Category Archives: books

Milestone

See you later Fox and HareDevica aan de top 09.11.2014

It’s not cool to be a nerd. The be a bookworm. You don’t want to be. You don’t want your child to be, do you?

For me it’s different.

Actually I once wanted to be one myself. But in spite of the approximately 5000 books I own, I failed. I always stayed a superficial loud mouth. And now I do what lousy grandparents tend to do; I try to transfer my own frustrated ambitions to my offspring :-P.

Therefore over the last few years I’ve provided my granddaughter with numerous children’s books. Partly to anticipate her intellectual awakening. Yeah, I did and do bet on my granddaughter to become the full professional family nerd.

After many years of having been reading stories for Devica Esha a few weeks ago my six years old granddaughter has read two and a half pages of the thrilling story of “Tot kijk, Vos en Haas”( Goodbye, Fox and Hare ) to me.  TO ME. Milestone! Yes! Hesitatingly sometimes, but pretty much flawlessly :).

And, well, apparently she suddenly actually crossed the border. She independently explores literary territory ;-).

And it didn’t stop there :). Look at the picture!

Like any real dedicated reader she found herself a special place where she can read undisturbed. On top of the wardrobe in her bedroom. With her back against the books of giants the like of Astrid Lindgren,  Roald Dahl, Hans Christian Andersen and Annie M.G. Schmidt. Not bad, these great authors’ book covers offering physical comfort during the very first stage of her voyage of discovery :).

She is making a head-start by choosing such a nice secluded place to read. Out of reach from curious parents and other potential intruders intending to annoyingly checking content over her shoulders and offering unwanted comments.

Yes, hurray, she shows the right attitude. I’ve high hopes she will be our first family nerd indeed :).

Tropical naturalism; two novels by Okky Madasari

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Maryam (2012) which revolves around people who are displaced due to their beliefs and then banned into exile. Maryam has been translated into English under the title The Outcast (2014). Her first novel, Entrok (2010) which tells a story about military dominance during Indonesia’s New Order Era, has been translated also into English language with the title The Years of The Voiceless (2013).

 

One of the most wonderful ladies in Jakarta  sent this parcel a couple of months ago. Anonymously ! But I know who she is :).

It’s content? Two items, two examples of today’s Indonesian literature. By Okky Puspa Madasary, who is a very prolific and successful Indonesian author and literary prize winner. She published four novels within the timespan of only four years. That’s really extraordinary.

Perhaps she would be shocked if her novels would be compared to those of Emile Zola. After all she herself considers modern classic celebrities Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault and Edward Said to be her intellectual roots. Which in the case of Gramsci is a brave admission -at least when you are a citizen in Indonesia’s anti-socialist environment.

Yet judging by the contents of the novels I recently read, she also is a literary great-great granddaughter of the great French naturalistic author. While on the surface the focus of the two stories seems to be on the relation between daughter and mother, de facto the absence of rule of law which turns a religious minority in prosecuted victims and the exploitation and abuse of common people in the New Order military system, is what these books really are about. “The outcast” (Maryam  = name of the main character) and “The years of the Voiceless” (Entrok – = bra) expose the dark harshness of a life of  vice and misery, of discrimination and exploitation, of oppression and violence, of corruption and arbitrariness, of poverty and racism in Indonesia’s recent history. That, in my opinion, very much resembles hardcore tropical naturalism. And, by the way it fits one of my four preferred themes: vulnerable people and their human condition.

I like the novels :). With all my heart.

And what about the brain? Because the question whether these novels are good or even excellent books, has yet to be answered.

The answer will be given by history and the forum of literary pundits of which I’m definitely not a member. Apsanti Djokosujatno however is. He wrote she is in the league of, Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Pedantic as it may be, I think that’s an exaggeration. Though my appraisal may have been influenced by the translation. I guess an able editor could have worked wonders – at least for “The Outcast”.

Now of course her books no doubt are a good, entertaining read, because  Okky Madasari is an excellent storyteller. They are relevant, because they deal with real problems the people of Indonesia had and have to cope with. They carry the reader easily away, because the main characters resemble people you can’t but sympathize with.

