may sound like a collection of nineteen dull short stories with flat tone at first, but once readers get deeper into each of them, striking characters with heart-wrenching stories and clever narrative-handling are there to be found. O’Connor indeed tell them matter-of-factly, no flowery words or anything―she doesn’t seem to feel the need for―but the result is some knocking effects and restlessness banging in our heads.

The banging is loudest in some, like in Consolata, where Helen brings her new boyfriend Matthew to see her mother at her old house. It has been a long time since she came back home, and distant, somewhat bitter memories slowly open up before the reader as she’s thinking of her past, her late father, and Sister Consolata. Helen knew her when she was still a child and they were friends. But as layers of secrets unfolded unexpectedly, that friendship unfortunately―painfully?―had to fall to pieces.

Family bitterness also appears in Tinnycross, though in a different form and on another level. Oliver and Bernard are trying to divide the estate they inherit from their mother. Olly wants a half of the estate value, but Bunny denies him that, still blaming their mother’s death on his brother for never coming home to see her. Though Olly finally gets the amount of money he needs from Bunny’s wife’s own share, but deep inside, there’s a pain he never shares―pain coming from the attachment he never ceases to have to their family estate, to his childhood home.

This family theme seems to keep repeating, more so in Mayo Oh Mayo and Storks. But Mayo Oh Mayo is not the type of family story people usually have in mind. It’s more of how the writer, or the characters she creates, see the family bond. Is it more than anything that a passionate, brief affair cannot throw it off the cliff any minute? Or is it something that you can crush under your feet so easily? Apparently, the male character here doesn’t only think that Dublin and everything in it do not suit him, but also that a fling is a fling, and nothing about that can disturb his family life―though Siobhán, our female protagonist he’s having an affair with, thinks the otherwise.

Meanwhile, Storks throws out all the jokes life has in store. Fergus and Caitríona are on vacation in Spain to relieve their pain after losing their baby (again). It’s so obvious that Caitríona has it worse than her husband, and she just doesn’t want to do anything or say a word or even meet anyone. But unfortunately, she, and her husband, meet Worms Gormley―or Will, as Caitríona remembers him. He is an old friend of Fergus, and an old lover of Caitríona, but nobody knows. It may not be the right time to see a man with his happy family and healthy kids when you have just lost yours, but it’s definitely not the right time to find out that your secret ex-lover was actually your husband’s roommate, or that he’s the one who can actually heal your deepest wound.

O’Connor sort of want to state, however, that there might be one thing which is more important than family, or marriage bond: the bond between women, sympathy and empathy between women. Shut Your Mouth, Hélène doesn’t say that women have to keep mum about everything, but to do it at the right time. Women, of course, are entitled to say anything they like, anything they want, anything they deem proper to talk about; but when a man has sexually abused you and his wife, who was witnessing it, strikes him to death, you probably do not want to tell anybody about it.

It’s not suprising when women write about women, about their feelings, suffering, points of view, unpleasant experiences, their want (and dreams) of freedom, their secret passion and various problems. But Nuala O’Connor has certainly written women’s stories in a thorough way, with a very quiet yet very loud voice. The theme is mostly around family, yes, but she doesn’t hesitate to get deeper into it and dig out the darkest part of it. O’Connor also doesn’t hesitate to claim that there are other kinds of family (in The Boy from Petrópolis and The Donor) and that a family is never okay (Futuretense). That being said, what O’Connor always emphasizes here in this collection is women’s feelings and experiences, and how they see and handle their problems―whether it is with hatred or bitterness, anger or sympathy, sadness or love. Seeing all the female characters in all of the short stories contained, we can see (and be convinced) that women can be different from one another, but rest assured that they have one thing in common: they are free people, they want freedom, they practice freedom, they can be and do anything they like.

The problem with this book is that not all the premises are interesting, and not all the narratives are told engrossingly. Some are just so-so that you might want to skip them, or read them without paying much attention. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, though.

