‘The real theatre is here’ [book review]

A review of The Book of Jakarta, edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma

Each time I read an anthology from Comma Press’s ‘Reading the City’ series, I am immensely impressed by the ability of the editors – who are always different – to order the stories so skilfully that I feel I’ve been taken on a real journey. With The Book of Jakarta, my experience was no different; in fact, it may have been even more profound. Bookended by stories of journeys taken within the city – the first on a motorbike, the last on commuter trains and in taxis – I was drawn immediately into a metropolis that is always on the go, whose main characteristic (at least when it comes to this collection) lies in its ever-shifting scenery, its constant development, the sheer sense of being alive that pervades its streets and, by extension, these pages.

Cover image The Book of Jakarta

Jakarta is not a city I’ve been to, and nor have I had any occasion to read a book about or set in it. I was shocked to learn from the informative introduction penned by editors Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma that it is ‘sinking faster than any other city on the planet’, that it ‘will likely see most of its northern districts completely submerged by 2050’. That this should go so unmentioned is quite astonishing, but perhaps equally amazing to me was the new world of brilliant literature this anthology opens up. Ten stories written by authors based in Jakarta – and very often rendered into English by translators native to the city, too – offer a wide-ranging glimpse of the talent at home in Indonesia’s capital, taking the reader from the red-light district to government offices, the majestic villas of the northern suburbs to the ghostly environs of a future city part underwater. I smiled a lot while reading this collection – perfectly pitched observations and often darkly amusing scenes are not uncommon here – but it also takes up Jakarta’s past and future to tackle serious themes around politics, the environment, wealth distribution and migration, essential for any reader wishing to get to know the city better – or at all. In short, The Book of Jakarta is full of surprises, not to mention memorable stories that are well crafted and highly enjoyable to read.

Though not the easiest collection to pull out favourites from – while varying dramatically in tone and content, each story has its own merits, and all are united by that sharp sense of aliveness – several did stand out for me, including those travel-related stories that open and close the anthology. Ratri Ninditya’s ‘B217AN’, translated by Mikael Johani, offered the perfect introduction to the city, not only in its atmospheric descriptions of a couple riding a motorbike through traffic-clogged streets in the rain, but also its underlying concern with what is expected of and by young people in Jakarta, many of whom become unwitting slaves to the capitalist machine. The abiding sense of resignation present in the story comes back again more forcefully in Yusi Avianto Pareanom’s ‘A Day in the Life of a Guy from Depok Who Travels to Jakarta’, which closes the collection by taking us on an energy-sapping chase around the city, from embassy to meetings to taxicab to bar, eventually bringing us full circle when ‘our beleaguered hero’ realises he will have to go through exactly the same motions tomorrow. Though an absolute delight to read – humour bubbles over in this story in particular, translated by Daniel Owen with aplomb – we mustn’t forget one crucial fact: the main character’s never-ending journey is precipitated by a failed trip to an embassy in pursuit of the visa that would allow him finally to escape the city.

A similarly absurd situation, set entirely in government offices, is conjured up in Hanna Fransisca’s ‘The Aroma of Shrimp Paste’, in translation by Khairani Barokka, which also speaks out about the role of women in society and the uncertain position of Chinese Indonesians within the diverse community of Jakarta. More moving on both these subjects, however, I found to be Shaffira Gayatri’s translation of ‘A Secret from Kramat Tunggak’, Dewi Kharisma Michellia’s distressing portrayal of a mother and daughter unable to escape Jakarta’s notorious red-light district – the consequences of life there pursuing them even long after the area was formally closed down – and Cyntha Hariadi’s ‘The Sun Sets in the North’, translated by Eliza Vitri Handayani. Set around the racial tensions and riots that overwhelmed the city in 1998, this story charts the destruction of an already fragile friendship between two girls from Chinese-Indonesian neighbourhoods, one wealthy and one working-class, probing one of the gaping wounds that lie beneath the frenetic surface of the city. It is also one of the most universal tales, uttering a resounding cry for better understanding between humans. As our narrator learns, ‘people were born differently, had different preferences and carried different shaped wounds’. That we are all different is, in the end, what makes us the same.

Vivid, strongly voiced, amusing, poignant and even frightening – see utiuts’s vision of a partly swamped Jakarta ruled by automated systems and driverless cars in Zoë McLaughlin’s sharp translation of ‘Buyan’ – the stories in The Book of Jakarta present to us the lives of real people, credible characters who, as the editors put it, ‘feel the consequences of political, social and environmental change in deeply personal ways’. In this sense, the anthology functions as a mirror, offering us a clear reflection of the city but also inviting us to go deeper – and, in many ways, to then turn the mirror on ourselves. Jakarta, it seems to me, is a city to which we ought to pay attention, not only because of the drastic environmental consequences it is facing, but because so many important, universally applicable human issues play out within its limits, many of them explored in this groundbreaking collection. With its keen observations, scenes both heart-lifting and heart-wrenching, and broad array of literary talent, The Book of Jakarta is well worth reading. I couldn’t put it better than the narrator of the penultimate story: ‘The real theatre is here.’

The Book of Jakarta, edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma, is published by Comma Press as part of the ‘Reading the City’ series. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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