Author Archives: litchap

About litchap

Bibliophile, Writer, Filmmaker

Lost In Translation?

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, held on the island of Bali in October, a German poet by the name of Martin Jankowski bluntly stated that any poet writing in a language other than their native tongue was little more than an epigone. In Germany, he maintained, the poet would be “laughed out of town.”

In response, a discussion was recently held at a bookstore in South Jakarta.

Debra Yatim, an Indonesian poet who writes in English, moderated. The panel consisted of Mikael Johani, a poet who recently published a collection of English poems; Nelden Djakababa, whose articles and short stories have appeared in various English publications; Remy Sylado, a poet and novelist; Roswita Nimpuno-Khaiyath, a translator; and John McGlynn, who translated Pramoedya Anta Toer’s later works.

The first two writers were in the “pro” corner and the other three took the other side of the debate.

Some interesting arguments were raised. Nimpuno-Khaiyath, who is of Dutch and Indonesian heritage, said it was a shame that Indonesian readers couldn’t read writers’ works in their best form: in their own language.

Remy provided an example of a Indonesian writer writing in Dutch, who eventually found herself in the no-man’s land of the Dutch literary scene.

Years ago, the poet Sapardi charged that only writers writing in Bahasa could be considered Indonesian writers.

His statement naturally provoked an instant response from writers authoring works in ethnic languages like Javanese.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages

This kind of misunderstanding, if you think about it, is akin to bigotry or chauvinism.

It’s understandable to hear these remarks from translators, for aren’t they in the business of reconstructing original works into other languages?

They may be overly concerned about the “incapable” hands of local translators spoiling the beauty of their own language in another language.

This sentence itself is loaded with irony.

We’ve heard of an Australian translator translating jalan tikus, the local lingo for a shortcut byway, as an alley infested with rodents!

But to hear these remarks from a poet is to my mind unforgivable.

Of all writers, a poet should know that there are three types of languages: ordinary language, immediate language and essential language.

The first two are basically “decipher languages”: they function as signifiers for meanings, and as such are basically dead languages. Their only function is to serve as an exchange between a word and the designated meaning.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages; it is the language of essence. A poet uses this fluidity, shuttling between nothingness and the ungraspable expanse of immanence, to affirm his or her probe in words, which, however, once properly set down in words, will inevitably be consigned to the totality of language, thus fading away again into nothingness.

To accuse a writer writing in a language other than their own of being an epigone is tantamount to saying Yo-yo Ma should stick to the erhu, the two-stringed bowed Chinese instrument, instead of the double bass. Or to disregard such great writers as Joseph Conrad, a Polish national, writing in English; Milan Kundera, a master Czech novelist who writes in French; or Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a Thai national writing in English and considered by many to be Chekov’s equal.

Maybe to this poet from Germany, or to many here in Indonesia who cling obsessively to their own language, these are exceptional writers. They are, without a doubt. More importantly, though, they are great thinkers — great regardless of the language they choose to revel in.

In another time, they could have written in Latin. It was the language of the day.

In the end, language is just an instrument. It is the thought, or the music, that a writer or a musician plucks out of the instrument that counts.

Those who can’t see beyond the instrument are necessarily earthbound by the logical intricacies of language.

A version of this article was published on December 30, 2008 in The Jakarta Globe.

Mantau And The Invisible Kid (A Short Story)