One thing for sure, Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor gives you a wide-range angle on women, various points of view we should ponder about―different ones we should use to look at them.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Semua Untuk Hindia

Dalam kumpulan cerpen Teh dan Pengkhianat, Iksaka Banu mengambil sudut pandang “lawan” dalam menceritakan masa-masa pendudukan Belanda di Nusantara, demikian pula dalam kumpulan cerpen Semua Untuk Hindia ini yang terbit lebih dulu pada tahun 2014. Di satu sisi, Iksaka mungkin ingin menunjukkan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda yang bersimpati terhadap kaum pribumi atau yang tidak setuju dengan pendudukan ini sejak awal, menunjukkan bahwa “tidak semua orang Belanda sama”. Tetapi di sisi lain, hak beliau dan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut juga patut dipertanyakan. Jika pun benar ada beberapa orang Belanda yang bersimpati dan menentang kolonisasi atas tanah Nusantara, maka (seharusnya) pihak mereka sendirilah yang berhak menyatakannya.

Meski demikian, tidak berarti cerita pendek-cerita pendek yang terdapat dalam buku ini tidak menarik atau tidak dapat mendorong pembaca untuk melihat “sudut pandang lain”. Selamat Tinggal Hindia, yang merupakan cerpen pembuka, menampilkan sudut pandang Maria Geertruida Welwillend atau Geertje, seorang perempuan muda yang lahir dan besar di Hindia Belanda. Ia sangat mencintai “tanah kelahirannya” dan bersimpati terhadap orang-orangnya. Ketika Jepang datang ia sadar bahwa era Hindia Belanda telah usai, dan ia mendukung penuh terbentuknya Repoeblik Indonesia serta menentang NICA.

Rasa simpati yang muncul dari keterikatan dengan tanah Hindia Belanda juga ditunjukkan tokoh Letnan Pieter Verdragen dalam kisah Keringat dan Susu. Tidak hanya lahir dan besar di tanah air, Letnan Pieter juga disusui oleh seorang wanita pribumi. Ikatan ini tak pernah pudar dari hati maupun pikirannya, meski kini ia telah menjadi tentara bagi Belanda. Ketika bersama pasukan yang terdiri atas tentara dari berbagai bangsa Eropa ia berpatroli pada tengah malam di Batavia―mengingat pada saat itu pasca pendudukan Jepang dan terjadi banyak kekacauan menyusul diumumkan berdirinya Republik Indonesia―ia melihat seorang anak muda yang tidak waras mengenakan ikat kepala merah-putih serta seragam, dan lantas dicurigai oleh anak-anak buahnya sebagai tentara laskar dan sengaja menghadang mereka di tengah jalan, sang Letnan melepaskan anak muda tersebut atas permintaan sang ibu―yang mengingatkannya kepada ibu susunya dulu.

Namun bagaimanapun, bagi orang Belanda, atau sebagian besar dari mereka, orang-orang pribumi tetaplah orang-orang terbelakang yang lebih rendah. Pada cerpen Di Ujung Belati, sang protagonis beranggapan bahwa agar orang-orang pribumi hormat dan setia kepada orang-orang Eropa, mereka harus memberi contoh budaya Eropa yang tinggi, bukannya mengikuti budaya pribumi yang rendah atau menuruti tuntutan dan cara berpikir mereka. Tetapi di sinilah letak kesalahan mereka, karena ketika Hindia Belanda diserang oleh pasukan Inggris, sang protagonis diselamatkan oleh mantan mandor yang pernah ia tolong dan angkat derajatnya. Bagi orang pribumi, kesetiaan datang dari balas budi.

Bias pandangan orang Belanda terhadap orang-orang pribumi pada waktu itu tidak berhenti pada kaum bawahan lelaki, tetapi juga menyentuh kaum perempuan. Dalam cerita Racun Untuk Tuan, seorang nyai (wanita pribumi yang “disewa” pria-pria Belanda untuk melayani kebutuhan fisik dan rumah tangga mereka) dipandang rendah dan berbahaya. Nyai dianggap pencemburu dan menakutkan bila pada suatu saat mereka akhirnya menikah secara resmi dengan wanita Belanda dan “harus menyingkirkan” gundik mereka, karena bisa jadi mereka mati diracun. Tetapi tentu saja, sebagaimana karakter mandor pada Di Ujung Belati, karakter Imah di Racun Untuk Tuan tidaklah seperti pandangan umum orang-orang Belanda terhadap mereka.

