Part of Comma Press’s Reading the City series, The Book of Jakarta provides fleeting yet impactful insight into the eponymous city. This is a sharp and socially engaged collection, featuring ten stories by contemporary Indonesian writers translated into English. Notably, seven of the ten stories are translated by Indonesians, unusual in a region where many who work at the crossroads of language are not of local heritage. The editors, Teddy W. Kusuma and Maesy Ang, are to be commended for the excellent care they have taken in curating this work.
Jakarta is, like all cities, a mass of contradictions and complexities. It is the capital of Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world and home to 260 million people, and has seen rapid transformation and sociopolitical change over the last century of colonial rule and then postcolonial governance. It is, as the introduction notes, the fastest-sinking city in the world, staving off the effects of climate change and decades of mismanaged development. This collection gives readers a glimpse into the sprawling, chaotic, and still relative young megacity, with primacy given to a multitude of characters who live on the margins of society. The stories range from recent history to distant futures, following students and sex workers, imams and owners of hawker stalls, “not those in power, the decision-makers and politicians, but rather those on the periphery who feel the consequences of political, social, and environmental change in deeply personal ways.” All the stories in this collection are deeply memorable and often laced with wry observations and dark humour, tackling deep-seated and everyday issues.
The first story, “B217AN” by Ratri Ninditya and translated by Mikael Johani, follows two characters on a scooter to a seafood stall, two days before one of them is to be married. The title plays on local car plates and a pun about people who are always on the road, a nod toward the city’s infamous congestion. Memories unravel between the two characters as they skirt the edges of the city, escaping the traffic but unable to escape their pasts. Yet, as the seafood vendor serves them, the stall brimming with music, one of the characters weeps at their own cynicism and pretensions, mourning the selves that they could have been and now can never be—a reflection of how the pursuit of capitalism has drained the hopes and dreams of their youth. The story is a sepia-tinted, atmospheric, and gently raw opening to the collection.
In Hanna Fransisca’s “The Aroma of Shrimp Paste,” translated by Khairani Barokka, a Chinese woman is attempting to renew her passport and has to fight through monstrous, confounding layers of bureaucracy and discrimination to complete her errand. As she descends through each level of bureaucratic hell, the entire structure peels back to bare its sexism and racism, the bribes that allow some to skip the queue no matter their race or creed, the unspoken expectation of conservative dress codes taken to extremes. The writer details with precision the petty power plays of corrupt bureaucratic officers, who only have enough authority to make life difficult for everyday citizens, and thus cling to that handful of control. The main character’s frustration, bravado, and eventual relief on an unnecessarily complicated journey only serve to expose the rotten governmental infrastructure beneath.
“Disorderly. I hate that word. What did they expect? For people to show up to the protest, take out a mat, and have a picnic?”
In September 2019, protests erupted across Jakarta as students rallied against new legislation that moves toward conservative and authoritarian rule, including one that reduces the authority of the commission governing corruption, and bills that penalize extramarital sex and defamation against the president. “The Problem” by Sabda Armandio Alif, translated by Rara Rizal, charts these protests from the perspective of a busker called Yuli, who tires of her partner Gembok’s unnamed friend—a pretentious student protestor who only asks questions but provides no solutions. The story effectively captures the experience of the protests from the perspective of someone who was not at all invested in their outcome, but who turns revolutionary when the incident turns violent and impacts their business and their friends. It no longer matters so much that the student protestors may not have perfect solutions; rather, the narrative shows that it is more meaningful in the moment that people from all walks of life take to the streets, forging a sense of solidarity and camaraderie that solidifies into a shared desire for better.
Moving forward in time, utiuts’s “Buyan” (Palembang for “stupid”), translated by Zoe McLaughlin, traces Jakarta’s rapid sinking to its endpoint, taking place in a near future where half of the city is already submerged underwater. Auntie Nana takes a wrong turn in a driverless car which has not updated its map or accessibility features, and hence is heading straight for a sunken part of the city. In a dramatic sequence, she crashes the car, yells at the operator down the line, and then huffily pulls out her phone to record a complaint video. It is a hugely entertaining short story that all at once captures the idiosyncrasies resulting from changes to the city landscape as a result of climate change, the impact of social media and technological advancement, and cross auntie energy.