You can hardly see me. I blend quite easily with the crowd. At least we’d like to believe we blend well but most of the time we stick out like sore thumbs. But suffice it to say that through years of learning to stay in the background, disguised like a chameleon so as not to be noticed, I now move among you easily. I’m an illusionist. The Great Svengali. Now you see me, now you don’t. Puff! I am one with the landscape. Subterfuge and disguise, the crowning achievements of my folks. Hard-earned achievements, mind you, through years of playing hide and seek and staying out of trouble. Stay out of trouble, you hear, Ah Fung! Pa used to yell at us boys who tried to attract attention by making noise on the pavement outside Pa’s Chinese apothecary. Go back to your books, boys. Learn them books. Be somebody one day. Stay out of trouble, you hear. If we were good boys that day, he would give us a slice of guava that had been treated with Chinese herbs and our piss. Eat, eat, Pa would insist. Good for your blood circulation. It smelled of stinky mercury but tasted not bad at all. A bit like dried juhi, dried squid, only juicier.
But you see, we were not so easily tempted by Pa’s offer. Instead of learning Chinese onomatopoeia—Ma Mah Maah Maaaa—we preferred to roam out of the study room upstairs and skip up the rusty cast-iron ladder to the flat rooftop where the whole neighborhood’s underwear was on parade. Next door, Uncle Chien’s wife loved to wear lingerie. See-through lacy stuff we used to “borrow” and put them on for size. Mantau, that’s my younger brother. We call him that on account of his head looking like a mantau, the plump and doughy oval bread. Now to be honest, he was the more churlish of us two. He would play with the bras, now putting them on his chest and sashaying like Mrs Chien, mimicking her adeptly. “Lau Lu,” that’s her husband’s nickname, “come and give mama a little pet kiss. Oh, kom. Kom.” Then Mantau whirled around and moments later whirled back round to reveal himself a fighter pilot, the bras pushed up his forehead to look like a fighter pilot’s goggles.
We loved playing in the rooftop, because here we could be whoever we wanted to be without having to be cautious or afraid to attract too much attention. We ruled the rooftop like a couple of despots reigning over a kingdom with the flapping undies and dusters bearing our insignias. Long live the kings! We heralded our supreme domination of the world from the vantage height on the low cinderblock barrier, with the neighbors’ smocks and blouses tied round our necks as capes. Vanquish the enemies. Charge!
Those were the carefree days when our world knew no boundaries and freedom was a word synonymous with breathing. Then that afternoon we chanced upon something that completely changed our world.
Mantau was hurdling through the barriers like cowboys in western flicks jumping over horses. He hurdled over the farthest barrier and did not surface. Oiy! I called out. No response. Mantau! I became seriously concerned after a while and started to scale over the barriers.
I reached the barrier where he had last hurdled over and found the son of a bitch squatting by the rafters, peering intently into a maid’s bathroom. When he saw me jump down from the barrier, he made a signal for me to keep quiet. I crept near him and peered down the direction of his gaze.
That was our first glimpse of a female body. I must tell you it was the most extraordinary sight. Like a bolt of lightning, a catharsis that germinated life, we both came alive. Our pricks, that is. They became ramrod hard. Our bodies burnt like we had been thrown into a cauldron of fire. We knew we would burn in hell, but heck we loved every moment of it.
It was Sansan’s maid. We found out later she had just come from a village in Solo. She was the most beautiful woman we had ever seen in our well-ordered miserable lives. She had a smooth chestnut skin. Her eyes were like the crown jewels we read about in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. Her eyes. Oh, how they sparkled so brightly! Her long jet-black hair flowed down her shapely figure like the softest angora fur that made your hand itchy because you wanted to touch it so badly. Every time she turned–her body glowing moistly in the afternoon light–our hearts beat like drums in a marching band.
I couldn’t recollect who started it first. Mantau wouldn’t admit he was the one who started it but what happened was we both started to stroke our little peckers. Now let’s pause here for a second. We were a couple of well-behaving kids, raised in a family with strict codes of conduct. This sort of behavior, should we have been caught red-handed by Ma, would have caused us to be sent to a temple to be reeducated by a monk for a whole month, counting beads, eating plenty of legumes and practicing to utter OOOM a million times. But the movement came so naturally. In fact it was so natural it scared us how pleasurable it was. We stroked to the rhythm of her movement. Each time we saw the suds sluicing from her hair down the gullet between her breasts, we caught our breaths. Our hands became heated and we stroked and stroked in spite of ourselves, as if only by continuously stroking we would at last free ourselves from the accursed desire, liberating us from the bruises and rough edges of daily existence to enjoin with the ultimate good of the universe.
Something in us stirred, prodding and agitating. We became restless. Mantau coped with this change by adopting a devil-may-care attitude. Whenever Pa hollered for us to come down and help him move some boxes or store away the herbs, Mantau would pretend not to hear. He snuggled in his blanket, his body turned toward the wall, stroking away.
As for me I started to wander off from our neighborhood. I started to visit the waroeng on the street corners, where I knew the maids visited in their spare time. I loitered there for hours, pretending not to see Ma when she came out to look for me. My hope was Sansan’s maid would show up one day. Maybe I would ask her name or if I were lucky enough she would maybe go see a movie with me.
That year marked our fall from grace. From better than average students we became a disgrace. Our parents had high expectations from us. They had never anticipated something like this would happen to their children. Throughout the eight years we had been at school, we had always been the paragon students pointed out by other parents for their children to emulate.
Going to school became a drag. We got easily distracted. Concentration was hell. We soon fell in with the worst pack at school, cutting classes and going to the bus terminal to play dice. It was around that time that Pa became suspicious because the tiller was always empty. When we were loaded with a rare win from one of these gambling bouts, we would all go to a whorehouse on the outskirt of the city. Mantau and I were usually the nervous wrecks. We chipped in for the other boys to do it. We squatted outside the tent, peeking inside at what they were doing.
The boys took turns charging into the stifling tent, in the middle of which lay a big woman with drooping breasts and folds of loose skin gathering on her shanks, legs turned wide open on a bed propped up by stacks of cardboards. While the boys unbuckled their belts and dove in, the whore was unbothered. She was completely absorbed in counting the banknotes in her hands. The boys flopped on top of her and slid off as swiftly as the fruit flies she flicked off her head.
It’s all been quite a while back now but I remember how repelled I was at the sight of these boys climbing over the grossly overweight whore. I noticed that none of them lasted more than five minutes. I knew because I kept the time. But each would saunter out of the tent, stretching their limbs and grabbing their nuts as if they had just conquered a lioness.
I couldn’t stand looking at the spectacle. I edged away from the tent and leaning on a lamppost I started to throw up. From where I was I saw Mantau still squatting outside the tent like a totem pole. I tried to get him to leave with me, but he wouldn’t budge. He said for me to go first. He would catch up with me later. I sat on a plastic chair at a roadside cigarette stand near the terminal, sucking chilled sarsaparilla with a straw. I waited for hours for Mantau to show up, but he never did. I waited a while longer and then started back home.
I’ve never returned to that place ever since. On that dusty afternoon, I left behind more than just a brother to the pack. I left a whole kingdom behind. I realized then without my brother the world was too wayward to be reigned over as a kingdom.
When trudging toward home, I passed by the waroeng. To my surprise I saw Sansan’s maid. She was clad in a floral calico dress, which flapped and swirled in the afternoon breeze. I could have sworn she turned and smiled at me! I straightened, pumped my chest and started to strut like a man. Just about this time, I think, I picked up my bag of tricks in blending with the rest of the world. Now I am moving among you. You see me sometimes, but then again you don’t. Judging from my performance so far, I think I’ve grown pretty good at doing this.