Menariknya (dan untungnya) di sini, karakter seorang nyai tidak hanya digambarkan dari sudut pandang pria Belanda, tetapi Iksaka juga menyediakan ruang bagi perempuan pribumi untuk memperlihatkan sudut pandang mereka sendiri. Stambul Dua Pedang menceritakan tentang Sarni, yang berganti nama menjadi Cornelia van Rijk setelah menikah dengan orang Belanda yang merupakan petinggi di perkebunan teh Tanara. Karena tertular hobi suaminya, Sarni suka membaca dan menonton opera, dan dari situlah ia jatuh cinta pada bintang opera Stambul Tjahaja Boelan, Adang Kartawiria. Keduanya pun berselingkuh, lantaran Sarni tak pernah merasa cocok dan bahagia dengan suaminya, walau suaminya sangat mencintainya. Lagipula Sarni tidak pernah merasa dirinya merupakan bagian dari orang-orang Belanda, ia tetaplah orang pribumi yang dipaksa menikah dengan orang Belanda oleh ayahnya.

Meski sebagian besar (bisa dibilang hampir secara keseluruhan) buku ini menceritakan tentang kehidupan dan sudut pandang orang-orang Belanda di tanah air, sebenarnya cukup menarik melihat sekilas sudut pandang orang pribumi menyusup di tengah-tengah dan “dipertentangkan” dengan sudut pandang tersebut. Stambul Dua Pedang merupakan cerita pendek paling menarik di antara cerita-cerita lainnya lantaran memperlihatkan situasi dari mata bukan hanya seorang pribumi yang “dijajah”, yang harus tunduk dengan “pernikahan paksa”, tetapi juga mata seorang wanita yang tidak bisa berbuat apa-apa sedangkan ia sangat membenci penjajah dan tidak bahagia dengan pernikahannya. Perselingkuhan Sarni dengan Adang di satu sisi bisa jadi salah, jika dilihat dari “kesucian ikatan pernikahan”, tetapi bisa juga tidak jika mempertimbangkan hati seorang wanita dan seseorang yang mendamba kemerdekaan.

Namun terlepas dari sudut pandang apa pun yang digunakan oleh Iksaka Banu, sahih tidaknya sudut pandang tersebut dan apakah Iksaka sebagai penulis berhak mengambil sudut pandang yang demikian, pada akhirnya buku ini hanyalah sekumpulan cerita fiksi yang titik beratnya adalah keelokan narasi dan kekuatan karakter. Pada nomor-nomor di mana karakter-karakter Belanda digambarkan bersimpati kepada rakyat pribumi, Iksaka dengan tepat menunjukkan adanya alasan keterikatan karakter-karakter tersebut dengan tanah air, dan bagaimana keterikatan itu kemudian memengaruhi sudut pandang mereka. Ada pun tokoh-tokoh Belanda yang memiliki bias tertentu dalam memandang orang-orang pribumi, hal itu juga dapat dimaklumi lantaran jelas-jelas mereka merasa superior sebagai penjajah, sebagai bangsa yang menduduki tanah bangsa lain. Dua sudut pandang dalam satu kelompok bangsa ini saja sudah merupakan sebuah pertentangan, apalagi jika ditambah sudut pandang kaum pribumi seperti Sarni.

Semua Untuk Hindia merupakan kumpulan cerita pendek yang sesungguhnya menarik, jika pembaca dapat menafikan persoalan sahih tidaknya sudut pandang yang dipakai dalam menuliskan cerita-cerita di dalamnya. Ide-idenya juga menarik, walaupun gaya penulisan Iksaka Banu kurang dapat menjadikannya lebih menarik lagi.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Uncommon Type

Tak mungkin tak mengenal negeri Paman Sam beserta segala gagasannya mengenai kebebasan, kesetaraan, dan kesempatan. Paling mudah gagasan-gagasan ini dapat dilihat dalam film-film Hollywood di mana Tom Hanks telah lama menjadi bagiannya. Namun, kini sang aktor peraih Piala Oscar memilih untuk menampilkan itu semua dalam sekumpulan cerita singkat bertajuk Uncommon Type. Berisi tujuh belas cerpen, yang beberapa di antaranya berbentuk kolom surat kabar, Hanks memperlihatkan makna impian Amerika serta rasa cinta terhadap negara dari sudut pandang warganya dalam sebuah pengabadian.