But “The Outcast” as well as “The Years of the Voiceless” suffer from overload. Too much. Slightly too much urgency. Perhaps even slightly too much of an activist lampoon.

Maybe the ambitions caused overreach also. While dealing with the development of the relation between daughter and mother, the books also address the struggle of modern women with tradition. On top of that the whole range of social, economic, religious and political tensions of the New Order comes along in a critical sense.

Real hors concours novels have to be timeless. Now Okky Madasari deliberately choose to write for here and now. That’s a very respectable choice but creates the danger of setting the sights too high at this stage of her career.

One more detail. I’m not excited about the author’s choice of perspective – the third person narrative. It’s common and fits late nineteenth century naturalism. But I’m afraid that’s more or less outdated. It produces a lot of description and relatively few dialogue. Which doesn’t help the reader to use his/her imagination. It’s a pitfall the author couldn’t always avoid.

So, a new, female, Pramoedya? No, not yet.

************************************************************************

Yet.

All in all, in spite of some flaws, I really enjoyed the novels. The author is ok, she is young, she is an interesting representative of a new generation of Indonesian authors. So I hope to lay hands on her other books – one dealing with corruption, one with individual freedom.

 

Ten books that matter to me

boekenShow me your library and I will tell you who you are…

My mother used to read books to me. A lot. Often the same book,  at my request. Over and over again. When I was five I knew “Jantje’s eerste boek” (H Kaal, 1933) from cover to cover by heart. From that moment on, from the moment I could read myself, I’ve been a real ardent reader. Definitely after I finished Johan Fabricius’ fabulous book for boys, “De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe” (1924. Bontekoe’s ship-boys), which is set in the 17th century and tells the story of a few boys from the city of Hoorn sailing on an VOC ship to the East Indies. I was eleven or twelve years old and it may have shaped my lifetime appetite for literature and Indonesia ;-). Though a few years later there was a serious lull as far as my literary interest is concerned.At the peak of my  puberty the dictatorship of hormones directed my attention almost exclusively to the fairer sex.

Back to subject.

Now it happened the other day that fellow blogger, Fallissa Putri, asked ten persons to mention ten books that matter most to them. And to do so spontaneously.

Till now I didn’t respond to her request. Because… Well, just try yourself and you’ll find that it is tough. Frankly, it’s practically impossible to mention those books out of hand, to do so without taking a time out to think it over first.

As a book-lover you’ve read more than ten books which did stick on your mind. Most likely scores of books are or were important and dear to you. And moreover it’s quite a challenge to make a ranking. And of course there are several ways in which books can matter; style, content, emotion, plot, dialogues, intellectual or moral compass quality, whatever. Also for each of them there may be a separate list of most influential first ten books. Last but not least you can’t choose without asking yourself “why?” first.

Yet, after taking some time, I came to a conclusion. Several conclusions actually.

It seems it’s not the plot which is crucial to me. Nor the psychological development of the main characters. And, though it’s very important while reading, not even the style of writing.  Rather I tend to get hooked by books’ emotional atmosphere first and foremost. Books which go to my guts before influencing my brains I like best. So I select by using that criterion.

Next I noticed themes matter. Much. Four of them are of utmost interest to me apparently.

As someone who grew up and was educated during ( ’39 – ’45) and in the aftermath ( ’45 – ’55) of WO II, it is not that surprising that that global catastrophe is the first theme.  This specific war has been a literary crystallisation point for the largest part of my life ( * – scroll down for my three favourites in this category).

Probably adolescent  and student years ( 18 – 25 ) are the most determining stage in one’s life. In my life and times those were the years of high hopes and idealism. Leftist ideals mostly to me. No wonder the second main theme of my reading life is the  demise of the great ideals of socialism (social democracy) ( **  –  scroll down for my three favourites)

The next, third theme I seem to be obsessed by, is the melancholy of vulnerable people, their human condition ( like Malraux coined it).  The attempts of such ordinary people, common people, decent people, to compromise with or surrender to the  overwhelming challenges of life. It’s a popular genre, books galore.(*** –  scroll down for my two favourites).