by Richard Oh (in China Moon Anthology 2003)

May I Borrow Your Books?

Here’s a simple request from a friend who stops by the house and peeks into my study room at the chaotic piles of books lying on the carpet beneath my desk, or from a few eager readers who pick up a few names of writers in an engaging conversation over a glass of wine.
It should be a harmless request, by any measure of a friendship. For after all, don’t friends exchange gifts, help each other out with money, chores and often times go to the ridiculous length of covering up our minor embarrassments?
But these are not just books, but Walter Benjamin’s Baudelaire, Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Gombrowicz’s Diaries! Even those bent out of shape by mounting pressure of newly acquired books, each and everyone of them has been selected and picked with triumphant cheers out of neglected shelves in a bookstore somewhere in the world or in a second-hand bookstore somewhere in the city, or from an outdated list of an online bookstore. How am I to say yes? With the resignation, but an anxious heart, that these same books might not find their way back to my dust gathering pile? Or with the boundless joy of the first person passing around great masterpieces to another? And how am I to say no? One look at those eagerly awaiting eyes of the borrower is enough to make me feel repulsed with shame. After a lengthy pause, my answer is the now rehearsed refrain, “No, but I’ll buy them for you.” Which is certainly a quizzical answer to a harmless request, but the most I could do under the circumstances, and in consequence of which, naturally, I have to order those books.
This sense of commitment, bothersome in most instances, arises nonetheless from a strong conviction that this writer friend should read these books; they are good for them. And if out of lack of the means or resources to procure them, now that they’ve found them in my collection and I don’t do anything about it, I’m the selfish fool to deprive them of the opportunity. It’s enough of a burden on my conscience to goad me endlessly to get those books right away.

