Seno Gumira Ajidarma is one of the big names in Indonesia’s literary world, many of his works have gained critical acclaim. Negeri Kabut, first published in 1996, is one of them, having been awarded the 1997 Indonesian Literary Prize for the best short-story collection. To “celebrate the passion for reading of the new generation,” last October the publisher has decided to reissue it with a new, unfortunately disappointing, cover. Not to worry, though, the contents are still of a very high quality.
There are twelve short stories in the collection, most of which bear the typical writing style of the writer—surreal, beautifully poetic, yet so critically biting—pretty much like what you would find in stories of Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku. The book opens with the titular story, Negeri Kabut, a dreamily written account of someone’s journey to find the so-called land of mists (the title in English has two versions, The Land of Mists in 1997 and The Foggy Lands in 2003). The land might truly exist, or it might not, but the man on the trip has been determined to find and see it with his own eyes. He doesn’t mind all the mountains, all the hills he has to climb and climb again, all the long walks through the thick mists and silence and green forest. He keeps going and going until he sets foot on a mysterious village which appears to pop out of nowhere and is full of mists. Everything is like a sweet dream there, too happy, too peaceful, too serene that the man—who has been so used to all the hullabaloo of the world—feels unsettled instead.
Semuanya terasa menyejukkan, tapi aku tidak merasa tenteram. Aku sudah terlalu akrab dengan pertentangan, ketegangan, dan kesulitan. Betapa celaka.
As poetically written as the stories contained in this book might be, Ajidarma never lets himself speak only of beauty. He seems to deem it his duty to observe and to criticize, especially the greedy nature of people, the unstoppable desire to own one thing and another, and another, and another. It implicitly shows in Long Puh, the third story on the list. On the outside, it looks like a very short, restless story about a man in fever who was wandering around the hinterland of East Borneo and carries the memory of it along with him when he’s already out. But after a brief, last scene where a foreign man finds gold and gets crazy over it, it becomes pretty clear that it’s a criticism of human greed. Greed of people who don’t care about anything but wealth while some people far away in the middle of back country are still living in poverty and backwardness. But Long Puh is so subtle, not as flagrant as Rembulan Terapung di Kolam Renang, where Ajidarma doesn’t shy away from describing vividly a man of greed who thinks he deserves all that he’s got, whatever the way or trick he employs to get them. No remorse, no sorry. He only fears that common, poor people will get angry at him for his greediness and revolt. And revolt they all. But they do it in the same greedy way, plundering everything from his house, eating the moon floating on his swimming pool. While this story was actually written long before the economic crisis happened in 1998, what Ajidarma describes there reminded me of the event where President Soeharto, who was deemed as corrupt, stepped down as people rioting and looting items in stores everywhere.
Some people of older generation might have already known the story of Panji Tengkorak, written and drawn for comic books by Hans Jaladara back in the 1960s. Here, Seno Gumira Ajidarma is kind enough to provide the reader with his prose adaptation, albeit only a small fraction of some part. Entitled Panji Tengkorak Menyeret Peti, the narrative focuses on the complicated love affair surrounding the hero, Panji Tengkorak himself. The bitter tale tells us how he hates his wife Nesia so much but has to drag around her casket (with her dead body inside it) everywhere he goes, how he loves Mariani but has to bury his dream to be with her, how his first love Murni has to die before he can marry her, and how Andini has to die for him. All this tragic romance, and the fact that Panji Tengkorak is basically a martial arts story, reminded me of Chinese martial arts novels which have been adapted into both small and big screens so many times. But, of course, Panji Tengkorak has local flavor to it that might suit Indonesian readers better. Putting aside all the characteristics, though, Panji Tengkorak Menyeret Peti is a painfully heartbreaking love story of a pugilistic hero who thinks his life is done and over. And Ajidarma has successfully represented it with his excellent prose.
It can be said that the martial arts short story is the only one that strays away from the surrealistic path and almost bumps itself into somewhat realism, since numbers like Ada Kupu-kupu, Ada Tamu; Di Tepi Sungai Parfum; and Ratri & Burung Bangau still bear the characteristics of so-called surrealism. After two or three pages you’ll realize that you’ve been tricked into a narrative world that’s mostly beyond anything you can imagine. They are so confusing that they seem like posing questions without any will to reveal the answers. That said, they are not the most absurd. Perahu yang Muncul dari Balik Kabut has to be the one, so much so that it looks more like a painting than a prose, one with twisting lines and twirling brushes. And these strokes are done repeatedly, powerfully, beautifully. As it is clearly told in the title, the story tells of a boat coming out of morning mists on a twisting river. This has occured for years and years and people who have been following the event always stand there by the river and wait for the boat to come, carrying a dancing, eternally young woman and an old man playing a stringed instrument. The whole narrative appears to only bring out beauty and melancholy, without telling anything nor carrying any meaning whatsoever. Funnily enough, Perahu yang Muncul dari Balik Kabut is the longest short story among others in the collection.
As it is in Sepotong Senja untuk Pacarku, here in Negeri Kabut Seno Gumira Ajidarma aims his gun at human nature, firing ceaselessly and mercilessly. He talks about greediness, never-ending searching, boundless dissatisfaction, fear of death, desire to die, gender and female stereotypes. And he does it ever so subtly, as if he merely writes pages and pages of prose without meaning, wearing mask or hiding in plain sight. But it’s been his typical style, alongside surrealistic narratives and poetic language. He is one of few writers I know who can combine beautiful writing, marvelous ideas, and biting criticism. If he likes to tell stories about greedy people who always search and never feel satisfied, then I would say that I’m always satisfied with his works (including the Mahabharata-based novel Drupadi). I feel lucky that I could have a chance to read them, and I will certainly look for more.