Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book 2, Indonesia: "Saman" by Ayu Utami

I hadn't read much Indonesian literature before - a couple of novels by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (so overrated), the Tempo essays of Goenawan Mohamad, and some poems by Laksmi Pamuntjak, and some translated work of guys I hobnobbed with at last year's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

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However, I'd heard that Ayu Utami was da shit when she was invited for Singapore's inaugural Asia on the Edge festival. So when I noticed her novel "Saman" selling at a discount stall, I snapped it up.
What a find. "Saman" is indeed a masterpiece - and of course the translator Pamela Allen's done a fantastic job - it's shocking without being gratuitous - perhaps I'm extrapolating from the fact that Ayu's a woman, but I'm amazed at how androgynous the story is: the central character, Saman, fights a man's battle against evil exploitative oil palm capitalists who resort to rape and rapine and torture to take over a village, and yet the majority of the text is made up of intensely feminine reflections on love and lust and unsatisfied longing, the perspectives of Yasmin, the married woman who loves him, as well as her friends Shakuntala and Cok and Laila, who of course has a married heroic man of her own...

And also the strange way so much of the story takes place in New York City (once New Amsterdam; a former Dutch colony just like Indonesia), with the characters as expatriates and exiles from the horrifically corrupt and riot-torn Suharto regime.

Also remarkable is the way the story is so centered on Christianity, with retellings of Biblical tales and Saman's struggles with his choice of vocation as a celibate Catholic missionary. And of course the linkages with pre-Islamic mythologies in traditional dance and superstition. Very strange for a book that dates from the years of the Malay anti-Chinese riots of the '90s, which the book does indeed make reference to.

And it doesn't even end properly... And still it works. Amazing.

Representative quote: "When my parents discovered that I was going out with an ogre from the forest, they gave me their second piece of advice. Virginity is a woman's gift to her husband. And virginity is like a nose: once you lose it, it can't be replaced. So you must never give it away before you get married, because then you will be damaged goods. But the day before I was sent to this foreign place I made a decision. I would give my virginity to my lover the ogre.

On that last night, under a purplish moon, I crept out to the pavilion and tore it out with a teaspoon. It looked like a red spider's web. I put it in a wooden Jepara box and gave it to the dog. He was in fact a courier between me and the ogre."

Next book: Naldo Rei's "Resistance", from East Timor.

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