Tag Archives: Indonesian literature

REVIEW: The Book of Jakarta

Edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma (Comma Press, 2020)

The Book of Jakarta is the latest addition to the Reading the City series from Comma Press, presenting ten short stories based in the Indonesian capital. The stories that make up the collection share connected ideals, but each still offers a unique perspective on Jakarta, ranging from the political to the environmental, uncertain futures to seedy realities. Themes that recur in The Book of Jakarta are the stark divide between the wealthy and those struggling to survive, bureaucracies that range from the frustrating (“Seems like that rule was just put in place today, somehow”)* to the deadly (“for the past three days I’ve been watching the news, hoping to see his name on the list … We filed a report, and the officer told us they’ll be in touch”),** Jakarta as a place of multiple everyday dystopias – whether in the present reality, an imagined future, or alternative and not-so-unrealistic realities – and the perspectives of those on the margins of society. From an ageing sex worker to street buskers, a group of senior citizens left behind by modern life to a homeless artist, the voices are diverse but all speak from a place of dissent, of exclusion from a capitalist regime.

The translations are consistently strong and appropriately modern: there are clearly some cultural references that are tricky to translate, but I appreciated the use of occasional footnotes to help explain these.  One such reference explains the title of the opening story, “B217AN” by Ratri Nindity (translated by Mikael Johani): the title is a typical numberplate of the region, but is also a pun on a phrase meaning “together one destination”. This is key to the storyline of “B217AN”, which embodies two themes of The Book of Jakarta: movement and the outskirts. The brilliant opening line, “Tomorrow I’m getting married and tonight I rest my head on your shoulder”, sums up the story’s intrigue: two days before the narrator’s wedding she texts her former lover for one final meeting. At his insistence, the tryst is a scooter ride in adverse weather conditions to a seafood stall on the other side of town. The story is narrated in a second-person address, with the narrator both commenting on what is happening in the moment on their scooter journey, and remembering how they met and how their relationship developed. What is never explained is how they separated and the narrator came to be engaged to someone else: this is hinted at in subtle comments about the lover’s determination not to become part of mainstream life, and the narrator’s susceptibility to the myth that if she embraces such a life then she will be happy. This culminates in my favourite quotation from the piece: “People like me have to study really hard to get into the best school, the best university, and then get the perfect job that promises a better life. Sadly, this middle-class manual doesn’t have a section on how to be content.” The narrator is chasing after an elusive happiness that was promised to her generation if they followed a predetermined formula for success, but which never materialises, leaving her inhabiting the margins of a life from which she feels disconnected. Her eleventh-hour meeting with her former lover represents a final attempt to connect to life (“In this strange place, I feel like I can do whatever I want”), and to find something more satisfactory than the bland formula from which she feels disenfranchised: the detail of the journey and the not-so-final destination are superb.

Another striking perspective from the margins is found in Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s “Grown-Up Kids” (translated by Annie Tucker), in which a group of senior citizens in an apartment complex make a suicide pact. Four women (Mrs M, Mrs N, Mrs O and Mrs P) plan an outing to an amusement park to scare themselves to death on the biggest ride, while Mrs M’s husband prefers to step out of life at the National Library, where he and his wife had their first date. Mr and Mrs M’s diverging plans for their last rites epitomise the combination of pathos and humour that characterises the story: “Mrs M received a text and when she opened it she found a message from her husband: he had arrived at the National Library. Mrs M didn’t like the place; it was too big and too quiet. But Mr M relished its stillness, and as part of his poetic departure, he insisted he wanted to return to the location of their first date. Mrs M had blushed and blown her nose when she heard his plan.”

