Book of the month: Budi Darma

Back in 2014, I attended the award party for the now-defunct Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Coming out onto the street afterwards, I found myself face to face with the late Birgit Vanderbeke, whose novel The Mussel Feast, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, received a special mention that year.

I congratulated Vanderbeke and told her I’d really enjoyed the book, an unsettling account of a family waiting for the man of the house to come home. Vanderbeke, however, didn’t look thrilled. To be honest, she told me, the experience with the shortlisting was strange: she’d written that book twenty-five years before. It had been her debut. It was odd to see it celebrated as if it were new.

If Budi Darma, the author of my latest Book of the month, were still alive (like Vanderbeke, he died in 2021), I imagine he might recognise such feelings. First published 40 years ago in Indonesia, his short-story collection People from Bloomington came out for the first time in English in 2022 as a Penguin Modern Classic, translated by Tiffany Tsao.

Written during his time living in Bloomington, US, while the author was studying for a PhD, the book explores the yearning for and fear of human connection. Darma’s protagonists are observers, loitering on the fringes of others’ often bizarre and baffling lives. There is the lodger who observes a gun-toting war veteran in a neighbour’s house, the man who develops a fierce jealousy of his gregarious housemate and the literature enthusiast who takes in a poet who turns out to have an unpleasant disease.

The strangeness of the supporting characters’ actions, however, is nothing compared to the oddness of the protagonists themselves, who reveal themselves in the way they read their surroundings. Their reactions are never stable. Veering from blithe to vicious (several wish violence on acquaintances for seemingly innocuous reasons), these responses are forever catching the reader out.

At times, this can be very funny. Take this passage from early in ‘The Family M’, a story in which the narrator-protagonist takes against two young brothers living in his apartment block:

[…] my life has always been fairly peaceful. Or it was, until the day disaster struck. My car got scratched.

Here, the mismatch between the promise of ‘disaster’ and the banality of the scratched car produces such a jolt that it is almost impossible not to laugh. The starkness of the language and the rhythm (plaudits to translator Tsao here) merely heighten the effect.

Further humour stems from the unlikely and elaborate ruses the protagonists often concoct to achieve their goals or right perceived wrongs. Examples include everything from repeatedly walking down a particular street or shopping at a certain store in the hopes of falling into conversation with the object of an obsession to lobbying for Coca-Cola vending machines to be installed so that the brothers believed to have scratched the car might injure themselves on the discarded bottles.

But such subversions of expectation are also the source of the fear that flows beneath these stories, and erupts to the surface now and then. With protagonists liable to act out their savage and strange desires on occasion, we can never be certain what will happen next. The rules are unclear. Although nominally realist, there is a strange instability not only to the protagonists’ reactions but to the world itself.

Perhaps because of this flightiness, it’s tempting to try to find ways of anchoring the book by positioning it in relation to familiar works and situating it in a larger debate. Indeed, it’s notable how many pages of commentary stand between the cover and the first story – almost as if the editorial folk at Penguin worry readers won’t get the stories without a foreword, introduction and author’s preface to explain them first.

These contain some fascinating insights and reflections. Darma’s PhD was on Jane Austen, leading Intan Paramaditha to dub the collection an absurdist twist on the English novelist’s work in her foreword. Translator Tiffany Tsao, meanwhile, points to the scarcity of depictions of Western societies and characters by non-Western writers in mainstream anglophone literature (although there are plenty in books produced in other quarters). People in Bloomington, she says, could play a valuable part in conversations around cultural appropriation by making the case for redressing the balance that has historically seen writers in dominant cultures depicting those in marginalized groups without the traffic flowing the other way. Darma, on the other hand, reflects on the primacy of theme in his writing.

However, these considerations are secondary to the main point: the quality and distinctiveness of the stories. The collection is unapologetically itself. Certain readers will not like it or find it repetitive. Indeed, the stories may feel a little too interchangeable for some. But for those prepared to give themselves over to Darma’s vision, there is an exhilarating ride in store. It’s about time the English-speaking world got on board.

People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Penguin, 2022)

4 responses

  1. That’s interesting, your anecdote about Birgit Vanderbeke, but all credit to her, for a novel that clearly had stood the test of time and could be relevant to readers in another language/culture in modern times.

    I had a similar thought about the excellent novel Forbidden Notebook by Alba des Céspedes which just came out in English this year, originally published in Italian in 1952 (she died in 1977). Is her work eligible I wondered for the Warwick Prize? I hope so. So much work by women in translation has the potential to have this experience, because there has been so little interest in it until recent years. And there are so many great works, relevant to and likely to be appreciated by today’s audience, should they have the chance to be rediscovered and lobbied for.

    Budi Dharma would likely be delighted and fascinated that his book is being reread today! Great review Ann.

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