Tarian Bumi (Earth Dance) by Oka Rusmini

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Look. Just look at this hideous cover. Ugly Indonesian book covers deserve an exclusive blog post as they are a deterrent to purchases. I almost didn’t buy Tarian Bumi because I found the cover so off-putting. There are so many beautiful Balinese art and paintings. Why use this Shutterstock image?

But I digress. On to the review.

Tarian Bumi is proudly advertised as a feminist novel. It tells the life stories of four generations of Balinese women as they navigate their complex culture, which is redolent with rigid class and caste systems. Telaga is our de jure main character, but the plot moves backwards and forwards to scenes of Telaga’s daughter, mother, and grandmother.

Now, feminist novels are my jam. Books are my one true love and I identify as a feminist. But more and more I am growing dissatisfied with the genre. Too many of them lack nuance and blame everything on men. Sadly, Tarian Bumi displays shades of this. I admit to disliking the tone: angry and histrionic. What’s funny is that not only are some of the male characters harmless at worst and quite nice at best, not all of the main female characters are likable.

The lack of likability seems to be intentional. Clan matriarch Ida Ayu Sagra Pidada is a snob, a classist who is awful to her daughter-in-law Luh Sekar simply because she is born a sudra, the caste of the commonfolk. There is a lack of empathy in Ida Ayu Sagra Pidada. She was treated poorly by her husband, but instead of sympathizing with Luh Sekar when Sekar is treated poorly by her husband, Pidada blames all of her son’s behavior on Sekar.

Luh Sekar, who started the novel a weeping damsel, became much more interesting when flashbacks told her story. She was ambitious, stubborn, practical, and determined. Neither sweet nor likable (although she does have a loving bond with her mother), she had agency and defied what arbitrary social class dictated. Or did she? Luh Sekar “defied” fate by marrying up. In doing so, she accepted arbitrary social rules and had to embrace all the complex codes and etiquette systems of the Balinese aristocracy. Gradually, these rules and etiquette systems erode upon her once-vibrant personality. The author clearly detailed the convoluted Balinese codes: because Luh Sekar is by marriage an in-between sudra and Brahmana, Sekar can no longer pay respects to her beloved mother as her status is higher, yet the pure aristocrats still lord privilege over her. Luh Sekar’s status is that of the “other.”

There are women who subvert expectations. A teacher to Telaga used perceptions of the “defiled woman” to live the way she wants when she is really a virgin. But even then her life is limited by poverty and social class. There is another woman who parallels Luh Sekar: wanting to destroy fate only to become a prostitute and a slave to capricious beauty standards. Never have I read a book that better explains the patriarchy as a system. The women in Tarian Bumi try to defy their fate but end up adhering to the system and class laws time and time again.

The main lesson this novel tries to teach is that the development of women depend on other women, not men. This is why men are practically nonexistent save as love interests and family members. As readers, we don’t get to unpack them the way we do the women. Even the kindly grandfather’s role is one note: as dispenser of sage advice. Telaga wants to defy her mother and grandmother, but she ends up being shaped by them.

Personally, I disagree. I think the development of the female mind is equally affected by both men and women. But I do recognize that Tarian Bumi is a novel of interesting ideas. And it is here that I will say that Tarian Bumi is a novel much better studied than read. How I wish this book was on the reading list of a literary theory class! The papers I could write, the ideas I could engage with. But I wasn’t terribly impressed with the style or diction. Both felt average and as a reader, I’m an easy lay for beautiful prose. I recommend this book if you are interested in feminist theory. Otherwise, Tarian Bumi might be a bit much.

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For those interested, Tarian Bumi has been translated into English as Earth Dance. I think the English cover is much prettier and more appropriate as it actually utilizes a Balinese painting as its cover. A link to the amazon page is provided here

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima

The Sound of Waves

My Vintage classics edition was translated by Meredith Weatherby

The biggest surprise I had after reading The Sound of Waves was finding out that it wasn’t Yukio Mishima’s first novel. On the list of Mishima’s bloated bibliography, The Sound of Waves was around the tenth novel he wrote. Research on the man shows he had an astonishingly productive career. Combined, he wrote more than a hundred novels, short story collections, essays, and plays. He also had a, well, shall we say, colorful character. Google is your friend if you want to know more about his life and death.

