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)

Book of the month: Eka Kurniawan


This was a recommendation from friend and fellow writer, Trilby Kent. She mentioned a few weeks ago that she had just discovered Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan and highly recommended his work.

Kent isn’t the only person to have been wowed by Kurniawan. His latest novel to be translated into English, Man Tiger, recently received a glowing review in the UK Guardian, which described it as a Javanese subversion of the crime fiction genre. Furthermore, when I clicked open my e-copy, I was confronted by another endorsement in the form of an effusive introduction by celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, who died earlier this month. Despite describing the English translation of the title as ‘slightly awkward’, he was adamant that Kurniawan was Indonesia’s ‘most original living writer of novels and short stories’.

I turned to page one with a sinking heart. Could any novel really live up to such a fanfare?

I’m pleased to report that Man Tiger does so with ease. Opening with the savage murder of an ageing villager by the young man, Margio, who has been dating his daughter, this novel pours forth a stream of delights. As we follow the unfolding of the narrative, watching Kurniawan peel back layer after layer of grudges, half-remembered incidents and surprising events, we meet many characters so vivid and robust that they seem at times to lean from the pages and hoick us bodily into their concerns. There is the major who is convinced that the piece of ground he has been honoured with in the heroes’ cemetery is simply an invitation to die quickly and the elderly woman who would rather poison herself by eating the soil of her land than allow her avaricious children to get their hands on her wealth.

The references to crime fiction that several English-language reviewers have made are understandable, but potentially a little misleading. While the intricate and deftly tuned plot runs like clockwork throughout, keeping us guessing until the last page – not about who did what (we know that in the first sentence), but about why things happened the way they did – this book is so much more than a mere twist on a familiar genre. It brings in huge amounts of other things: myth, oral storytelling techniques and a brand of the fantastic that many will no doubt describe as ‘magical realism’, but which is quite unlike anything else I have read in that category.

The writing reflects the novel’s hybrid nature, shifting between registers with breathtaking dexterity. Moments of brutal matter-of-factness – gritty as anything you’ll find in the pages of Larsson or Nesbø – give way to bathos, flights of lyricism and a beauty that is almost painful.

Indeed, though there are one or two oddities in the text (some of which may of course reflect the original), translator Labodalih Sembiring deserves praise for his part in this extraordinary book. Gems such as ‘the night tumbled upon them, buoying the stars and hanging up a severed moon’, and ‘he gave up on cutting hair, and instead trimmed away at his own soul, snip by snip’ make the text glitter. This is particularly worth noting when you reflect that, as Anderson explains in his introduction, Kurniawan’s work presents great challenges for translators because it ‘includes contemporary coinages as well as many obscure words, still used in remote villages, but absent in present-day urban-centred dictionaries’.

There’s so much more to say. I wanted to tell you about Kurniawan’s extraordinary eye for detail, which brings the novel’s lush settings close enough to touch. I’d love to have written at length about his uncanny understanding of why we do what we do, and the way he portrays human ugliness, vulnerability and tenderness in all their fullness. I’ve got a whole list here of moments that had me chuckling and insights that made me nod in recognition.

But instead of turning this blog post into a dissertation, let me suggest this: give yourself a treat and buy this book or request it from your library. Then you can discover all this and much more for yourself. I can’t think of a better way to start 2016 than in the company of such thrilling writing. Happy New Year.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Bahasa Indonesia by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, 2015)

Picture by Yos C. Wiranata on

Indonesia: talking about revolution

The further I get into this project to read the world, the more I appreciate the challenge facing translators working with books written in societies very different from my own. Not only must they endeavour to create engaging and faithful reflections of the original texts, but they must often also find a way of explaining objects, customs and even whole belief systems that may have no counterpart in their target audience’s culture without turning the narratives into anthropological essays.

Some, like May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, the translators of Ibrahim Al-Koni’s The Bleeding of the Stone, choose to tackle this with a brief notes section at the back, to which readers can defer for help decoding terms they may not have come across before. In other cases, as with Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, cultural and linguistic differences lead to a substantial reworking of the translated text, with controversial results.

Few books, however, can have required more fancy philological footwork than YB Mangunwijaya’s Durga/Umayi. Not only does this novel satirise most of the major political events in Indonesia from the 1930s to the late 1980s, but it also draws on the region’s shadow-play tradition, weaving a number of Indonesia’s myths into the text. On top of this, as translator Ward Keeler explains in the introduction, Mangunwijaya has helped himself to all the different dialects of Indonesian spoken in the country, creating his own ‘zany style that is without precedent in Indonesian or Javanese literature’. Phew.

The basic premise — thank goodness — is relatively simple. Central character, Iin, a young woman opposed to the ‘cooking-cleaning-cuddling view’ of her sex, finds herself with a front-row seat at most of Indonesia’s key historical events, from before the time of independence from the Dutch, through the Japanese occupation of the 1940s and the horrific communist massacres of the 1960s and beyond.

Mirroring the events shaping her nation, Iin morphs from a young idealist into a hardened globe-trotter, cutting cynical deals that will never benefit the people she used to care for most and changing her dress, manner and even her face and body to fit each new scenario. Like the beautiful goddess Durga of the title — who finds herself transformed into the monstrous Umayi when she refuses to have sex with her husband Lord Guru in public — Iin loses her identity in her effort to assert herself.

As with all great satirists, Mangunwijaya has an eye for the ridiculous and a talent for plunging pride into bathos. So we hear of ‘the Nippon Armed Forces who were undefeated but then were’ and the lament of the peasant farmers: ‘Oh God, when is this freedom era going to end, begging your pardon’. Again, like the best satire, this merciless stripping back of pretension and propaganda proceeds from deep, humane anger at the injustices heaped upon normal people, which bubbles up through the text, aerating and stirring the narrative.

For all its brilliance, however, this novel does come with a health warning. Delightful though Mangunwijaya’s ‘verbal high jinks’ can be, they demand a lot. Sentences spiral off across page after page, leaving the reader trailing behind them, struggling to keep hold of subjects and objects, nevermind the overall sense. At times, searching in vain for a main clause, I found myself wondering if I had any idea what was going on at all, as though the language was forcing me to share the bewilderment of the Indonesians as regime change after regime change sweeps their land.

This is not a book to curl up with. It’s a book to concentrate on and frown at and read bits of several times over. The effort it is worth it though: this is easily one of the most inventive, urgent and passionate texts I’ve read. It’s also a testament to what skilled translators, the neglected heroes of the world literature scene, can achieve. Hats off to you, Ward Keeler.

Durga/Umayi by YB Mangunwijaya (translated from the Indonesian by Ward Keeler). Publisher (this edition): University of Washington Press (2004)