‘Happy Stories, Mostly’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Review – IBP 2022, Number Eleven)

The latest leg of our International Booker Prize longlist travels saw us take a bit of a detour, as we left our Parisian mother behind to swing by the London Book Fair to hear the announcement of the shortlist – and a good one it is, too.  Still, with a few stops left on our journey, there’s no time to hang around, so it’s straight off to Indonesia today to spend some time with a number of people trying to make sense of modern life.  Another gloomy book, then?  On the contrary, there’s a certain playful charm to the stories here – well, mostly 😉

Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
– Tilted Axis Press, translated by Tiffany Tsao
(my review copy is the Australian edition, courtesy of Giramondo Publishing)
What’s it all about?
Pasaribu’s collection brings together twelve stories, running in total to around 140 pages, and on the whole it’s an enjoyable, light experience, portraying scenes of ordinary people going about their lives.  At first, I found myself asking whether most of the stories were truly happy, but perhaps that’s a misinterpretation.  In reality, all of the stories have their dark sides, but they tell the tale of people who aren’t as badly off as you might expect.

So, twelve stories, 140 pages – that means eleven to twelve pages each, right?  Erm, no…  One of the features of the collection is its variety and versatility, and that’s certainly true for the page count.  There are a number of brief vignettes, such as ‘Three Love You, Four Despise You’ (a quick look at an unhappy man in his bedroom) and ‘A Bedtime Story for Your Long Sleep’ (a convoluted story in which a writer asked to tell a sad tale tells a sad tale about a sad tale).  It’s the piece that opens the collection, ‘Enkidu Comes Knocking on New Year’s Eve’, that takes the brevity prize, though, a confusing ‘story’ that’s over in one, solitary paragraph…

However, that means that there’s space for some longer efforts, and for me these were more successful.  The longest piece in the book at thirty pages, ‘The True Story of the Story of the Giant’, is a beautiful, melancholic coming-of-age tale, where we follow a student from the provinces as he navigates his university studies in the capital.  This is set against the background of a bizarre story of an Indonesian giant he heard back home, and a new friend who takes this story unexpectedly seriously.

Another story with a similar tone, if a very different theme, is ‘Ad maioram dei gloriam’.  Here an elderly nun, recently put out to pasture in a home with rather strict rules, decides to rebel and spend some time in the outside world.  One day, a little boy mistakes her for his grandmother, setting off a chain of events that leads to her opening her heart to strangers for the first time in decades.

While some of these longer stories are realistic, one hallmark of the collection as a whole is its variety, and Pasaribu certainly likes to experiment with style.  ‘Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers’, for example, takes the form of a lengthy monologue in which a new arrival is inducted into the bureaucracy of heaven, just as full of backbiting and petty politics as its terrestrial counterpart.  Then there’s ‘Her Story’, the clever closing piece, where the protagonist proves to be strangely aware of her fictional nature – and of her creator.

One of the few things I’d heard about Happy Stories, Mostly before reading it was its handling of gay themes, but they weren’t always treated as I’d expected.  There are several gay characters, featuring in many of the stories, but they tend to be the people around the main protagonist rather than being the focus of the piece.  In ‘So What’s Your Name, Sandra?’, we follow a mother on a pilgrimage of sorts, gradually learning how her relationship with her son led to the trip.  It’s a slightly sombre tale, with an eye for detail:

She needed Panadol – the extra strength ones that Bison used to take.  They came in red strips, sheathed in plastic blisters that glinted like glass.  The texture of the plastic-welded foil reminded her of the small metal file attachment on nail clippers.  The pills looked like bloated grains of white rice and tasted bitter, like medicine should.
‘So What’s Your Name, Sandra?’, p.8 (Giramondo Publishing, 2021)

Noticing these details, however, is a way of coping, a sign that bigger things might be too much to face up to.

Another mother is the focus of ‘Our Descendants Will Be as Numerous as the Clouds in the Sky’ (yes, Pasaribu loves long titles…), but this one is worried about her gay son and his husband, suspecting that there’s something going on:

She imagined Leo and Thomas standing on the left and right sides of her wallet, moving farther away from each other, the gap widening into a gaping hole, the hole widening into a ravine.  She didn’t want to have to build a bridge between her son and his partner.  At her age, she was too old to be laying bricks.

‘Our Descendants Will Be as Numerous as the Clouds in the Sky’, p.115

As it turns out, she’s right to be worried, even if she’s sadly wide of the mark when it comes to the true nature of her son’s issues.

With Tsao successful in bringing the writer’s deceptively simple and playful style across into English, Happy Stories, Mostly is an entertaining collection, with several stories that linger in the memory.  It’s a book that does provide brief glimpses of the writer’s country, and its struggles, but for the most part, the stories are universal, dealing with situations most of us have faced.  There’s a lot here to enjoy, so I’m very happy to have spent a couple of hours in the company of Pasaribu’s inventions.

Well, mostly 😉

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not quite.  This is one of several books jostling at the tail end of my top six, but I have one more book to read, which I suspect will put them all out of their misery.  There’s a lot to like about Pasaribu’s collection, but what stops it from featuring higher in my rankings is the uneven nature of the book.  Yes, there are some great stories here, but there are also a few that don’t work quite as well, so I’m afraid this is one that will just fall short.

Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Probably for the reason above, in addition to the fact that the official judges have chosen a very decent shortlist which simply has no room for this particular book – and there’s no shame in that.

After a rather gentle meander through downtown Jakarta, the next leg of our journey definitely marks a change of pace.  Things are set to get vicious and violent in Mexico, as some alcohol-fuelled fantasies unfortunately lead to real-life carnage – and a story that is anything but heavenly…


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