Andy Fuller: Reading Seno Against Postmodernism

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Keroncong Pembunuhan is a short story written in mid-1980s. It tells the story of a pool-side killing. Keroncong music is a vital part of the scene. Keroncong is some kind of music that invokes memories of the late 19th and early 20th century in Jakarta and elsewhere. Keroncong is a hybrid form of music: with instrumentation from European and Indonesian traditions. Hybridity is a fashionable term, indicating in-betweeness, mixtures, in-purities. It is a celebration of difference, transformation, movement and collaboration. The rhythms and melodies of keroncong are soft and wilting, gentle and flowing. It seems the perfect music to listen to, while relaxing the shade on a hot day. It speaks of leisure and the middle classes. It is not a music of protest or confrontation but one of polite tranquillity, while still being polyvocal for its combinations of traditions and voices. Throughout the story, a keroncong band is playing by the side of hotel pool, probably somewhere in Jakarta. The music is heard by a woman who is organising an assassination, and indeed by the man who is going to perform the killing. The title, keroncong pembunuhan, gives a strong indication of what kind of killing this is. It is a killing that is casual and soft. The killing’s context depends on the invocation of ideas pertaining to keroncong. Readers know that it is the music of an earlier established elite. Keroncong is not just style of music; it is an adjective that describes the killing that takes place.

I first read this story while living in Medan in 2000. For me, at the time, it was well-crafted short story. The story and style strongly resonated with the writings of Italo Calvino. Like Calvino, Seno’s writings often borrow from oral and folk traditions. Calvino is frequently referred to as a postmodernist. His writings explore the playings of signs, the essential and irremovable textuality of texts. The writerliness of writing. Calvino’s novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller, for example, is a novel that doesn’t get started, so to speak. The novel tells the story of a reader’s frustration at not being able to access an original text; the latest novel written by the famous Italian author, Italo Calvino. Each time the reader attempts an act of reading, she is frustrated at finding out that the text has been corrupted by a mistake in the printing. Calvino is playing with the possibilities of writing; he was making assertions that some things, are perhaps unknowable. Instead, what needs to be explored is the question of how does ‘knowing’ take place; how is ‘knowledge’ formed. What are the discourses that shape, determine and limit knowledge.

Seno’s stories and novels show up the problems of textuality. Readers have their experienced limited, cut off and compromised by the qualities of textuality. The reader is the victim of the author and moreover, the author deliberately plays with the readers’ expectations for such stylistic constructions as a plot clarity, consistency, a conflict, a resolution. Some short stories involve the questioning and interaction between a storyteller and a listener. The listener, Alina, asks questions of the juru cerita that he or she cannot answer or does not want to answer. Elsewhere, in Jazz, Parfum dan Insiden, key passages of quoted texts are blocked out; censored. Seno is stating that some things can’t be known; that knowledge is limited by the act of authorities, by hierarchies and structures of power. Playing with writerliness and showing the limitation of textuality takes on a different meaning in the context of an authoritarian environment. That is, Seno’s writings emerged at a time when particular discourses of identity, of abuses, of violence were silenced. Instead, the New Order government had a tight control over what was publicly accessibly, publicly open to inquirey and of course, knowable. Knowledge, it was feared, would confuse the masses. Knowledge was dangerous.

The purpose of writing this book was to test the idea of postmodernism against the writings of Seno. I reached the conclusion that literary practices associated with postmodernism were evident in Seno’s writings. I tried to avoid the discussions of whether or not a postmodern condition as such exists. I found it much easier to say, here are characteristics X, Y and Z that defined as being emblematic of postmodernist style and to see how and on one what occasions they were present in Seno’s writings. The traits that I look at were as follows: stories from the margins, a questioning of the division of popular and high culture and an engagement with writerliness or textuality. The incorporation and adoption of these practices took on a specific meaning in the context of Indonesian literature. Postmodernism, has been critiqued for being politically ambivalent and for being apologetic in the face of violence and revisionist versions of history. Nonetheless, the apparently postmodernist writings of Seno, appeared to be particularly politically critical. Indeed, they emerged at a time when so much history, so many narratives needed to be questioned and interrogated. I do not argue that Seno was the only person who did this. I do argue, however, that Seno did so in a particularly skilful manner. He did it through mobilising literature as a vehicle for political critique.

