Raumanen by Marianne Katoppo

An old cover, year unknown

I read Raumanen for work. It wasn’t a book I would have chosen for myself. I once owned a reference book on Indonesian literature and from it, read the synopsis and ending of Raumanen. I found the story dated and melodramatic and so was never interested in picking up the novel.

It was a shame I knew about the ending going in. Three-quarters through reading, I realized it was meant to be a plot twist. I will only talk about the ending vaguely here, should anyone be interested in picking up Raumanen.

Raumanen was first published as a serial in the popular women’s magazine Femina then published as a novel in 1977. Normally categorized in the romance genre, Raumanen is at times also considered literary fiction. Indonesians do love their romances.

The structure of Raumanen is simple. There are 3 sections: a traditional third-person narrative reciting the romance of Raumanen and Monang, a first-person POV narrative of Raumanen 10 years later, and a parallel passage from Monang’s POV. The 3 sections are written in short chapters that are interwoven together.

The novel begins with Raumanen’s perspective, 10 years later. It is established that her relationship with Monang imploded years ago. We continue reading to figure out what happened.

Raumanen met Monang at a university event. Monang is brash, flamboyant, and clearly a playboy. As is common with this type of man, he has a certain charisma about him. Immediately, he sets out to charm Raumanen. All her friends warn Raumanen against Monang, but she laughs off their attempts, claiming they are simply friends, that they have more of a brother-sister relationship. Yeah, doesn’t take long for all that to change.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the beginning of Raumanen much more than I expected. Because it is set in a university, the language is fluid and limber, not at all stiff despite being an older novel. Raumanen as a character is likable: witty and idealistic, while also painfully naïve.

The novel’s primary theme is interracial relationships. Raumanen is set in the 1970s, when Indonesia was still a very young country. It occupies such a wide swath of areas and islands, and people from disparate tribes could not conceive of themselves as part of a greater whole. Thus, despite Raumanen becoming pregnant, Monang’s wealthy and conservative parents cannot accept a marriage between them.

Reading Raumanen decades later makes for food for thought. Indonesia may be an older country now, but attitudes regarding interracial and interreligious relationships can still be as archaic as in the 1970s. It still isn’t easy for interreligious couples to get married here. Often, they must marry abroad or one half of the couple must convert. For those with limited funds or want to remain with their premarital faith, there are few options. Many parents still want their children to marry exclusively within the tribe or race. Ironic, considering Indonesia’s motto is “Unity in Diversity.”

Back to the plot. Glaring plot holes, to be exact. It really bothered me how permissive characters were in letting Raumanen be alone with Monang. Raumanen’s family lets Monang drive her around at night, alone. Wasn’t this the 1970s? I wasn’t surprised Raumanen ended up pregnant.

On the writing front, I wished Katoppo had written more scenes developing the relationship between Raumanen and Monang. Their friendship was told, not shown. The romance happened too speedily. Not too mention problematic as their first kiss was more of Monang forcing the act on Raumanen.

Then there’s Monang’s character. I don’t like him. He’s too brazen yet not courageous enough for what really matters. 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 the first-person POVs was a bit of a chore. Raumanen’s 10-years-later POV is irritating as it dripped with self-pity. Post-romance, she was a crusty, unlikeable character who was suspicious of everyone. In fact, both POVs were annoying as the parallel thoughts of ‘I’ve ruined her’ and ‘I’m ruined forever’ got tedious. Katoppo’s intention was to convey poetry in misery, the POV sections were replete with floral diction and poetic flourishes. It just didn’t work for me. I found it annoying and they didn’t advance the plot at all.

Or so I had thought.

Turns out, the POV passages had something to do with plot. They hinted at the ending to come. When I figured it out, I flicked backwards to see if I had missed all the signs. It was amazing to realize how Katoppo made a simple structure so effective.

I found it difficult to rate Raumanen. It was an OK read. Some elements frustrated me. Its plot twist had the power to surprise even though I had known the ending beforehand. I found the 2 main characters grating. I liked the deeper commentary Katoppo made, and the writing style flowed well. Mixed feelings all around. I will say this: I now understand why the story is well-regarded in the Indonesian literary canon, even if parts of Raumanen are dated by contemporary standards.

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