I couldn’t put a finger on this troublesome bug until recently when I picked up a new issue of the New Yorker. It happened when I was in my teens in a North Sumatera city. A renowned Chinese American author, Maxine Hong-Kingston, was invited to talk in a small American library, and I had the opportunity to show her my writing and talked to her about writing and books. She told me to find some good writings in New Yorker. I had never heard of this magazine before. The American librarian who happened to overhear our conversation told me she subscribed to the magazine and would lend some to me. Weeks later when I still didn’t receive the magazines, I made bold to visit the librarian in her office. In a rather begrudged tone, she told me she hadn’t finished reading them yet. Embarrassed, I beat a retreat. I didn’t hear from her again until months later when I received a dozen old issues of the New Yorker. In a pithy note, she apologized for the delay and told me I could have them because she was moving back to the States.

I can only assume now that it must have been hard for her to part with those prized magazines she had enjoyed so much, but now that she had to leave town the magazines must have been a cumbersome addition to all the freight that needed to be shipped out. I was in a sense the fortunate inheritor of a pile disposed of more for pragmatic reasons than largesse of an altruistic soul.
I naturally don’t blame this librarian for her need to cling on to her magazines for as long as possible, but I certainly don’t share her ‘charitable’ spirit. I would like to believe that my obsession to get hold of books in my possession for my friends who dearly want to read them hails from a different source. It is, I believe, from understanding the urgent need of another reader for fabulously good reads.
Over the years, I have had as much joy in receiving and giving out books, but very rarely I’ve invited them to my home and to my library. I would still occasionally urge them to get a book or books, or order for them, but let me be the first to tell you this: this business of sharing good reads is really a tiresome habit.

A version of this article was published by The Jakarta Globe, January 2009

Literature and Morality

While in most parts of developed countries, barriers of morality have been re-demarcated constantly by writers and painters and philosophers, in this country issues about morality in literature are still vigorously debated. Some senior writers here condemn the works of a handful of female writers – such as Djenar Maesa Ayu, Ayu Utami and Dewi Lestari – as pornographic. These senior writers lament about the loss of the head in Indonesian recent literature. These senior writers are for me as outdated as when George Sand commented on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Sand questioned Flaubert with concern why he wrote a novel so bereft of any morality as Madame Bovary. Flaubert replied to Sand he was not as much interested in the morality of Madame Bovary as he was with her humanity.

Flaubert’s obsession with mots justes and frailty of humanity earned him today the reputation as father of literary modernism. Nietzsche and the postmodern thinkers, such as André Breton, Georges Battaile and the ilk, have pushed the limits of morality ever to the edge. Once they were also accused of being blasphemous in arts. Now they are considered pioneers of the arts. The umbilical cord that once bound literature and morality have once and for all been sundered. Milan Kundera says there’s a history of the arts, but in art there is no history. Repetition in the art is pointless. Any artist worth the salt of the earth constantly aims to break through precedent accepted forms or thoughts. To demand that these writers or artists to conform to the rigidity of morality, or any doctrine for that matter, is akin to tying up the hands behind them, while demanding that they be bold to raise the bars of esthetics.

What then can be gotten out of literature? I hear one of these moralists holler from the back of the room. I think literature is the exchange medium of human experiences. We read into a line of poetry or a paragraph of fiction the relativity of our own experiences and certain ingrained humane truths.

For example, here is a short poem by Philip Larkin, which connects with most enlightened readers, but might have irked stout believers. The poem is called Water.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different cloths;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

It is clear Larkin is a very religious (or secularly) spiritual poet, whichever point of view one wants to look at the poem). Stanza by stanza, he is clearly saying to us one can’t take religiosity as easily as attending church regularly. It takes more ardor than that, for it ‘would entail a fording to dry, different cloths. This is reaffirmed in the next stanza that more rigors are required to carve a path to religiosity: My liturgy would employ/Images of sousing/A furious devout drench.