Impian Amerika bukanlah sekadar cita-cita. Setidaknya di buku ini impian Amerika direpresentasikan sebagai suatu “kenyataan”, suatu tujuan yang pasti tercapai apa pun rintangannya, siapa pun dan bagaimana pun latar belakangnya, serta sekecil apa pun kemungkinannya. Amerika Serikat yang (tampak) berjaya itu digambarkan menolak untuk berkata “tidak mungkin”. Sebagaimana dalam kisah berjudul Who’s Who?, sebuah narasi klise tentang seorang aktris muda berbakat dari kota kecil yang mengejar impiannya menjadi seorang aktris panggung besar di New York. Tak kurang-kurang kesialan yang harus ditanggungnya, tak kurang-kurang usaha yang harus dilakukannya, dan akhirnya Dewi Fortuna pun tersenyum padanya.

Pun dalam cerita yang cukup panjang, Pergilah Temui Costas, yang berkisah tentang seorang imigran gelap yang lari ke Amerika demi terbebas dari kekejaman rezim komunis di negara asalnya. Assan, serta temannya Ibrahim, melarikan diri dari kejaran polisi Bulgaria seusai kabur dari penjara dan diam-diam menyeberangi perbatasan menuju Yunani. Di Yunani, Assan mendapat pekerjaan sebagai juru api di Kapal Berengaria yang akan berlayar membawa kargo ke Amerika. Sembari menyelundupkan Ibrahim, menyeberanglah ia ke negeri kebebasan. Dengan bantuan sang mualim kapal, ia berhasil mendarat di New York tanpa dokumen dan tanpa ketahuan pihak yang berwenang. Namun tentu hidup di Amerika bukannya tanpa kesulitan. Meski telah diberi “uang saku” oleh sang mualim dan diberi tahu di mana ia dapat menemukan orang Yunani, tetap tidaklah mudah bagi Assan untuk mendapatkan pekerjaan dan tempat berteduh. Akan tetapi, lagi-lagi, Amerika adalah negeri sejuta kesempatan dan kemungkinan bagi siapa saja. Walau telah ditolak berkali-kali oleh Costas, seorang pemilik restoran Yunani, Assan akhirnya memperoleh pekerjaan untuk bertahan hidup di negeri barunya.

“Kesempatan dan kesetaraan bagi semua orang” di sini tidak hanya berlaku bagi kaum pria. Hanks menegaskan bahwa wanita juga memiliki kesetaraan yang sama. Dan bukan melulu kesetaraan dalam hal pekerjaan, tetapi juga dalam hal bagaimana wanita dipandang sebagai manusia. Ini terutama dapat dilihat pada sosok Anna yang muncul dalam tiga cerita pendek yang berbeda. Dalam ketiga cerita tersebut ― Tiga Minggu yang Melelahkan, Alan Bean Plus Empat, dan Steve Wong Memang Sempurna ― Anna memang bukanlah tokoh utama dan merupakan satu-satunya perempuan di antara empat sekawan, tetapi ia digambarkan sebagai wanita yang mandiri, cerdas, aktif, dan tangguh; tak kalah dan bahkan dapat mengalahkan ketiga teman laki-lakinya dalam banyak hal.

Ketangguhan dan kemandirian ini dimiliki pula oleh sosok ibu Kenny Stahl dalam kisah Akhir Pekan Istimewa. Sosok ini menarik bukan lantaran ia menawan secara fisik, tetapi lebih karena cara Hanks menarasikan cerita dan menggambarkan tokohnya. Ibu dan ayah Kenny dikisahkan telah lama bercerai, dan ayahnya telah memberinya keluarga baru. Sementara itu, ibunya masih belum (atau memilih untuk tidak?) menikah lagi meski memiliki kekasih, dan menjadi seorang wanita karier yang sukses. Dari cerita akhir pekan bersama sang ibu, pembaca dapat mengetahui mengapa orangtuanya bercerai. Andai ditulis dari sudut pandang sang ayah, cerita ini akan terasa penuh penghakiman; sedangkan jika dikisahkan dari sudut pandang sang ibu, ia akan terlihat sangat egois. Untungnya, Hanks memutuskan untuk bercerita dari sudut pandang si kecil Kenny, yang masih polos dan dapat menerima keadaan apa adanya. Dengan demikian, pembaca dapat bersimpati terhadap ayah Kenny sekaligus memahami perasaan dan keputusan ibu Kenny.

