Showing posts with label indonesian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label indonesian. Show all posts

Friday, August 17, 2018

WITMonth Day 17 | The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari

It's difficult to review a book that I know wasn't written for me. This is one of the best parts of the women in translation project, when I get to encounter a book that is so utterly outside of my comfort zone and area of knowledge that I feel my mind reaching out and growing in response to the new information. The Years of the Voiceless by Okky Madasari (translated from the Indonesian by Nurhayat Indriyatno Mohamed) was not written for me, for a Jewish-Israeli woman specifically who has never formally learned anything about Indonesian history or culture.

That's part of what made The Years of the Voiceless so appealing to me. I often feel like the translations I read are inherently politically framed (see this post from last WITMonth), especially in terms of which books are chosen for which audiences. So many translations feel as though they are heavily vetted by whether the English-speaking audience will be able to "handle" the text (this, I should note, is true of both very "highbrow" literature, and "commercial", but this is a topic for another time). The Years of the Voiceless didn't feel like that at all, probably because it wasn't. I didn't get The Years of the Voiceless from an indie US/UK publisher. I got it from the very excited Indonesian representative at the London Book Fair in 2016, after I told her about the women in translation project. She happened to have a copy of The Years of the Voiceless on hand and gave it to me as a gift. It may have taken me two years to get around to reading the book, but I am grateful for the gift, which was more than just a book.

From a technical perspective, there are a lot of things I can point to in The Years of the Voiceless which are less than perfect. Bearing in mind that this is a translation done internally, published by an Indonesian publisher and likely not really meant for particularly broad international audiences, the writing/translation is not exactly stellar. There are clunky bits and awkwardness in the use of footnotes to explain certain cultural nuances (but not others). The pacing of the novel is also somewhat suspect, with a remarkably (disappointingly) rushed ending that feels like it cheated its characters out of a proper, dramatic denouement.

Yet these points feel minor in the face of how intelligent the novel is, and how much it demands of its readers. While reading The Years of the Voiceless, I kept wondering what it would be like if I knew more about Indonesian history or literature. Indeed, I've read only one book out of Indonesia (Leila S. Chudori's Home) and that was specifically about the expat experience. The Years of the Voiceless was the first time I had ever encountered Indonesia up close. The two books end up forming an interesting contrast, with Home bluntly addressing the source of Indonesia's conflicts (Suharto's authoritarian regime at its most obviously cruel) and The Years of the Voiceless quietly pointing to the seismic shifts in Indonesian culture under his influence (without once mentioning his name).

In this form, The Years of the Voiceless ends up feeling more sharply tuned than Home. Where Chudori uses exile as a narrative framing device, The Years of the Voiceless is immersed in day-to-day, village Indonesian life. Madasari exposes authoritarianism slowly, its creeping influence growing in the lives of the characters until it eventually encompasses them.

The Years of the Voiceless revolves around mother and daughter, Marni and Rahayu, each representing a different generation of Indonesian women and their own struggles with a "modernizing" Indonesia. Where the illiterate, traditional Marni builds herself up as a businesswoman and money-lender only to constantly face hatred/bigotry, sexism, and a corrupt system that only takes, Rahayu is a modern Muslim ashamed of her mother's "sins" who finds herself immersed in a political mess as her interest in Islamist teaching increases. The two encounter the power of the state in markedly different forms, but the outcomes remain the same - when Marni and Rahayu's story converge, the full tragic implications of authoritarian regimes may be seen on full display.

One of the things I especially liked about The Years of the Voiceless was that it never offers simple explanations. Marni's business grows as a result of her money-lending, directly borne out of her hard work. Yet her wealth is deemed to be her husband's before hers, she is loathed by the very people who use her services, she is constantly forced to "donate" to the ruling party and to petty bureaucrats in order to survive, and her daughter views her with disgust. This latter point is of particular interest, with Marni exasperatedly trying to understand how Islam can denounce her business, while their local Islamist teacher constantly uses her services without paying his debts. Marni may be illiterate, but she has a clear-eyed understanding of business. We see most of the world through her eyes, where she largely ignores the actual politics of Indonesia and focuses predominantly on her own struggles.

Rahayu's story complicates things further. It is here that the extent of state-inflicted violence becomes apparent, once Rahayu effectively abandons her agricultural studies and becomes a teacher of Islam. Rahayu is simultaneously a reflection of Indonesia's modern Islamist leanings, but she also represents a lot of the hypocrisy that came with the shift. The novel is not explicitly critical of Islam, not by any means, but there is a quiet recognition of the way it was used (and occasionally abused) in the name of power. Much like Marni's interactions with the Islamic teacher from their village, Rahayu finds herself as a second wife (unrecognized, effectively no more than mistress) in a way that seems to emphasize the hypocrisy of several men of faith taking advantage of their position and the women around them. That her relationships and their consequences ultimately drive the drama of the last portion of the book feels especially meaningful. The personal becomes the political; the political is inherently personal.