My fourth and last theme is also almost obvious: the male perspective. I can’t deny I’m a man after all. Evidently many authors (m/f)  have a feminine perspective ( Isabel Allende) and many are as an author of prose or poetry literary  androgynous ( Paulo Coelho). But I seem to love those who take a masculine approach to their subjects (**** – scroll down for my two favourites).

So ultimately I found  ten novels that constitute the answer Fallissa’s question:

1.  Louis Paul Boon : Kapellekensbaan** (  Chapel Road)

2  Willem Frederik Hermans : De donkere kamer van Damocles*  (The Darkroom of Damocles)

3. Louis Ferdinand Céline : Voyage au bout de la nuit** (Journey to the end of the night)

4. Primo Levi : Se non ora, quando?* (If not now when?)

5. Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel* (The tin drum)

6.  Bohumil Hrabal: Vita Nuova*** (Vita Nova)

7. Brigitte Reimann:  Ich bedaure nichts ** (I regret nothing)

8. James Salter: A sport and a Pastime ****

9.  Malcolm Lowry : Under the volcano ***

10. Ernest Hemingway: A farewell to arms****

The other woman

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At 60 I fell in love with another woman. She was not even forty when I met her.

I told my wife.  She was broad minded as she usually is and didn’t raise objections to my new relation. On the contrary, she was happy for my renewed passion.  So we decided to pay a visit to  Brigitte’s  home in Neubrandenburg, Germany,  together.

Brigitte Reimann was a famous author in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.  Almost forgotten though towards the end of the century.

After the “West had won the cold war” and  the Berlin wall had come tumbling down, the achievements of artists who had their career behind the Iron Curtain and had not been oppositional,  generally were in low esteem. And actually Brigitte Reimann had been one of  those novelists who had had high hopes and socialist ideals in her country.

Now of course Babes, my wife, had few reasons to be jealous. After all this particular DDR writer had died at the start of the seventies.  And my sudden infatuation was a direct result of the hype the unexpected publication of her diaries caused in literary Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Her life – on a modest scale- was heroic.  In spite of her obvious literary success, tragic also. Because of her genuine ideals fading by and by, her sloppy love life  and her anxieties while loosing her battle against breast cancer. Yet she didn’t give in, kept on writing and publishing and always stood out as an intelligent, independent woman.

Perhaps – though her “Ankunft im Alltag” is social realism at it’s best –  she is not the most prominent female author of novels the DDR has produced. But her diaries definitely belong to the top. I even think they are the best since ’45. I’m taking all continents in consideration.

I bought part 1,  “Ich bedaure nichts” ( I regret nothing),  and got carried way.  Next I bought part 2,  “Alles Schmeckt nach Abscheid” ( The taste of goodbye is everywhere), and got moved to tears. Then I bought all of her oeuvre I could buy which was a lot actually.  After the commercial success of her diaries publishers were eager to publish whatever they could in connection with this lady.  And I still wasn’t satisfied.  Hence the visit to Neubrandenburg.

Well, that’s what happens when a man falls head over heels in love with a woman, okay?

This was a voice from the past. A lucid and independent voice, an upright voice also. One that told what made young German idealists in the Eastern part of the country  tick immediately after WWII and two decades on.  Not blinded by ideology but driven by cool idealism, subtle but clear language, touching sentiments but without sentimentality,  realistic but in no way playing victim.

She took me along to make me understand what it meant to be hot-blooded in DDR’s prudish society, to be literary talented but stay in line with officialdom, to dedicate time to manual labour for idealistic reasons in stead of writing and ultimately be a dead woman walking after cancer had been diagnosed without complaining.

She died at the age of 39.  An aborted talent.  An unfinished life. But still the author of two of my most favourite books ever.

Pramoedya’s literary grandchildren ?

 

 

It happened that I attended to Rizki Pandu Permana‘s public defense of his Ph.D dissertation* in Utrecht two days ago. He passed brilliantly. Of course. But then I heard  his promoter ( doctoral supervisor) in a subordinate clause of  her laudatio (encomium), reveal that Rizki previously had published fiction. Two novels actually. Extra-ordinary. Wow. And by association I immediately thought of Indonesia’s two-faced literary landscape; relatively few readers, relatively many authors.

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