This week sees the latest staging of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and 2015’s guest of honour is Indonesia, a country which is currently a blank on my literary explorers map. In honour of the event, then, I’ve decided to devote the week to Indonesian fiction, with three reviews of books by Indonesian writers for your pleasure – and here’s the second of my reviews 🙂
Dewi Lestari’s Supernova (translated by Harry Aveling, review copy courtesy of the Lontar Foundation) begins with a meeting between two Indonesian expats in the US. Ruben, a medical student, and Dhimas, a writer, share a drug-fuelled experience at a party, and back in Indonesia ten years later, the men are still in love.
They decide to write a story together, one blending Dhimas’ writing skills with Ruben’s vast knowledge of the brain and the world of science (he has since become a ‘quantum psychologist’…). The story is to look at the people of Jakarta and is based on the folktale ‘The Knight, the Princess and the Falling Star’, showing the pressures of modern society and how we are all interconnected yet unique. The work goes along nicely, but as the story develops, Ruben and Dhimas slowly start to have their doubts as to how their project is progressing; are they really writing the story, or is it actually writing them?
Supernova is the first in a planned series of six books (as far as I’m aware,
three have been released in Indonesian so far UPDATE: comments below say five so far with the last due next year), and one of the more interesting facts about the project is Lestari’s past as a pop star. From the information given in the biography at the end of the book, it’s akin to Beyoncé taking up literary fiction… The book is an ambitious attempt to meld social commentary, quantum physics and meta-fiction, all in just over 200 pages (and if Ms. Knowles does want to attempt that, I’d be very happy to check it out!).
Beyond the frame of the two men’s story, Supernova’s main focus is life in Jakarta. Ferré (the ‘knight’), a hyper-successful businessman, meets and falls in love with Rana, a magazine reporter. It’s love at first sight, but the fact that she is already married rather complicates matters, with the ensuing affair changing both their lives for the better (both experience more happiness than they had previously imagined possible) and worse (the complications resulting from their need to hide the relationship).
Later, a third important character is introduced. Diva is an improbably beautiful and intelligent model, who also works as a high-class call girl. She enjoys her vocation, despite having the capacity to succeed in any other activity she might choose to pursue, but her dealings with the opposite sex are strictly confined to financial and physical transactions. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that her path will cross with that of Ferré, changing both of their lives.
The main theme of the novel is that of interconnectedness, with the writer wanting to explain the way the universe works – at the start of the book, Lestari makes her intentions very clear:
“Supernova is not an occult text. Not a religious institution. Not a course in philosophy. Supernova includes many things – history, myth, science, your supermarket receipts – to show you nodes in the silver thread of the network of life. Process this information through your own individual filter and adapt it to your own place in reality.”
(Lontar Foundation, 2011)
That’s certainly an ambitious remit… The key to all of this is Supernova itself, an anonymous online entity giving advice to those seeking meaning in life, an existential agony-aunt if you will, and in the Indonesian metropolis, there are plenty of people desperate for this help.
The culprit for this angst is the society around them, one that oppresses all who live in the capital:
“The city never rested. The pendulum of time drove it to work nonstop. Enormous hands, the same invisible hands that prodded people to rise from their beds and begin to work, swept through every corner of the capital. The same hands that would then drive them home again later, loaded down with worries and uneasy dreams. The same invisible hands that would smash anyone who dared to disobey its rhythm, who preferred a life of leisure.”
While this is true of most places around the world, Lestari attempts to show how Indonesia can be particularly frustrating. Rana, especially, struggles to reconcile her love for Ferré with her social obligations, unable to exit her loveless marriage because of the pressure from those around her.
Supernova can be very clever, and the meta-fictional elements featuring the bickering Ruben and Dhimas are interesting, especially when the story starts to bleed into the two lovers’ ‘real’ world. However, in other places the writing can feel a little wooden and explanatory; the other characters are the men’s puppets, and far too often they read that way. It’s possibly a deliberate ploy, but it can be a little jarring at times, with the characters as characters, not people. I also remain unconvinced by the dumping of large amounts of sciency explanations between the scenes, more reminiscent of an episode of Doctor Who than of a serious exploration of the topics involved.
On the whole, though, Supernova is an entertaining story, with the scenes featuring Diva the highlight of the story for me. It’s a book which looks as if it’s leaning just as much towards speculative fiction as literary fiction, so if that sounds like your thing, why not give it a try? Of course, if you do like it, you may be waiting a while for the rest of the series to make it into English – let’s hope that the Lontar Foundation is on the case 🙂
The Lontar Foundation is an organisation attempting to promote Indonesian literature overseas (mainly in English and German) – like Korea’s Literature Translation Institute, but with less funding. It’s a worthwhile project, with many of their books available on Amazon. If you’re interested in finding out what Indonesian literature is all about, I’d recommend that you check out their site 🙂