Tag Archives: Reading the City

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

“A city haunted by many ghosts”: The Book of Cairo

Edited and with an introduction by Raph Cormack (Comma Press, 2019)

This is the first of Comma Press’s “Reading the City” books I’ve read, and I was drawn to The Book of Cairo for primarily personal reasons: Egypt is my dad’s homeland, and its history the reason for my family’s enforced dispersal across the globe. I wanted to learn more about a country that for me carries much displaced nostalgia, and Raph Cormack’s thoughtful introduction gives a moving insight into the history and modernity of Cairo: “The city has entered into a state of enforced forgetfulness”, he writes of the Arab Spring – a different historical conflict from the one that my family endured, but the same deliberate state-sponsored amnesia. Cormack writes of a “desire to escape” prevalent among young Egyptians, and describes Cairo as “a city that has always felt on the verge of disintegration”, “beset with difficulties and haunted by many ghosts”. The Book of Cairo presents ten short stories (four of which are by women writers), and brings to life this troubled, complex city.Together these stories present a mosaic of a shifting city, fraught with problems ranging from poverty and inequality to drugs and military interventions. But they also have an individual and very human dimension, from the street-sweeper fearful of not being able to afford his daughter’s wedding (‘Gridlock’) and the alienation of experiencing everything outside of a collective narrative (‘Into the Emptiness’) to the misery of unrequited love (‘The Other Balcony’) and the single-minded quest for truth that blinds the seeker to all else (‘Hamada al-Ginn’). Cairo’s streets and buildings come to life, as does its fresco of diverse inhabitants and its westernisation (messages are sent via WhatsApp, Pampers and Persil are part of a family’s regular shopping experience, and high-rise buildings spring up to “brush the sand away into the backdrop”). The stories range in tone from comical to satirical, surreal to sinister: in ‘Whine’, an office manager becomes convinced that evil spirits are manipulating his fate, while ‘Hamada al-Ginn’ questions notions of “truth”: “They both stuck to their stories, despite the continuous physical interrogation that they were subjected to for three days, ordered by Major Haitham Hamdy himself (some people give this ‘physical interrogation’ the name ‘torture’).” In ‘Siniora’, a man is so obsessed with observing his girlfriend’s genitals that he doesn’t notice that while she is sitting naked before him she has been setting up an illegal home-grown drugs empire and has moved on from him entirely; in ‘Two Sisters’, a woman’s attraction to a masked man in a video store has vampiric consequences, while the narrator of ‘Into the Emptiness’, “dissolve[s] in this world and disappear[s].”

My two favourite stories in the collection were (perhaps coincidentally) both about storytellers: ‘Talk’ is about a professional rumour-monger, and ‘The Soul at Rest’ about an obituary writer. In ‘Talk’, a doctor is surprised to find his life close to ruins because of a rumour that he thinks has no basis in truth: his investigations lead him to the office of a man who gleefully admits that he started the rumour as part of his own ministry of vigilante justice. A failed writer himself, the rumour-monger explains that “I used to write stories that no one ever read. But I was only successful at rumours. I’ll remain an uncredited author, but at least I’ll be a well-off one. And who knows, maybe one day I’ll achieve some immortality”, and this chilling attitude highlights the dangers of slanderous stories in a fame-seeking fake-news age in which “innocence and guilt are one and the same, since both the innocent and the guilty issue the same denials.”

In ‘The Soul at Rest’, an obituary writer makes an ill-advised judgement about a woman whose lover wants her to have the most lavish obituary he can buy. The obituary writer then attempts to make amends for his thoughtlessness, acknowledging that he needs to feel better about his own mistake: “What I want to say won’t take more than a page, maybe two. But one thing is for sure, regardless of the number of pages, it won’t make a difference to anyone but me. I just want to vent so I can feel better about what I’m going through”. The obituary writer lavishes his time and money attempting to atone for the wounds caused by his thoughtless prejudice, because “the pain kept growing inside me until it had become a permanent resident”, and tries all he can to escape from his own guilt:

“I cried a lot, I asked God for forgiveness; I even went as far as asking for a transfer to another department.
I just wished that I could meet the man again, to ask for his forgiveness.”

This proves impossible for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourself, but his ultimate admission that “my pain has still not subsided” is a timely reminder about the importance of resisting judgement based on class and creed.

The Book of Cairo is a superb collection of intimate modern stories that shatter the mysticism of the Orient and show us what Cairene life is and can be. I love the work Comma Press seeks out, and shall be reading more from their Reading the City series. I also highly recommend Banthology, stories of protest commissioned from the seven “unwanted nations” on Trump’s original “travel ban” (five of which are by women writers) – literature can and should be political, should challenge and subvert, should resist complacency and the “culture of sameness” – and Comma Press are leading the way.

Review copy of The Book of Cairo provided by Comma Press.