My impression of The Sound of Waves being a first novel was never meant to be an insult, however. The writing never felt inexperienced; it was just that the bare bones simple plot struck me as something a new writer would try out to develop his craft and play around with style. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Boy is poor, girl is rich. Obstacles ensue. Flip a coin and you’ll get a 50-50 chance between a happy ending and a tragic one.

The Sound of Waves is a slow read; the writing is formal and descriptive. The love story can take a back seat to the leisurely paintings of life in a remote Japanese island. Uta-jima, where the novel is set, is a tiny village untouched by modernity where everyone’s livelihood depends on the sea. The daily lives and routines of fishermen and pearl-divers are greatly detailed and the landscape of Uta-jima Island, with its every nook and cranny, is minutely imagined.

Kajikazawa in Kai Province woodblock; an ancient fisherman

Personally, I enjoyed Mishima’s prose: gentle and pure, descriptive yet readable. The way the story is written feels like a novel-length folktale or fairy tale. Like a folktale, it does have clear morals in it. And like a folktale, I often felt detached from the characters. They didn’t feel like drawn-out, fleshed-out characters. They lack layers. Our lovers, Shinji and Hatsue, are exceedingly beautiful and pure. Our antagonists are jealous snobs.

Now I did say I was delighted by Mishima’s depiction of island life but The Sound of Waves occasionally suffers from too much padding. A few scenes I thought were unnecessary. An egregious example would be the pearl-diving women having a “whose breasts are the most beautiful?” contest. It doesn’t happen continuously though. Other scenes unrelated to the main plot were rendered with a deft touch. I particularly loved when Shinji’s brother Hiroshi went to Kyoto for a school excursion and didn’t even know how to use a folding seat at the cinema. It was a sweet portrait of innocence and a clear declaration by Mishima that Utajima-dwellers were “untainted” by the cities.

Here’s the basic verdict: The Sound of Waves is a good book, perfectly pleasant to read. If you want your books to be more than pleasant, if you can’t bother to waste time with books that aren’t less than mind-blowing, then this is probably not for you. The Sound of Waves is slow, sweet, and not particularly memorable. That’s all right, though. I didn’t read The Sound of Waves because I had the feeling it would displace my favorite books. Rather, I wanted to have a taste of Yukio Mishima’s writing before I committed to reading his magnum opus: The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The lovely clarity of Mishima’s prose excites me for more Mishima.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road

I jotted down the sentence “I think I interpreted this novel wrong” on scrap paper when reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. High praises from bloggers I love and trust pointed to Rev Road being this devastating grand tragedy. According to the novel’s Wikipedia page, Richard Yates intended for Revolutionary Road to be an indictment of stifling suburbia and the conformity of fifties Americana.

Well, Revolutionary Road indeed deserves all the praise it gets. It is impeccably well-written; no, Yates is not a lyrical stylist, but his prose is pristine and functional. It is a serious page-turner, but also thought-provoking. And it certainly has a tragic ending. But instead of finding it distressing, I found the novel quite funny.

Ostensibly, Revolutionary Road is about the disintegrating marriage of Frank and April Wheeler. The Wheelers live in the suburbs of Connecticut; Frank goes up to New York to work on weekdays at a sales promotion job he describes as the dullest job you can imagine, nothing interesting about it. April looks after their two young children. Basically, the Wheelers live the typical suburban, middle-class life. What is a little less typical is their antagonistic relationship with each other.

The novel opens with the debut performance of The Laurel Players, an amateur acting company. April, who “had attended one of the leading dramatic schools of New York,” was meant to be their star performer. Instead, the performance tanked. The cast fell apart under pressure and April’s acting with it. A night that ended in disgrace and humiliation culminates in a nasty fight between Frank and April on their way home. The fight is quite upsetting to read about, complete with screams of “You’re sick!” and “You’re disgusting!” and the “racing back over the years for old weapons to rip the scabs off old wounds.” What their monstrous fight is really hiding, is bitter disappointment with their life. They despise their suburban life; they are convinced that they are superior to the conformity culture of fifties America and wish for “the world of the golden people.” So when, several days later, a suddenly-sweet April proposes they relocate to Europe, the only place Frank thinks is worth living, the higher existence they have always dreamed about becomes close enough to touch. April would work as a secretary in Paris and Frank would be free to find himself, his true talent, and his true vocation.

Or at least that is what April hopes. Rather than being a scathing commentary on suburbia, Revolutionary Road –to me, personally- serves as both character study and parodic mockery of the groom, Frank Wheeler.

