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Indonesian author dazzles literati at Paris conference

Pasar Malam dans la presse

Jakarta Post

(En anglais seulement)

Indonesian author dazzles literati at Paris conference
13/01/2008, Kunang Helmi-Picard, Contributor, Paris

The launch of the French translation of Ayu Utami's Saman, published by Flammarion on January 18th, focuses the spotlight on contemporary Indonesian literature.

French writer resident in Indonesia, Elisabeth Inandiak, author of a French version ofSerat Centini, worked with Utami on the translation.

Utami's first book will also be published in Japanese and Czech later this year. The young Indonesian author might someday attain the international attention shown for the opus of Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Early last December Ayu Utami presented her book to 40 members of the Franco-Indonesian association Pasar Malam. During an amicable Indonesian meal a lively discussion ensued. An attractive 35-year-old Indonesian woman proffered her admiration for the breakthrough in social mores conveyed by Utami in her book: "For the first time I was proud of being Indonesian!"

Her praise was completed by a French female literary critic who had previewed the translation and admired the contents and style. Utami willingly answered a wide range of questions pertaining to her novel Saman, and the following one called Larang. The author is now finishing her third book which will deal directly with social issues.

Released 10 days after Suharto was toppled, the novel immediately won an enthusiastic following with more than 10,000 copies in print. It was certainly a book published at the right place and at the right time, although Ayu Utami had written it while Suharto was still in power.

Utami was also an active member of the Independent Journalists who fought for reformation and were persecuted during the last years of Suharto's regime. Not only did Utami's fragmented literary style appear quite revolutionary, but the subject matter also mirrored the arrival of a new generation in Indonesia.

The book represents only the tip of the iceberg of work by young Indonesian writers during the past decade. Women authors began to dominate the literary scene, leading to the epithet "fragrant literature" (sastrawangi), or at times abroad, even "chick lit".

This term was evocative of male criticism of the lifestyle of the female authors. During the Suharto regime speech and expression was widely suppressed in the archipelago, and liberty of expression about personal matters even shortly afterwards was still unusual.

Ten days later while still in Paris, Ayu presented her book at the Netherlands Institute, and an Indonesian literary evening exposing the new "trends" took place. It was organized by the Institute together with Pasar Malam.

With an audience of about 100 people, the discussion was passionate, revelatory of the newly found interest for Indonesian literature in France. Unfortunately none of the authors concerned were present, even Utami had already left for Indonesia by Dec. 14.

Moderated expertly by Claudia Huisman, from the Department of Netherlands Studies at the University Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, the evening presented a brief, but coherent panorama of Indonesian literature of the past decade. The event began with a spirited rendering of a poem by Tan Liou Ie, Sim sim sala bim!, both in Indonesian and French, by Vany Lasut, a recent graduate in communication sciences.

Ben Arps, who holds the chair of Javanese literature at Leyden University, portrayed the range of literary expression during the past decade. He mentioned the influence of Internet in disseminating written work among the young in Indonesia.

Meanwhile Maya Sutedja Liem, who recently translated Saman into Dutch, spoke of her experience while doing so. Sutedja Liem is also known for her translations of Ananta Toer into Dutch. She reported on the various reactions to Utami's novel in the Netherlands, ranging from admiration to criticism of the author's lack of conventional literary style.

Elisabeth Inandiak, who translated Utami's first novel into French, related her method of translating certain expressions to suit cultural differences between Indonesia and France. She intended to make sure that the Indonesian atmosphere of the novel did not show an obvious French slant.

As an example, Inandiak, herself a writer, pointed out the difference in treatment between her translation into French -- and that of the American translation where many Americanisms abounded, distorting the special feel of Utami's work and particular style. In one case the American used the smell of a pig to describe nervous sweat by one of the protagonists, ignoring the fact that pork is largely considered forbidden in Java. Both Inandiak and Sutedja Liem were more subtle in their translations, paying great attention to cultural mores in Indonesia.

The most pertinent part of the conference was the brief account by French researcher Helene Poitevin-Blanchard. She presented three female authors of the group designated as sastrawangi.

Poitevin-Blanchard judges the success of the group sastrawangi as best-sellers to be unparalleled in the history of serious literature published in Indonesia. She also added that part of their success was due to the perfume of scandal surrounding the contents of the novels. Here Poitevin-Blanchard spoke of Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari, also known as Dee, with her novel Supernova in 2001, and Djenar Maesa Ayu who wrote short stories in Mereka bilang, saya monyet in 2002.

Utami's first novel has three women and two men as the main protagonists. Laila who is still a virgin at over 30 and who is hopelessly in love with the married Sihar. Saman, the former priest, and former great love of Laila, who becomes the lover of cosmopolitan Yasmin, married and a successful lawyer. Meanwhile Shantakula, the third female character lives a life unhindered by restrictions. In the following novel,Larang, Saman will find his death among other political and personal events.

Compared to the other two authors, Utami appears much more conventional. Dee's opening scene in Supernova speaks openly of a sudden homosexual passion in the context of an ecstasy trip.

Lestari's trilogy is centered around life in Bandung among an even younger set than that which Utami describes. The author founded her own publishing house to bring out her books which are flavored by a sense of sinetron or contemporary Indonesian soap opera television series.

Of the three, Djenar Maesa Ayu is less formal than the other two as she does not pretend to present a specific world view in her novel Nayla, despite being revolted by the hypocrisy of society in Indonesia. Her work describes alcoholism, drugs, adultery, incest, homosexuality and rape in contemporary society in brutal terms.

According to Poitevin-Blanchard, Maesa Ayu describes attempts at personal liberty as a revolt against a patriarchal form of society.

Judging from the interest shown that evening, both by the lecturers and by the onlookers, Indonesian literature is worthy of more publications being translated in Europe. This augurs well for future qualified translations and seminars on the subject.

source : Le Jakarta Post