Culture Editor Ilina Jha reviews the short story collection About Us, praising the storytelling ability of Indonesian author Reda Gaudiamo
From local publisher The Emma Press comes their latest translated publication: About Us by Reda Gaudiamo, translated by Ikhda Ayunning Maharsi Degoul and Philippa Barker. Gaudiamo is a writer and musician from Jakarta, Indonesia, and About Us collects stories originally published in Indonesia from the 1990s through to 2015. Focusing on domestic lives and characters, the stories in About Us range from a daughter conflicting with her mother’s life advice, to a stress-induced miscarriage, to marital conflicts and an elderly invalid who feels disrespected by her family.
The stories in About Us are realistic – you could feasibly conceive of them all happening, which is what makes the darker moments (such as the teenage fights that lead to fatalities) all the more chilling. The only story that departs majorly from the realistic world is ‘An Apology’, and, while this is an interesting story, it feels rather out of place in the book. Otherwise, the collection is well-organised – the stories are ordered in a way that makes sense, and have domestic concerns as their main organising theme, despite the very different stories that they cover.
What marks several of the stories is Gaudiamo’s ability to tear the rug out from under your feet and reveal something about the characters you didn’t expect. For example, the story ‘Maybe Bib Was Right’ is narrated seemingly by a child interacting with another child, Bib, as they attempt to tell other members of the family about how their mother (Ibu) is exhausted and needs their help. Unfortunately, they concerns are not understood, and it is only at the end of the story that it is revealed that Bib and the narrator (Jig) are the family dogs. These pulling-the-rug-out-from-under-your-feet moments are often very emotional, and sometimes even jarring – for example, ‘The Trip’ depicts a younger woman listening to a mother’s story about why her child has not seen the father for many years, but that she is finally taking her to see him because he is ill. It is then revealed that the younger woman listening to the story is not a stranger, as it seemed so at first, but in fact the mother’s daughter who is going to finally meet her father. In ‘Taxi’, the first-person narrator tells the moving story of his difficulties to his kind and attentive passenger, who proceeds to tip him generously when he drops her off. It is only once this woman is out of sight and hearing that the narrator admits to us that he invents such stories as these in order to earn extra money – and that, far from being the struggling worker who has had to give up university for his son, he is in fact going to start at a prestigious university very soon.
The quality of the writing is overall very strong – Degoul and Barker have done a good job translating Gaudiamo’s stories into English. There are some moments where the writing feels a little cliché or uninteresting, but these are very few and far between. The emotional force of these stories, in any case, is sufficient to engage a reader. About Us is a fascinating collection of page-turning stories, and has been a wonderful introduction to Indonesian literature in translation.
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