In a near future where property prices are skyrocketing and many are departing Jakarta for a newly established capital further north, meanwhile, Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie’s “Grown-Up Kids,” translated by Annie Tucker, depicts a group of senior citizens visiting Istana Boneka, an amusement park on its last day before shutdown. As the senior citizens converse with each other, it is revealed that they are preparing to commit suicide together, framed as a last defiant act of the pioneers. The mastermind behind the scheme, Mrs P, is the only survivor of the rollercoaster suicide pact; the narrative closes on her perspective: now that her friends have passed, she intends to sue for damages to obtain the wealth that she needs in order to lead the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. One of the highlights of the anthology, this is a chilling look at a generation shaped by cynicism and classist indulgence, as well as a lingering look at how even cities will decay: rides will grow rusty and dysfunctional, citizens will age, all things are impermanent. The narrative shows us a city that has decayed and outgrown itself, and what those who have constructed and then been consumed by the city might do. It is macabre, horrifying, and incredible.
Generational conflict also powers “A Secret from Kramat Tunggak,” written by Dewi Kharisma Michellia and translated by Shaffira Gayatri. The story follows the daughter of a sex worker, who is frustrated that she must give up her hard-earned university savings so that her mother can fulfil her dream of migrating abroad as domestic workers. The urgency of their flight is emphasised when her mother reveals buried secrets of her past: years prior, she caused a violent ex-boyfriend to go to jail for a murder she had herself committed in self-defence—and now the ex-boyfriend is back and seeking revenge. The narrative’s potential to veer into melodrama is quietened by the interspersion of daily activities, the mother’s tale unfolding alongside everyday acts of buying groceries, setting out food, and taking out the trash. The reconciliation of the mother-daughter relationship, the harsh risks of sex work, and the question of what family owes to each other are handled with deft care and, appreciatively, a complete lack of romanticism.
Afrizal Malna’s “All Theatre is False,” translated by Syarafina Vidyadhana, also explores connection with others—the protagonists’ refusal of the system leads to their inability and disinterest in building a better one, sowing only chaos to relieve their ennui and empty nihilism. The two men, Frans and Jijok, call themselves actors and performance artists, but they deride the institution of art which they see as inaccessible and classist. They answer only to themselves, anarchical and independent; their activities ranging from gallery visits to shoe stealing within the TIM arts and cultural compound. The story reminds me of Naguib Mahfouz’s Adrift on the Nile (1996), in its clever crafting and critique of both the institution as well as those who choose the lonely, opposite extreme and lose touch with community.
A striking narrative of class, friendship, and difficult choices, “The Sun Sets in the North” by Cyntha Hariadi and translated by Eliza Vitri Handayani stars good friends and classmates Ace and Tata, Chinese-Indonesian teenagers growing up in the 1990s who come from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds. In this way, it picks up the emerging and contending themes of community and individualism: when the May 1998 riots hit, Ace and her family vanish abroad, capitalising on their privilege to flee the country while they could; Tata, meanwhile, is left behind to carry the fear of reprisal and the memory of the mob’s violence, and resents Ace when she reaches out afterward. It is a narrative heavy with the weight of choices—who can leave, who must stay, and what one has to do in the aftermath to continue surviving in the spaces left behind when a dictator’s roots are ripped out.
The anthology ends on Yusi Avianto Pareanom’s “A Day in the Life of a Guy from Depok who Travels to Jakarta”: a packed day in the life of a man as he runs his errands in the city, translated by Daniel Owen. He meets and interacts with an eclectic variety of people, and meets with everything from casual misogyny to friends and movies to immigration bureaucracy. He is by turns amused, annoyed, admiring, and warmed by the actions of those around him, rushing about their lives while he stands apart from the buzz of the crowd—and yet his ultimate aim is to acquire paperwork that will allow him to escape Jakarta for good. Movement and marginality are motifs that have recurred across the collection, and this is a fitting end to a volume that illustrates the push and pull of those who seek their fortunes in the capital as well as those who wish to leave it behind for better prospects elsewhere.
As a whole, The Book of Jakarta allows the reader to experience snapshots of the richness and variety of voices alive across the city, and more broadly in Indonesia and its diaspora today. It is excellently written, curated, and translated. I particularly enjoyed that it retains its locality. Multiple stories are narrated like sound, conveyed as street gossip, folktales, other versions of word of mouth, rather than hard truths. Many skim the edge of social realism with speculative futures, suspended between the recent past and the approaching future. I deeply enjoyed discovering Jakarta through the eyes of these writers and translators, with reference to specific locales and local languages. The collection welcomes tourists and visitors as readers, but it is first and foremost a love letter to those who have lived as residents in Jakarta, those who know intimately—or who wish to recall and to learn—all the warm and messy complications of a city that has undergone and continues to experience profound change and expansion.