Akhir Pekan Istimewa hanyalah salah satu contoh bagaimana keluarga di Amerika “berjalan”. Kisah pendek Selamat Datang di Mars juga mempertontonkan hal yang sama, meski dengan konflik berbeda. Keluarga Ullen tak bisa disebut sebagai keluarga harmonis. Dengan seorang ibu pemarah, seorang saudara perempuan memilih tinggal dengan pacarnya dan yang seorang lagi bertekad untuk datang dan pergi sesuka hati, serta Kirk yang selalu tenggelam dalam buku-bukunya, sosok Frank sang ayah yang selalu sabar dan menengahi pertengkaran demi pertengkaran menjadi satu-satunya orang yang masih punya akal sehat di antara mereka. Hanya bersama sang ayah pulalah Kirk merayakan ulang tahunnya yang kesembilan belas di pantai Mars, tempat ia pertama kali belajar dan kemudian menjadi raja ombak. Tetapi kejutan terbesar di hari itu bukanlah hadiah jam tangan anti-air pemberian Frank, melainkan rahasia keluarga yang selama ini tak pernah diketahuinya. Atau, mungkin, yang paling mengejutkan adalah sikap Kirk sendiri setelah mengetahuinya.

Yang terakhir, dan mungkin yang paling menonjol, dari buku kumpulan cerpen ini adalah rasa cinta terhadap negara yang tanpa cela. Aroma nasionalisme tercium begitu kuat di lima dari tujuh belas cerita, kendati beberapa di antaranya bukanlah secara langsung mengenai cinta negeri. Nasionalisme ini kerap muncul dalam bentuk olok-olok terhadap lawan di masa-masa Perang Dunia II dan Perang Dingin. Ini sebagaimana yang disiratkan dalam cerpen kedua, Malam Natal 1953, di mana para tentara sekutu Amerika Serikat digambarkan begitu hebat di medan perang, sedangkan para tentara Jerman digambarkan sebagai pecundang. Pada Alan Bean Plus Empat ― yang menghadirkan tokoh Anna beserta ketiga kawan lelakinya ― sang narator seakan mengejek Rusia yang gagal dalam misi ke bulan mereka sementara empat sekawan Amerika ini berhasil memutari bulan bahkan tanpa bermodalkan pelatihan dan dukungan dari NASA. Jelas-jelas sang narator hendak berkata, “Kami orang Amerika biasa saja bisa melakukannya, sedangkan kalian astronot Rusia tidak.”

Satu hal lagi yang kentara dari tulisan-tulisan Tom Hanks dalam Uncommon Type adalah kecenderungannya untuk “mengabadikan” masa lalu. Ini tampak jelas dari hadirnya mesin tik kuno bukan hanya dalam bentuk gambar tetapi juga di hampir semua cerita pendek yang disajikan. Hanks bahkan mendedikasikan tiga cerpen khusus untuk menghadirkan mesin tik kuno sebagai “tokoh” yang tidak hanya numpang lewat: Inilah Meditasi Hatiku, Kembali ke Masa Lalu, dan Penginjil Perempuanmu, Esperanza.

Secara umum, menulis memanglah suatu bentuk pengabadian. Dalam tulisan, pemikiran-pemikiran seseorang serta peristiwa-peristiwa yang pernah terjadi tak akan lenyap oleh waktu; karena terus dibaca dan disampaikan oleh satu orang ke orang lain, dari suatu waktu ke waktu berikutnya. Dan Uncommon Type adalah salah satu contoh dari pengabadian tersebut.

Rating: 4.5/5

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

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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

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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

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Kritikus Adinan

30776032578_9fd8f484bdKritikus Adinan is one of several books by Budi Darma that recently got republished. Previously released under the title Laki-Laki dalam Secarik Surat in 2008, last year it had a chance to see the light again with a new one, referring to one of the short stories on its table of contents. Here the senior writer holds his very view on morality—which doesn’t sound preachy, but is not unclear, either—and his surrealistic style as he does in Hotel Tua, with characters mostly unnamed and showing the reader the clear line between what’s right and what’s wrong within the somehow unclear narratives not easily understood.