Through Seno’s stories, postmodernism took the form of a discourse that could criticise the ideology of pembangunan and aggressive modernism. Seno’s confrontation with ideology is also evident through his style of narration. We see a marked difference between his writing in a fragmentary style – with characters who are hardly given any degree of characterisation – to that of modernist writers who use individuals to show how they overcome moments of struggle through conquering their surroundings and themselves. Instead, what we see in many of Seno’s stories, are characters who are fragile, capricious, sentimental and whimsical. The reoccurring character of Sukab – a man who has an over-attachment with an old pair of shoes – is one such typical example of Seno’s characterisation. In the case of Sarman, we see someone who is willing to indulge his own anger at the pettiness of his daily job at the expense of losing his job. While Sarman sees blind obedience and lust for money around him; he throws away his money, mocking his co-workers greed. A literature that describes the failures and foibles of everyday life and the common, yet, very human weaknesses of the common man, clearly had no place in the arrogant, over-confident and uncritical ideology that was pervasive throughout the New Order.

This book is based on Seno’s works from the 1980s and 1990s: as the social and political conditions have changed in the reformasi or post-Suharto era, so have Seno’s writings continued to change. For me, to works stand out – the ongoing Nagabumi and the essays of Kentut Kosmopolitan. The two books indicate an interest in the mythical and distant past and the immediate and lived present. Both texts provide a counter perspective in the re-shaping and imagining of past and present Indonesian realities. Both texts might not be as polemical, political and controversial as a book like Saksi Mata or short stories such as Clara or Jakarta 2038, but they, nonetheless contribute to a critical awareness of discourses in everyday Indonesian politics. I have only had a brief encounter with Nagabumi, but, through it, Seno is exploring connections and networks in ninth and tenth centuries in a region prior to the establishment of nation states. Importantly, it is of a time before the establishment and spread of Islam in Java and Sumatra. Seno seems to be asserting the importance and relevance of pre-Islamic Indonesian traditions. Kentut Kosmopolitan, on the other hand, are the notes of a flâneur in urban Jakarta. Like the serial novel of Nagabumi, Seno’s essays on Jakarta are also frequent. Both kinds of writing find their homes in the texts of everyday consumption: popular newspapers and magazines. As Seno states in his essay, Pengalaman Menulis Cerita Panjang, the form of his writing is determined by his needs. In Nagabumi, Seno adopts a broad canvas: giving him the opportunity to engage in detailed research and to explore broad social cultural traditions. The urban essays of Kentut Kosmopolitan, however, are written quickly: they are fragmentary writings, quick observations about the fragmentary nature of everyday Jakartan life. In these essays, the political stand point is ambivalent. These essays don’t present the voice of an activist who is protesting the removal of the urban poor to facilitate the construction of a mall. Seno, on the other hand, enjoys and admires the adaptability, flexibility and ability of the urban poor to improvise and improve their situation.

Conclusion

Looking at this book now, seeing it in Indonesian, I must take responsibility for it. But at the same time, I feel as if it was written by someone else. Reading it in Indonesian, I feel that the writer is so arrogant; so sure of himself; the certainty of some of the sentences give an indication of insecurity and immaturity of thought. For me, right now, there is one element missing from the book’s thesis. The book attempts to place Seno’s writings within selected terms, associated with postmodernism. The framing of postmodernism is too simple, as Faruk writes in his introduction. The problematic, or, the question of Seno’s writing needs to be taken further than simply asking the question, is Seno’s writing postmodernist? I stick by my conclusion and say, ‘yes it is – within particular limitations.’ What the book could have done, and fails to do, is to draw on other writers from both contemporary Indonesian literature and earlier examples from earlier eras of and outside the canon of so-called modern Indonesian literature. The book could have also called into question how Seno’s politically critical literature emerged within the trajectory of other aesthetic and cultural developments. The book could have offered a more rigorous engagement with the questions of the postmodernist condition. It could have set Seno’s activism through literature against the activism of earlier intellectuals; whether they be nationalist, Islamist or socialist. Perhaps this book has a tendency to fetishized the figure of the author. What Seno does is not necessarily unique to himself, but, exists as part of a broad social, intellectual and cultural network. Who is Seno’s audience? Who is interested in Seno’s writings? His writings, I argue, elsewhere, are part of broader changes in the rise of a substantial urban-based middle-class. Seno’s contribution to Indonesian literature deserves a more detailed and a more flexible study than what is offered in Sastra dan Politik. But, please read it to either agree or disagree.

Andy Fuller is the writer of Sastra dan Politik: Membaca Karya-karya Seno Gumira Ajidarma (Yogyakarta: Insist Press, 2011).

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