The story opens with abject reality, Mrs M helping her husband with his adult nappy and delicately dealing with his digestive problems. They say goodbye as if they were both going on separate errands, and as Mr M heads to the library, Mrs M joins her acquaintances (the anxious Mrs N, the health-food-obsessed Mrs O, and the overly coarse Mrs P, brilliantly sketched out in a series of pithy observations that Tucker renders in English with great tongue-in-cheek humour) on their final journey to the amusement park. “Grown-Up Kids” is set in a near but all-too-possible future (in which the capital of Indonesia has relocated, a plan for the near future explained by editors Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma in their introduction to the volume), leaving Jakarta a shell of historic buildings and tourist attractions. We are given a flashback to Mr and Mrs M in their youth, when they met as rebellious students taking part in an uprising (which I understood, though perhaps erroneously, to be the May 1998 events referenced in the introduction). Mrs M then searched for Mr M on the internet, and given that they are now of an age that robs them of control over their own bowels, that could set the date of the story at around 40-50 years from now. *UPDATE: the demonstration referenced is actually a 2019 event, which would locate the date of the story around 60-70 in the future*

“Grown-Up Kids” showcases the anthology’s blend of tragedy and humour, ideals and banality, and its ending shows the cynicism needed for real survival in a not-too-distant evolution of modern society, as well as echoing the terrifying-turns-cynical ending of utuit’s “Buyan” (translated by Zoë McLaughlin). As in the excellent “A Secret from Kramat Tunggak” (by Dewi Kharisma Michellia, translated by Shaffira Gayatri), older generations who have helped modern Jakarta prosper are cut off from a world – or a city – that no longer has any use for them. This generational conflict, disenfranchisement and exposition of the concept of social “usefulness” is echoed throughout the anthology. There are also implicit and explicit criticisms of the Suharto regime, of what followed it and where this could lead: this is a collection that gently educates and enlarges perspectives without ever being overly didactic, and which brings together a common purpose without reducing the sprawling archipelago to homogeny or stereotype.

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Join us for the virtual launch of The Book of Jakarta! On Tuesday 2nd February at 1pm (BST) I will be talking to authors Ratri Ninditya and Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrieke and translator Rara Rizal about their work on this exciting collection. Further details and tickets available here.

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Review copy of The Book of Jakarta provided by Comma Press

* From “The Aroma of Shrimp Paste”, Hanna Franisca, translated by Khairani Barokka

** From “The Problem”, Sabda Armandio Alif, translated by Rara Rizal

Review: Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering

Translated from Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein (Harvill Secker, 2020).

The Wandering is an innovative, thought-provoking twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre. Written in a compelling second-person narrative, it is based on the following premise: You are bored with your predictable life in Jakarta, and you wish to escape. A demon lover comes to tempt you with a gift that could be cursed: a pair of red shoes that will take you wherever you want to go. But be careful what you wish for, because you may not like where you end up – and you will never be able to return home. What do you do?

This is the perfect match of theme and genre, and is impeccably executed. With every choice I made I was curious about the alternative, where it would lead and whether I’d end up with the same destiny, whether the ending is the same whichever path you take (it’s not), and whether you experience the whole book but in a different order (you don’t). I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a child, but I never had much luck with them. I’d usually end up sacrificed on a jungle altar by page 20 (and it seemed every path led back there), so I really wanted to be a survivor in The Wandering. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought: in this magical literary world where I’ve made a pact with a devil for a pair of red shoes, I tried to make the choices I really would make, or at least would make in a dream, since the reality is fairly unlikely to come to pass – so yes, go on, let me always move forwards instead of playing it safe, give me a magic mirror that allows me to see my true self, bring it on!

I met a sticky end before I was halfway through the book.

I went back to the last big choice: the magic mirror. Maybe I should have gone back further, to a previous choice: in my second adventure I had a banal but steady life, I was even something like happy. But what if I hadn’t settled down with the handsome yet uninspiring illegal immigrant? I went back to that choice and tried again. Another mundane relationship, another settled existence with neither great drama nor great happiness. So my first choice about the mirror wasn’t the problem, but this must mean that somewhere earlier on I made a false step.