The lines such as I should raise in the east/A glass of water and Where any-angled light/Would congregate endlessly denote for me Larkin’s call for tolerance of differences of faith because all are congregated by the same light of the Supreme Being. Such a poem might easily offend a devout Christian. In the hand of a highly enlightened poet such as Larkin, he has both broken through an impasse in esthetic expression about religion (a much traversed path since Keats and Shelly) and imparts a fresh truth about religiosity at the same time. Therefore, taking offense at the blasphemous nature of the poem or at the poet would only connote a sort of bigotry or rigidity of one’s understanding of faith.

In the end, we must admit that morality is rigid and art is always dynamic. To find one in the other is possible through a winking irony such as in Larkin’s poem, but often times, the preoccupation of art lies elsewhere.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, December 2008

The Pleasure of Scavenging Through Mouldy Heaps

I’ve always been intrigued by readers who underline vigorously passages in a book or jot impressions or reactions on the page margins. Those who affix Ex Libris stickers or sign their names on the front pages of a book equally puzzle me. I don’t know why I can’t ever bring myself to do that. I slip bookmarks in places where I think I might need them for references. At most, and this is most assuredly my only sin, I earmark them ever so slightly on the tiny triangular edge of the pages, only when I can’t get hold of a bookmark. Whenever a book soiled with coffee stains or in one instance when the book is splashed with splotches of wine from the burst of a decompressed bottle on a flight back from abroad, I become restless and find every opportunity to replace it with a new one.

You would assume then from the statement I’ve just made that I buy only books in mint condition, which will be furthest from the truth. I love ransacking old books in secondhand bookstalls. I don’t mind if the books have been burrowed through by worms or turned grimy with mildew through time. I pick them out carefully from the forgotten piles and bring them home. I keep them out of my library for a few days to ‘clear’ them out of all different kinds of insects before installing them among the heaps of secondhand books on the stacks of secondhand books on my sofa. These books that I’ve picked are mostly free of inky scrawls. But in some cases where I find myself unable to resist the temptation to obtain certain books, which have been underlined or signed by the owners, I shove them into the black plastic bag along with the others. I’m, as you can see, more flexible with experienced books. I find them less demanding of my care and precaution. Their grubby appearances clearly display their survival over time and banishment into debris. The fact that they’ve been retrieved and read again is proof of their strength in renewing their own dignity and worth. Thus, reading them is truly liberating. There is no courteousness required between us; they’re the true equals.

In consequence of my repeated visits to secondhand bookstalls, I have now in possessions a whole collection of Alistair MacLean’s thrillers, almost all of Morris West and Han Suyin’s novels and Guy de Maupassant’s complete works. Among these precious relics salvaged from dusty oblivion are a few prize possessions. A Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1973 edition of Wu Ching-Tzu’s The Scholars, a Commercial Press, Ltd, Shanghai 1923 illustrated edition of Shu-Chiung’s Yang Kuei-Fei, The Most Famous Beauty of China, and a Black’s Readers Service Company, Roslyn, New York 1925 edition of Honore de Balzac’s rare collection of novelettes.

Walter Benjamin describes a book collector’s psychology as a ‘dialectic tension between disorder and order’. What sets out as an orderly urge to purchase a book, over time with unremitting frequency of purchases, turns into an unruly passion. The unread acquisitions turn into chaotic piles that don’t serve a utilitarian purpose: they just sit there. The chaos often puzzles a visitor to the private library. Of all the things the visitor could say, he often chooses the most annoying question. “And you’ve read all these books?” Luckily, having read enough books, I have always on hand a reply from Anatole France, the 1921 French Nobel Laureate. “Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Royal Doulton china every day?”

You must naturally be warned about the many excuses, for they are mostly well-defined excuses for an unwieldy passion, that book collectors might try to pass over to you. In all honesty, they are as befuddled about the whole business as a ten-year old child. Walter Benjamin in fact makes an attempt to explain this symptom as akin to a child’s obsession to collect things. He reasons that there’s a kind of thrill that comes with ownership of objects, which might arise from the magical sense of fate in the encounter. Another explanation from the renowned American literary critic Harold Bloom might well warm to the truth of the matter. He says that a book collector’s obsession to acquire books could be his need to maximize his potential. As for me, I just wallow unabashedly in this most delightful of all passions.

A version of this article appeared May 23, 2009, in The Jakarta Globe.