In the ten years since I set out to read the world, I have interacted with thousands of book lovers, writers, academics and curious readers around the globe. Many of the most illuminating of these discussions have been with translators – people who, by virtue of having expertise in two or more languages and extensive experience working on texts, are able to shed light on how books travel and what comes into English, and often draw my attention to gems that would otherwise pass me by.
So I was delighted when, a few weeks back, an email arrived from Irfan Kortschak, a translator based in Jakarta, sharing some thoughts about Indonesian literature. Chief among his recommendations was the work of Ayu Utami, a groundbreaking novelist, whose Saman (1998) is credited with ushering in a sea change in the nation’s storytelling by daring to deal with sex and politics in a way that was previously off-limits for female authors. This shift is known as sastra wangi, with some people at the time anecdotally referring to the women writers in the movement as the ‘cliterati’.
‘Ayu is an old friend,’ wrote Kortschak. ‘She’s quite involved in the arts and literature center that I translate for. You do have to remember that she became a best-selling author in the final years of the Soeharto dictatorship, when a sort of Victorian morality prevailed and it wasn’t acceptable for women to talk about their sexual experiences. Her books were radically shocking and she often appeared on television, where each time she would appall the audiences by saying she had no intention of getting married, by talking about her experiences with men[…] and so on. It wasn’t unusual for her to receive death threats.[…] I’m happy to say that Indonesia seems to have moved on a bit since then!’
Billed as a novel, although perhaps more accurately a collection of interlinked short stories (written in markedly different registers), Saman, translated by Pam Allen, presents the experiences of four female friends and a Roman Catholic priest, who is the title character. With sections set in 1996, 1990 and 1983, and moving between New York and Indonesia, it reveals how each of them negotiates the tightrope strung between family expectations, social mores, political obligations, spiritual promptings and personal inclination, using their time in the ostensibly more liberated US as a foil for their lives back home.
In her extremely frank and illuminating ‘Note on the Translation’, in which she writes about the challenge of not allowing her sense of political correctness to distort the English-language version, Allen describes the work as ‘a visual panorama rather than a plot-driven narrative’. Although understandable, this is slightly misleading: while Saman may lack the sort of overarching story thread many anglophone readers will be used to, there is great urgency in many of the sections. Whether she is writing about a thirty-year-old virgin waiting for her married lover to appear in Central Park or a priest struggling to prevent a mentally disabled young woman from being abused in a rural village, Utami has the knack of getting us on the side of her characters.
It’s interesting that Allen found her sense of taboo to be a stumbling block while translating the book, as the differing perspectives and biases that contrasting life experiences and expectations give us is a key theme. I particularly enjoyed the presentation of the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch, which, although earnest in its desire to ameliorate the situation of oppressed people in Indonesia somehow fails to grasp the multi-layered nature of that experience:
‘Despite HRW’s sincere concern about these problems, its office seems so remote – an entire world away. I can’t imagine how the people who work there – having never experienced such problems themselves – can have a feel for what is happening so far away – the violence, and the humor too, that happens there. Could they really believe it possible that a young woman like Marsinah might be brutally beaten and left to die for having the audacity to question the fairness of her wages? Can they imagine how they would feel about the intelligence investigation that followed her murder and that resulted in innocent people being tortured until they falsely confessed – thereby enabling the real murderer to get off scot-free?
‘At the same time, people in the office also seem to have an exaggerated notion of the effectiveness of an oppressive system like the one in Indonesia; they don’t seem to realize, for example, that it’s not all that difficult to obtain the books of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other banned authors. Or that you can throw a small party for your friends in jail and give them a laptop computer or a mobile phone! I don’t see Indonesia as you do, as a machine of oppression. Instead, I envisage our country as swirling with unpredictability, a place where the law oscillates like a pendulum.’
The insight about humour struck me as particularly thought-provoking. It is a truism in translation that jokes are hard to move between languages. Might this sometimes not merely be a technical issue but a function of the fact that in the struggle to envisage people in distant places and traditions as fully human, humour is one of the first elements to slip from our grasp?
Utami and Allen certainly do their level best to combat this. This book is strikingly funny – often irreverently so. Whether it deals with a bet that requires the loser to embarrass herself by going and buying a box of novelty condoms or self-deception around weight loss and diet, the narrative leaves us in no doubt that its characters have a strong sense of the ridiculous and no trouble sending themselves up. The ability to shock is not the sole preserve of liberal Westerners, we learn, often with a chuckle.
Yet this is no lightweight amusement. Time and again, Utami and Allen nail insights that take us to the heart of the events portrayed, reminding us that the world moves differently, depending on where you find yourself: ‘It rotates clockwise if we imagine ourselves standing in the South Pole looking to the other pole. And if we were in the North Pole it would rotate in the opposite direction. Weird, eh?’
Reading Saman is not without its challenges: veering from satirical to realist to fable-like, the narrative keeps rewriting its own rules. Things happen in some sections that would not be possible in others. What’s more, as is often the case with works split between several perspectives and periods, some passages are more successful than others.
But this, surely, is no surprise in a novel that sets out to present experiences ranging from banter with friends to interrogation under torture. We human beings are, after all, not seamless, through-written works. Anyone seeking to portray us honestly must find a way to reflect this unevenness. The violence, and the humour too.
Saman by Ayu Utami, translated from the Indonesian by Pam Allen (Equinox Publishing, 2005)