You’ll notice I’m talking about my character in the first person. This is one of Paramaditha’s great achievements: making me believe in the story, become invested in it, wanting to know all my possible fates in this crystal ball of a novel. Part of this is down to her second person narrative: addressing her readers as “you” is designed to create an intimacy that I found entirely successful. Part of its triumph lies in the constant suspense, which is excellent – I suspect that a cynic might occasionally find it a little melodramatic, but I threw myself into it (I mean, if I’m going to have a pair of magic red shoes gifted to me by a Mephistophelian lover, then I’ve got to expect a little melodrama) and so it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, there is only one sentence that I found slightly heavy-handed, when we are told that “you sense that your decision will determine your path from here.” This is one of several conscious references to the genre (“You began to suspect that your failure to transcend mediocrity stemmed from a wrong turn in your life”; “Adventures don’t always offer unlimited choice”; “If you’re having an adventure you always want to know what would have happened if you chose a different road”; “Did you make the wrong choice?”), but in over 400 pages was the only one that felt a little forced to me.

As for the translation, it is both playful and dramatic, acrobatic without ever losing clarity. Reading the author’s acknowledgements and the translator’s note, I learnt how closely Epstein collaborated with Paramaditha, and the editing debt he acknowledges to Paramaditha’s friend and champion, author and translator Tiffany Tsao. It’s clear how closely and passionately they have all engaged with this work: Epstein makes stunning choices of verbal adjectives (“You felt as if your limbs were lashed to the bed”; “the lanes clogged with traffic”), offers pithy renderings of epigrammatic philosophical observations (“as befits a journey, happiness is a terminal, not a destination; nobody stays there too long”) and perfectly captures the darkly mischievous voice that directs, admonishes and tempts: “Forgive the imperiousness of this adventure, but you know that sometimes life takes away all options. Choice is a luxury. Marrying Bob is your emergency exit” (forgive the spoiler; marrying Bob is only one of a great number of options!); “If you want to know the fate of the red shoes, turn to the next page. If you don’t want to know the fate of the red shoes, well, who gives a damn? Turn to the next page”; “If you want a final adventure that might only create a spectacular mess, turn to page 405” (and yes, OF COURSE I turned to page 405). I’m curious to know how Epstein translated – whether he followed a thread through to its conclusion and went on the journey too, or whether he did it in a more linear fashion, jumping between stories while advancing chronologically through the pages. I can’t help but hope that he went on the wandering as he translated.

This book is escapism taken to the next level, while still making serious and significant comments about modern societies. Intertexts range from well-known literary works, popular songs and films to more subtle (and, I’m ashamed to say, over my head) references to Indonesian literature which, when they were pointed out to me, made me feel very acutely the question posed by one of the characters: “why don’t we hear of Indonesian writers outside the country?” Alongside such mirrors (magic or otherwise) held up to her adventurers, Paramaditha also excels at mordant observations about migration, the brutality of Trump’s America, the falsehood of the American dream, and the personal dimension of the “refugee crisis”, and many of the stories reprise the refrain, also discussed in the afterword, “good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering”. As befits the theme and genre, reflections on movement versus stasis abound (“For some, the world is indeed very small. But a small world such as this is not – or hasn’t been – yours. So far, the world you know is vast and random”), but above all, The Wandering is about relationships – their integrity, their contingency, their familiarity and their failures. As I was turning though pages to get to my next instalment, I would see names that were unfamiliar, and know that another choice meant different encounters: this made me think about the world, about chance and fate and the choices we make: some of these are just detours, different ways of ending up at the same place. But others change our direction, leading to different encounters, places, and life paths. When you’ve read enough of the possible stories you realise you don’t always meet Meena, or Yvette – it is your choices that bring you to them or let them pass you by. You might end up in the same place – even on the same flight to Peru – but with an entirely different life, observing the people who would have been close to you if you’d made a different choice.

I *think* I had every possible adventure in the end. Some of them were against my instincts and turned out satisfactorily. Some were instinctive and pretty ill-fated. If I learned anything about myself, it’s that I’m better at decisions in real life than in a dramatic alternative universe where I’ve made a pact with the devil for a pair of magic shoes. And what about you? I recommend that you don these glorious red shoes and see where they take you…

Review copy of The Wandering provided by Harvill Secker.

Follow the “Red Shoe Odyssey” on Intan Paramaditha’s website, and view the shoes’ adventures.