I debated whether or not I should write another post for Leila S. Chudori’s 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira). After reading my initial review for it, I felt like I really should. I didn’t do Chudori’s writing the justice it deserves. I still stand by my three star (out of five) rating and I don’t think I was being too harsh in giving the book that rating. But what I had failed to capture in my review was just how outstanding Chudori is when she gets it right.
There is one scene I don’t think I will ever forget in the short story “Ciuman Terpanjang” (“The Longest Kiss”). The scene is exceedingly simple yet takes five pages in a twenty-four page story. Chudori seemed to have committed the ultimate sin in the short story genre: she has wasted words.
Not a single word in the scene is wasted.
This is because Chudori has recreated a long, drawn-out joke in literary form. Slowly, Chudori unspooled the scene little by little until the waiting becomes unbearable. Just when we can’t take it anymore, Chudori delivered a beautiful, succinct punchline.
Nadira, protagonist of this connected short story collection, is sorting out the things she will bring to the new home she will share with the man she will soon marry. Her brother Arya watches in astonishment as Nadira plunks books by Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath into the discarded list. Arya protests the decision, claiming those were their mother’s favorite books. In answer, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky is plunked. Arya protests again. Browning plunked. Keats plunked. Austen plunked. Dickens plunked. Arya protests again and again.
Part of what makes this scene so effective is Nadira’s multiple justifications for dumping these books; Woolf and her ilk are too depressing, the Russians too long-winded, and the Victorians too sensationalist. Chudori made it obvious that Nadira’s arguments only thinly cover the fact that her future husband simply doesn’t like the books. As Nadira’s babbling grows more pretentious and her praise for her groom-to-be more lovestruck, Arya cuts in with the four-word acerbic punchline. It’s been a while since I found a book so funny.
While “Ciuman Terpanjang” (“The Longest Kiss”) boasts the most memorable scene, for me “Melukis Langit” (“Painting the Sky”) is the most perfect short story in the collection from beginning to end; everything was consistent. “Melukis Langit” is about Nadira’s relationship with her father. A formidable journalist back in the day, he now derives pleasure by repeating stories of the glory days, whining for food from his old office cafeteria, and dispensing journalistic advice to Nadira, who is also a reporter. Dutiful Nadira indulges her father until one day she snaps and describes to her father a film she would love to make.
The scene of Nadira describing her film is creepy and fraught with tension. I could feel both how disturbed Nadira’s father was and Nadira’s frustration. I also loved how consistent Nadira’s retaliation is with her passive-aggressive character. She won’t directly say what’s wrong, she’ll just tell you her disturbing visions.
Overall, I think Chidori gets it right in “Melukis Langit.” The description of a retired father reliving his glory days on a daily basis rings true to me. Details of his orneriness, his helplessness got to me as well. “Melukis Langit” is really a melancholy portrait of aging. And the ending of the story is just right.
A much more uneven yet still memorable story would be “Tasbih” (“Prayer Beads”). The great middle chunk of the story I didn’t much care for but the descriptions and metaphors regarding a big house in the very beginning of the story was some breathtaking writing. The ending was also good; it wouldn’t be decent Indonesian literature if it didn’t reference our rampant corruption. We are, at the final pages of the story, introduced to Tito Putranto, owner of the big house mentioned in the beginning of the story. He is truly terrifying. Unfazed by Nadira’s journalist status, he freely admits to his life of crimes, knowing the system would do nothing to punish him. Putranto is truly an inspired character and I wonder if Chudori herself had encountered a man like Putranto during her investigative journalist days.
The point I want to make is that 9 dari Nadira is in no way a bad book. There’s some beautiful writing in there. It’s just that I wanted this beautiful writing to be more consistent throughout the whole collection. Some stories like “Nina dan Nadira” (“Nina and Nadira”) passed by without a memorable scene or even paragraph that I wanted to read aloud. I still recommend 9 dari Nadira, I just acknowledge that it is an uneven collection.
Again, for those interested there is an English-translated compilation of Leila S. Chudori’s short stories. Happily, “Ciuman Terpanjang,” “Melukis Langit,” and “Tasbih” are all there. Unfortunately, so is “Nina dan Nadira.” The link is down below:
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