The collection has fifteen short stories mostly written in the 1970s while the rest without any time stamp. Just as in Hotel Tua, Budi Darma starts the book with a shocking, unbelievable tale where readers, at some point, have to question their sanity in order to get into and understand it. Krematorium Itu Untukku is a story of a sick man who has promised his friend to attend her father’s funeral. He comes earlier, but no one’s there. He keeps waiting and asking people—who, for some unknown reason, keep looking at him in a weird way and secretly laughing at him—if anyone has come and whether the funeral has actually started and he is late. But no one knows, and so he keeps waiting there, until he finally finds his way to the right crematorium. There, he doesn’t get a warm welcome and is attacked by the doorman instead. And that is not the weirdest thing he finds at the crematorium. His friend Corrie, and Tien, look so much older than they should be, or at least than he thinks they should be. And, in the middle of his confusion, he’s sweating and crying blood. More unexpectedly, all people present lift him up then put him into one of the burning booths and burn him like a dead body.

Sahabat Saya Bruce is also one of the first pieces here. Those who already know Budi Darma and frequently enjoy his works must have known that he often writes stories with foreign backgrounds and characters, all thanks to his long stay in the United States back then. This piece of story is one of them, so it should not be surprising to see the name Bruce on the title. It is unusually not surrealistic, but it is still strange in many ways and so hard to chew.

Through Burhan, the narrator whom we see everything from, the reader knows that Bruce is not there when he comes to visit him in his rented house. It looks like a house which has not been inhabited for a long time: dirty, everything is in disorder. Burhan thinks it’s weird, because they’ve been close friends for quite long and the fact that Bruce is suddenly gone without telling him sort of bewilders him. However, when you see it from one side, it’s not really weird for Bruce is basically indeed a weird person. One day he asks Burhan to marry Milann, saying that Milann likes him and all. But while Milann is not Bruce’s girlfriend, the request is not something Burhan can wrap aroud his mind because, in fact, Milann often spends her time with Bruce. And then, both Bruce and Milann are gone, just leaving without telling Burhan a word. He is as much in the dark as everyone else, but he is the one who is being suspected.

This book, in its entirety, is very thought-provoking and very funny in a cynical way. Some stories might hit the reader in the cruelest way possible yet they won’t probably realize it until one or two sentences punch them in their head. The story Laki-Laki Lain for instance, which basically talks about a husband-wife relationship. It is only natural that husbands and wives know each other very well, but here, Budi Darma gives somekind of a hint that that’s actually when they start to hate each other. If we just think about it, then there must be something about our spouse that we hate after years and years living together. Though, on the other hand, this shortcoming is also what sticks them perhaps forever. However, ironically, the more we know our spouse, the more we feel we don’t know them.

“Laki-laki sudah ditakdirkan untuk tidak mampu mengalahkan nafsunya sendiri, dan perempuan telanjur sudah diciptakan untuk memperbudak nafsu laki-laki.” – page 228.

There is also Dua Laki-Laki, a pretty long tale telling us how people, in general, always try to prove that they’re right and others are wrong. Even to their death they won’t let others’ opinions win. Bambang Subali Budiman is interesting, too. In the afternote, Budi Darma states that what brought him to write this short story was a particular discussion on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, which is related to one aspect of Puritan life in New England back in the 19th century where people were so afraid of devils and their bad influence that people tried so hard to prevent it. But they didn’t realize the more they tried to purify themselves, the more rooms existed for devils to enter and control them. This idea then develops within the story, displaying implicitly that people are basically hypocrites, doing good deeds not because they are good people, or for the sake of others, but only for their own benefit, if only to get good karma in return.

