What was that old chestnut? “Second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience.” Yeah, that’s the one.
Forgive me for trotting out that dead horse, but the quote perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Leila S. Chudori. This was a third marriage, even, since I have read two of Chudori’s past books, the short story collections Malam Terakhir (Final Night) and 9 dari Nadira (9 from Nadira). I always enjoy the clarity of Chudori’s prose but was never truly blown away by her fiction. Both collections I would rate 3 stars on goodreads.
So when I found myself purchasing her latest work and first novel Pulang, the rational part of my brain sighed ‘What, what, what are you doing?’ Taking advantage of book discounts, of course, I answered back.
It turns out, sometimes irrationality pays off. In Pulang, Chudori realized all her writerly potential. She was always a great writer, but her short story collections either lacked that special something or just never gelled together.
I smiled when I shut Pulang’s final page. It’s been a while since I read an Indonesian novel this good, which in turn, makes me extra happy and patriotic to recommend Pulang.
Pulang is one of those epic novels that is multigenerational and spans multiple countries, with a backdrop of important historical dates and events. While the scope is large, Pulang also feels intimate because Chudori focuses more on family relations and lovers and friendships.
The novel is split into three major sections, each told from the point of view of different characters. Dimas Suryo, displaced and declared persona non grata by his own homeland, begins our novel. He was a journalist who mixed with a leftist crowd. Unfortunately, despite having neutral values, he chose the wrong time to make friends with liberals. The year is 1965 and his connections make him suspect. Suryo was lucky to have escaped with his head, fortuitously attending a foreign news conference with close coworkers. However, Suryo and his friends are now political exiles, moving swiftly from country to country until settling in Paris, France. Suryo falls in love with a Frenchwoman, marries, has a child, but can never escape his roots.
Lintang Utara, Suryo’s daughter with Frenchwoman Vivienne Deveraux, is struggling with her final uni project, a documentary. Her chosen topic, says her advisor, is exhausted. Why not film something about Indonesia? Your roots are there and people don’t talk much about Indonesia. Doubtful at first, Utara ends up agreeing and packing her bags for Jakarta. Meanwhile, in our final segment, Segara Alam, son of a persecuted 1965 man, heavily dreads the arrival of the half-French/half-Indonesian girl, expecting her to be slightly spoiled and very clueless. The year is 1998, which marks another earthquake, quite dark, in Indonesian history.
Pulang focuses on intellectuals and there are many references to literary writers, highfalutin artists, and their ideas and works. Don’t be fooled, though. This isn’t an abstract, experimental treatise. Part of the reason why I loved Pulang so much is its nimble plot, old-fashioned storytelling, and healthy dose of drama. There’s the terminal father, the love triangles, the rapturous swooning at first sight. Pulang feels classic in a slightly Dickensian way.
As always, Chudori’s prose is beautifully fluid, clear, and readable – and she always picks the most intriguing metaphors, which makes Pulang, despite its ambition to be dense, actually a page-turner.
Pulang isn’t a perfect novel though (is there a perfect novel?). Everyone’s POV sort of blends together. It doesn’t help that they all like and reference the same authors and philosophers. I did giggle, because in my subjective opinion, it perfectly describes the clique-like hive mind of some intellectual groups. It’s a bit unlikely though, because I got the feeling from her previous collections that Chudori is actually quite worshipful of academic types.
Kudos to Leila though. Pulang is far better nuanced than her previous writing. Not all intellectuals are holy martyrs and not all those in the establishment are cruel despots – in Pulang, Chudori fully acknowledges that people are gray and unsure.
But some of my quibbles remain the same. This is not the first time a woman who (shock! unbelievable!) has a healthy appetite is considered so revolutionary. Oh, and women who love shopping have nothing in their silly little heads, donchaknow?
I really wished these sentiments weren’t repeated in Pulang. It’s 2016, people! Women can love fashion and makeup and still be very intelligent. Ugh!
While I think it’s fair to note their issues, I still recommend Pulang wholeheartedly. The storytelling is great, it’s a page-turner, it’s well-researched, and it is the culmination of Chudori’s powers as a fiction writer. Pulang is a great Indonesian novel. Heck, Pulang is a great novel full stop.
Has an English translation published by Deep Vellum Publishing, for which I have a small rant.
I’m not sure why the blurb at the back has to mention the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing just because both works focus on the 1965 events in Indonesia. I mean, I get it. Indonesia is a largely invisible country and the copywriter probably wanted to orient readers to the historical backdrop of Pulang (Home). But it has the unfortunate effect of making it sound like Pulang has to piggyback off The Act of Killing when Pulang is an excellent novel that stands on its own. I hope I don’t sound like a nasty paranoid for finding this annoying.