Jakarta in the 1970s
When my boss gave me an assignment having to do with the novella Raumanen, I groaned a little inside. I knew the synopsis and ending from a reference book on Indonesian literature I once owned. I had balked at the ending, which I found melodramatic and old-fashioned in its morals. However, I can only talk about the ending in vague terms here since about three-quarters through reading, I realized that it is meant to be a twist ending.
Raumanen was first published as a serial in the popular women’s magazine Femina and then published as a book in 1977. Despite being in the romance genre, Raumanen has always been well-received and well-regarded in the Indonesian literary canon. But then again, Indonesians do love their romances.
The structure of Raumanen is quite simple. There are three running sections: we have a traditional third-person narrative reciting the romance between Raumanen and Monang, a first-person point of view of Raumanen ten years later, and a parallel passage from Monang’s point of view. These sections are written in fairly short chapters that are interwoven together.
From Raumanen’s POV in the very first pages of the book, we already know that her relationship with Monang has imploded years ago. We are simply reading the third-person narrative to find out why.
Raumanen met Monang at a university event. Monang is brash, flamboyant, and clearly a playboy. As is common with these types of men, Monang also has a certain charisma about him. Immediately, he sets out to charm Raumanen. All Raumanen’s friends warn her against him, but Raumanen laughs their attempts off, claiming they are simply friends, that they have more of a brother-sister relationship. Of course, it doesn’t take long for things to change…
To my surprise, I enjoyed the beginning of Raumanen much more than I expected. Because it is a college novel, the language is appropriately limber, not at all stiff. And Raumanen as a character is likable: she is witty and idealistic. But it’s also painfully clear how naïve she is.
Marianne Katoppo was not content in constraining her novella in the college romance genre. Raumanen does deal with a heavier topic: interracial relationships. Raumanen is set in the 1970s, when Indonesia is still a very young country. There is commentary on how because Indonesia was still a young country, people from different tribes and islands still cannot conceive themselves as part of a greater whole. Thus, despite Raumanen falling pregnant, Monang’s wealthy and conservative parents cannot accept a marriage between the two.
To be honest, reading Raumanen in 2014 makes for food for thought. Indonesia is a much older country now but attitudes regarding interracial and interreligious relationships can still be as archaic as the 1970s. It can still be very difficult for interreligious couples to get married in Indonesia. Easy solutions would be for one half of the couple to convert or for them to marry abroad. Not easy for those with limited funds or for those who want to remain within their religion. And there are some who still cling to tradition, wanting their children to marry exclusively within the tribe or race. Clearly there’s something deeper in the Indonesian psyche regarding differences than maturation. If lack of maturity in the 1970s was the only problem, we’d be far more enlightened by now. Ironic, considering Indonesia’s motto is “Unity in Diversity.”
But back to the plot. One thing that shocked me is how permissive people are in letting Raumanen be alone with Monang during their budding friendship. Raumanen’s family lets Monang drive her around at night, alone. Wasn’t this the 1970s? There really is no caution and is it any wonder that Raumanen ended up pregnant? I was worried that something more sinister was going to happen. This plot hole really bothered me.
On the writing front, I wish Katoppo wrote more scenes on how Raumanen and Monang became closer. Their friendship is told, not shown. Then all of a sudden, they are launched into a romance. A romance I found quite problematic as their first kiss is more of Monang forcing the act on her. Even Raumanen’s inner thoughts show that she felt forced into it. Then, there’s Monang’s character. I don’t like him. He’s too brazen and yet he’s not brave enough when it comes to what matters. And I couldn’t help but wonder how Raumanen and Monang became attracted to each other in the first place: they are clearly incompatible. Raumanen is ambitious and wants to be independent, while Monang is secure in mediocrity and would rather drift through life.
Reading through the point of view sections was a bit of a chore. Raumanen’s point of view is particularly grating as it drips with self-pity. Raumanen post-romance is a crusty, unlikable character who is suspicious of everyone. In fact, both point of view angles become quite irritating as the ‘I’ve ruined her’ and ‘I’m ruined forever’ thoughts get tedious. I understood that Katoppo was trying to convey poetry in misery: the point of view sections were replete with parallel repetition and floral diction. But it just came across as very, very annoying. Well, I had thought, the poetic flourishes are all it’s got working for it, since these passages don’t advance the plot at all!
Or so I had thought.
The point of view passages indeed had something to do with plot. They hint at the ending to come. When I figured out the ending, I frantically flicked through the point of view sections to see if I had missed all the signs that led to it. There’s some writerly respect I afford to Marianne Katoppo in how she made a simple structure so effective.
I found it a little hard to rate Raumanen. I kept going back and forth between giving it two or three stars out of five. I thought it was OK and the ending certainly surprised me. Structurally, it was a good novel. I just didn’t think thematically it was the novel for me. I settled on giving it two stars for lack of personal enjoyment. I just found Monang and Raumanen’s characters (particularly her later personality) too grating. I still understood why this novel was well-regarded and I don’t regret reading it. However, I do hope the next books I read will give me more pleasure.