There are layers and layers in each and every narrative presented in Kritikus Adinan and all of them are down to three recurring themes: humanity, morality and conscience. It has the same tone as Hotel Tua: not preachy, but hammering over and over again into the reader’s mind what is right and what is wrong, subtly yet strongly. The writer clearly wants readers to see through those layers of smoke their own conscience. Is it good, or bad? Are you good people, or not? Have you done something wrong? And even if you’re doing good deeds, is it for real? And the best of all, Budi Darma does it in his surrealistic style, which is clouding his intention even more, making this book something to ponder about and not some kind of tool to judge. If there is any shortcoming, it’s just that several stories read longer than they should, dragging a bit too much before finally getting the reader to the point. But still, its significance doesn’t miss the target.

All in all, Kritikus Adinan is a short-story collection anyone would expect from Budi Darma. The beauty of his surrealism alone is an enough reason for readers to plunge into his typical narrative of morality and conscience, even if they would like to do nothing but dismiss it. All the mostly-unnamed characters are also beautifully drawn: very flawed, with a good side that can only be seen from one narrow angle. This book is truly a masterpiece.

Rating: 4/5

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Hotel Tua

hotel tuaHotel Tua comprises 18 Budi Darma’s short stories dating from the 70s to the first decade of 2000s. It perhaps deserves to get dubbed the modern classic of the genre, although Orang-Orang Bloomington obviously gets the more fame and critical acclaim. This new collection is not to be underrated, though, what with all its twisted narratives and quiet but sharp criticisms on several issues.

The book starts with a short piece entitled Pistol, the best, the most deceitfully constructed, and undoubtedly the most feminist story of all which is not actually talking about a gun. If men have their pride and dignity, it is in their sex and sexuality. What perpetual ideas do most men have in their mind but that they’re sexually superior to women, and that they will and can sexually conquer them? The main male character of Pistol finds it hard to bear embarrassment knowing that his impotance has been widespread among the women he’s ever been with, thanks to the widow who has been his lover for some time. This alone has caused him feeling resentful and vengeful, and seeing the widow mocking him out-and-out spurs his hatred even more. There is just no other way but to take his revenge on her.

Equally talking about equality, Distrik Rodham comes second to Pistol. Its theme is broader, however, encompassing interclass problems in a society and questions whether or not all human beings are truly created equal and thus must be treated equal. Set in Rodham, New England, this longer story describes in simple detail how the society there was first formed, and how they live their lives and change through the years and generations. Class differentiation—hence discrimination—is inevitable, since it’s only natural for people to live in “diversity”, in every sense of the word. But is this then an enough reason to bury people in different places and build fences to affirm the socio-class differences? Is it just or unjust to put human beings in burial grounds based on their social status, when they’re already dead and all they had in life does not matter anymore?

When it comes to criticism, Budi Darma does try to make it as subtle yet piercing as possible at times. And who doesn’t want to criticize the way of our dirty politics and deep-rooted corruption when you have a pen and a piece of paper at hand? In stories like Tangan-Tangan Buntung and Dua Sahabat the senior writer definitely shows his forte at this. I could almost imagine a smirk on his face as he was writing Tangan-Tangan Buntung especially, a surreal story about a made-up country reigned by a certain dynasty whose corrupt character seems incurable. And this trait never leaves said country even when it has changed into a democratic one where a ruler is elected. In Dua Sahabat Budi Darma is even more cynical through his narrative, implying (if what he does is truly implying) that our evil politicians have made corruptors and villains our parliamentary representatives. Where is the shame?

As well as equality and dirty politics, Hotel Tua also keeps religious matters and human-God relationship up its sleeve for readers. Before you even realize it some numbers spring up with narratives pointing out defects in our morality, like Mata yang Indah, Kisah Pilot Bejo, and Derabat. Those stories do not try to be preachy, though, they merely reveal what humans are like, and what they should be like with a touch of religious teaching that I believe readers won’t really mind. Gauhati is starker in showcasing this value, with a clear moral teaching on being honest, kind-hearted, and doing good deeds. It’s just Budi Darma doesn’t appear to force the reader to accept his ideas, nor does he look like he thinks he is the most righteous person in the world trying to make things right. No, it does not show in his writing style.

The old writer is very astute in consctructing exquisite tales, wielding sentences that appear to be so-so but then lure the reader into his inescapable trap: moral values, spirituality, criticisms of the high-ranking officials. He is a “good writer” without trying to state that he is. What’s more, he’s so full of surprise. His writing is like the embodiment of “saying this but actually meaning that”, a tricky road that readers won’t feel suspicious of until they arrive at the real destination. And he is often economical in what he’s saying, no dragging plot whatsoever. Though readers may find some stories quite long, they’re not boring or anything.

