A disclaimer: I am affiliated with Lontar Foundation, the publisher of Lies, Loss, and Longing. The Lontar Foundation is the premier publisher of Indonesian literature translated into English. In 2011, Lontar launched the Modern Library of Indonesia: a series devoted to publishing English translations of essential Indonesian literature ranging from classic 1920s texts to iconic poetry to contemporary noughties fiction. My involvement with Lontar, however, does not automatically translate to undue praise for the content of their publications. I strive to keep this blog and my book reviews impartial.
The still-ongoing Modern Library of Indonesia project birthed Lies, Loss, and Longing: a selection of Balinese writer Putu Oka Sukanta’s short stories. A short SparkNotes background on Sukanta: he was born in 1939 and at age sixteen, was already publishing his writings in newspapers and magazines in Bali and Java. Sukanta is a survivor of the infamous 1965 Communist purge: a brutal repression of anyone associated with communism at the time. Because Sukanta had mingled with leftist artists and writers, he found himself targeted and was eventually detained without trial for ten years. In some ways, Sukanta is lucky to have survived at all. While statistics vary, contemporary academics and researchers agree that many were put to the slaughter in the purge.
Writing served as both solace and therapy for Sukanta during his imprisonment. Sukanta wrote plenty about the 1965 purge and it shows in Lies, Loss, and Longing. There are twelve stories in this collection and about half of them were about 1965. In general, there are two main themes in Lies, Loss, and Longing: the slaughter of 1965 and grinding poverty in the face of modernization. I’m not sure whether the overall themes in Sukanta’s oeuvre is limited or if this is an editorial choice. As an Indonesian, I can understand the choice to include many of Sukanta’s 1965 stories. But as a reader, I found it tedious and repetitive.
Yes, there are one-offs like the story about a transgender. There’s also a practically ripped-off-the-headlines story about the then-newly implemented Anti-Pornography Laws in Indonesia. But as a whole, the collection feels very limited.
Sukanta is unfortunately also a little heavy-handed when it comes to doling out morals. He’s basically screaming in Caps Lock: Discrimination against transgenders is bad! The Anti-Pornography Laws are draconian! Never forget the slaughterhouse that is 1965! I understand that those are important messages but the way it was presented was just too much.
Another weakness of note is that Sukanta is not an exciting plotter. His stories can be plodding and rather dull. His greatest trouble, it seems, is in creating tension. “Storm Clouds over the Island of Paradise” tells the star-crossed romance of a high-caste Balinese girl and a common man. But there was no sense of urgency or passion towards the way this romance was written. I felt so detached, I couldn’t care less if the lovers had died at some point.
I was most disappointed with “Bridge of Light.” The premise of the story was so exciting: a former political prisoner and the daughter of one of the generals murdered during the September 1965 movement meet at Lubang Buaya, the late president Soeharto’s monument of victory over communism. A conversation between them that should have been fraught with tension, anger, and loaded with emotions instead falls flat. The dialogue felt aimless, there was no purpose to it.
To be fair to Sukanta, although he may be bad at plot, he is great at crafting images. The short story “Luh Galuh” is a particular example. More a character sketch than a short story, I could easily imagine the elderly woman Luh Galuh in my mind’s eye. Sukanta perfectly described the bony knobs of her ankles, the swollen soles of her feet. There was a slightly grotesque scene of Luh Galuh scratching her torso to her feet until she cut herself then rubbing spit into the wounds. The way Sukanta described this scene was so perfectly detailed that I could imagine the events without difficulty. So spot on is Sukanta when it comes to imagery, it’s really no wonder that he is also a poet.
As a rule, Sukanta is much better at character sketches than he is at actual short stories that requires (shudders) plot. That’s why stories that have the name of the protagonist as a title is so much better than other stories in Lies, Loss, and Longing. “Luh Galuh” is good. So is “Pan Blayag.” “He Wept in Front of the TV” is also a character sketch that is good. Take note that all of them are sad, though.
The final story “Home” was my favorite. As a stand-alone story it was perfect and I would give it the highest rating. If you can find the story somehow, maybe online, please take a look at it. “Home” (or “Pulang” in its original Indonesian incarnation) is yet another 1965 story. Looking at the index, however, “Home” was originally published in 2012 – which makes me surmise that time has improved Sukanta’s skills. The story deals with a man returning home to Bali, unable to leave his home behind, only for him to become gradually disillusioned. From the pace to the emotions to the epiphany of the protagonist, everything was on point.
Sadly, as a whole, I wasn’t not terribly impressed by Lies, Loss, and Longing. I would wholeheartedly recommend “Home” if you can get your hands on it but I have read better Indonesian literature. The most I can say is that Lies, Loss, and Longing is an OK collection. It’s fine but I’m not at all passionate about it. If you disagree with me and think Putu Oka Sukanta is amazing, you’re welcome to talk to me about it, though!