All in all, it's hard for me to assess The Years of the Voiceless in a truly objective way. From a technical perspective, there is a lot to criticize (as I mentioned earlier), but the technical feels absolutely secondary to the story and the message. But how much of my response to the story is driven by the fact that I personally have hardly been exposed to these sorts of narratives? Would The Years of the Voiceless feel as intelligent and sharply critical if I had read significantly more Indonesian literature? Perhaps it would simply feel like another narrative describing the creeping onslaught of authoritarian horrors. (And I can't possibly imagine that being relevant to any of the political situations in the world today, not one, nope.) I feel as though I lack the proper context and understanding to give The Years of the Voiceless its proper due.

But as it stands, with this reader being the uneducated, ignorant boor that she is - I found that I really appreciated The Years of the Voiceless, learned a lot from it, and was emotionally engaged. This wasn't a mere technical exercise - I truly got angry for Marni on a number of occasions, at one point even directing my anger aloud and declaring that she should just leave her village behind. It's far from a perfect book, but it worked for me and it provided me with a fascinating perspective on Indonesian history that I don't think I could have gotten in any other way. I have a feeling it might do the same for other readers as well.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

WITMonth Day 20 | Home by Leila S. Chudori | Review

Home by Leila S. Chudori (translated by John H. McGlynn) is exactly the sort of book that I had hoped the women in translation project would lead me to. Not only am I basically illiterate when it comes to Indonesian literature, I know very little about Indonesian history or culture. Home - written in large part from an expat perspective and examining the culture of leaving - naturally delves into many of the introductory topics an uneducated reader like myself would benefit from.

The book centers on an Indonesian political exile Dimas Suryo, occasionally shifting perspective but focused in its first half on his new life in Paris (with brief flashbacks to his youth in Indonesia). In the second half, the focus shifts to his half-French daughter Lintang, who is effectively forced to confront her muddled background by her university advisor. Though the change felt abrupt when it occurred, Lintang soon overtook her father in terms of being an engaging and interesting narrator. Her story unfolds more traditionally and echoed in my mind for weeks after I finished the book.

There were moments in the first half of Home that felt simply like history lessons, recited for the sake of memorializing still ignored atrocities. Other moments felt like Cultural Lessons, though some of them oddly enough went largely forgiven by the narrative (for example: the scene in which Lintang's professor condescendingly advises her to talk about her Indonesian heritage for her thesis, as though this is all she is allowed to be - exotic).

Still, it was hard to ignore the power of the story. Dimas' anxiety over having left his homeland behind is a familiar story for those who have read enough immigrant fiction (or... those who have lived it), similarly it's hard not to feel strongly for him when he thinks about the torture and suffering left behind. The book also doesn't shy about the political ramifications even in exile, where the restaurant Dimas and his friends found is viewed as "subversive" for Indonesian nationals, and even the next generation (like Lintang) as suspect.

Home shifts gears in Lintang's section, becoming a very different sort of novel. If the first part is a classic exile/expat novel, the second is a classic return-from-diaspora story. Lintang reluctantly acknowledges her need/desire to visit the "homeland", and once there is drawn into the intricacies of daily life. She meets the children of her fathers' friends, she meets her cousins, she discovers the stain her father's name still carries (and its real-world implications on her family), and she falls into a comfortable sort of pattern. Plotwise, this part of the story was a bit too predictable in my mind, but it worked well enough and didn't drag down the narrative.

It's in this final section that Chudori also introduces Segra Alam, the son of Dimas' former lover and friend. Alam is a familiar sort of man, with a common enough sort of subversiveness and rebellion (in a subversive and rebellious group of friends). His narration usually simply complements Lintang's, but he also serves as a mouthpiece for the more liberal and frustrated youth: "[H]istory is owned not just by the power holders but also by the materialistic middle class who cuddle up to them." There's a bitterness to his narration which contrasts Lintang's more expansive view, and though I didn't necessarily love his sections, I appreciated the way they fit together with the larger story.

Ultimately, Home is an interesting and powerful novel, one worth reading and thinking over. It's a book that lingers in your consciousness, not to mention the way the characters seem unwilling to leave your mind even weeks after reading. I truly felt as though Lintang and I were close friends, and for several days after finishing Home I could hear her voice ringing in my head. The writing is clear and straight-forward, without much overemphasis or exoticism. Even as there were plot points I felt were lacking or characters that weren't developed enough (particularly near the end), I found that I liked the flow of the novel. I also liked the somewhat open-ended way the novel closed, though I recognize that many readers might walk away somewhat disappointed.

The one great flaw, however, is the edition, which is riddled with copy errors. Every few pages I felt myself thrown out of the story by a missing quotation mark or comma or period. At first I thought, "okay, it's just a few..." but then it kept repeating itself. However much I liked the content, I can't pretend that my reading experience wasn't somewhat tainted by this. One or two mistakes are to be expected. Dozens? Not so much.

Even so, I can comfortably recommend Home. This is a well-written and interesting account not only of Indonesian history, but of the exile and diaspora experiences as a whole. Well-written (if poorly edited) with intensely drawn characters, Home is a strong novel well worth your time.