Hotel Tua is a collection of mostly surreal short stories which in fact speaks reality. It feels heavy with ideas and thoughts yet is written in a fairly light style. It is luring, it is beguiling, and it teaches you something without burdening you with pretentious teachings. It’s definitely one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The French Maid

What do you really want in a short story? A short story is nothing more than simplicity. But something simple can sometimes be more satisfying than a long, intricate masterpiece. Sabrina Jeffries’ The French Maid is a great example of it. Set in a historical period of England, this work of romance suggests an idea about beauty and insecurity, two things women are always associated with. Jeffries may not be the only writer, or rather, the only female writer, who explores this particular theme, but here in The French Maid she plainly elaborates the main problem with women’s self-confidence through a story of a troubled marriage.

The story introduces us to Henry, Lord Langston, a very busy British prime minister with indifferent nature and not much attention for his plain wife, Lady Eleanor Ruskin. He’s too drowned into his work to allow himself time to come to her bed, or even to dine with her. While on the other hand, Eleanor never fails to attend to him, obey him, do what he wants her to, do everything. It is then unsurprising to see Eleanor having an issue of insecurity, unconvinced that she’s beautiful enough to make him love her. Well, it is true that Henry marries her for her father’s political connection and her mother’s outstanding position in the society. But it’s also true that Henry has a thing for her, a certain affection for her, albeit it doesn’t show. So there is this bit of misunderstanding going on between them. But it is not long until comes a French lady’s maid named Babette. The coming of the maid becomes such a blessing for Eleanor as she washes away her insecurity, beautifies her, makes her a sexy nightgown to seduce her husband to her bed, teaches her how to be confident and tells her not to give up her husband’s love before she tries to win it.

The characters of Henry and Eleanor may not be the typical stubborn couple Sabrina Jeffries usually sets for her novels, but such a shame that she doesn’t seem to explore more of their nature. I can see that Henry is a sad and wounded man, deliberately setting himself to become a stiff person without love and compassion. But the lack of detailed description makes him only appear to be someone indifferent and fearing love. The revealing change of his character almost at the end of the story is merely encouraged by Eleanor’s sensual surprise for him and the passionate lovemaking it spurs. Once again, as ridiculous as it may seem, I cannot agree with the idea that sex is the answer to everything, especially to the problem with a person’s personality. It’s truly a downside of the whole characterization. The positive side is, to my relief, that Jeffries describes Eleanor’s character better, both physically and mentally. Everything about her is well depicted, her insecurity, her restlessness, her deep love for Henry, her physical lack. At the very least, Eleanor can shoot through the narrative and attract the reader’s attention.

The French Maid is a unique story, I’d rather say, and the final execution of the idea seems too clichéd. But that’s what we get when we read a romance. Nevertheless, the issue of insecurity is always interesting to discuss, especially in the realm of womanhood. There is always a notion that men try to love women they are attracted to, so without a pretty face, or at least an attractive looks, there will be no love. This is what subtly yet vividly proven in The French Maid. Without trying to degrade the womanhood nor the importance of sincerity in a love relationship, Jeffries wants to point out that love can be fought for, must be fought for, even if by way of beautifying ourselves to catch our loved ones’ attention. This may sound a bit sexist to some people, but we have to admit that beauty and sexuality have been parts of feminist ideas these days, and romance is always on the front line to suggest and spread those ideas. Beauty is not the only deciding factor, though, for there are many other things to consider in making a relationship work, as we can see at some point in the story. Jeffries is really genius at concocting all those complicated things in a light but gripping narrative, and she formulates it very well, without leaving a hole in it. The plot is nicely flowing and the way Jeffries unfolds it is very sweet.

All in all, The French Maid is a very nice short story. It may be too packed and lacks of detailed characterization on Henry’s part, but the idea is very natural and the run of the story is just sweet and romantic. I can say that this is what romance writers should write about. And this is really something I would recommend to any romance readers, and other readers who want to get more insight into a bit of women’s issues.

Rating: 3.5/5