Frank, oh Frank. Where do I even begin? Frank is one of those guys who projects an image of effortlessness; so tough, suave, and manly. He is a talker, a charmer. Too bad everything about his mannerisms are fake, false, and desperate; Frank is deep down, a roiling cauldron of insecurity. Frank is one of those people who would pontificate endlessly on a subject, mainly politics or philosophy, with such conviction and pseudo-knowledge that the audience can’t help but be taken in. But really, he’s just a whiny wannabe-intellectual trying to impress. Think fatalistic “our country and culture is dying or dead. X country is so much better at A or B or C” lectures and that would be the essence of Frank’s entire oeuvre.

By the end of Part One, I knew this novel wouldn’t end well. Poor April actually believes Frank is the man he is pretending to be and has decided that a move to foreign shores will transform him to full potential. It is Yates’ beautiful irony that although April is the actor by training, it is Frank who is an actor at heart. Despite bemoaning his job all the time, Frank is pretty good at it. And I personally suspect, he kinda likes it too. When Frank’s superior offers him a promotion at work, Frank tries to squirm and save face to April and everybody else. It was a delicious scream to read!

In some ways, Frank is still a sympathetic character. He’s got daddy issues, constantly trying to act the rebel when what he really wants is to prove himself. And the thing is, Frank is so, so familiar because there is a little bit of him in all of us. We all put on a show to convey to the world that we are better than we are; more competent, more intelligent, more compassionate. Sometimes, like Frank, we would try to anticipate other people’s reactions and react accordingly with “spontaneous” wit to impress. But Yates sketched Frank’s wearisome traits to such a degree that Frank becomes a parody in addiction to in-depth character study.

For a novel about marriage, we hear very little from April. Her point of view finally arrives forty pages before the end. By then, I had been dreading what comes next as something happened before this particular chapter that made me just know things are at a boiling point. You can’t say Yates didn’t know how to ratchet up tension and letting it spectacularly implode.

So yeah, before I spoil everything I’ll just say this: Revolutionary Road is a beautiful novel and I echo all the recommendations that came before me. It’s technically-accomplished and a wonderful character study. Truly wonderful. Frank felt like a real person to me. I’m not sure if I read it the way it is intended to, but hey, fiction does lend itself to a barrage of different interpretations, right?

Reading Reboot

What to do when your summer reading has been a dud? For months, my room was littered with half a dozen partly-read books.

The poet Chairil Anwar and I did not get along. Some choice poems from his Complete Works I enjoyed but I gave up halfway through. Despite being widely praised for revolutionizing Indonesian poetry, I got the feeling that the man became (in)famous more for his lifestyle than his poems. The bio pages at the start of my Complete Works copy described a man who was pale, unkempt, and wild, with a devil-may-care attitude and is syphilitic to boot. And what is up with all the blood and pus imagery?

To be fair, though, I’m simply not knowledgeable enough about poetry. Sure, I took poetry courses at uni and learned the technicalities but when it comes to poetry, I’m left with whether the words made an emotional impact or not. Chairil Anwar will affect others deeply, I’m sure. Others of the brooding, nicotine-stained persuasion.

Other books on the pile weren’t even bad. I had been rereading my favorite Indonesian novel ever: Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk and for some unidentifiable reason, two-thirds of the way, the pages stopped turning. I read a hundred pages of The Time Traveler’s Wife and just stopped. Other books suffered the same fate. And because I’m an “endure ‘till the last” reader, I kept them languishing on chairs and sofas, hoping that I would get the inspiration (that never came) to finish them

What to do when your summer reading has been a dud? You do a reading reboot.

In a flush of epiphany, I decided “Screw this!” and shelved back all the half-read books with a vow to read them properly when I’m in the mood for them. I don’t think I’ll ever be in the mood for Anwar, though, so he went to the ‘Maybe Donate’ pile.

Perhaps I’m growing older and less patient but the “endure ‘till the last” method is clearly not working. My reading habits should change. I purchased so many new books during the summer that I’m excited for and I don’t see why I should delay my enjoyment of them. After my room and my conscience were cleared, I picked up the book I had been looking forward to the most: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Reboot successful. I have only 90 pages left of Revolutionary Road to read. It’s exactly the type of book I needed. A page-turner, yet gives you a lot to think about. Despite being marketed as this grand tragedy, I found Rev Road pretty funny mostly. More on that on the review that should be up soon.

Anyway, I should ask you: have you ever had to reboot your reading?