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"Saman" by Ayu Utami

Written by eastern writer on Sunday, December 09, 2007

In 2005, Equinox, Indonesia’s most prestigious English-language publisher, launched this long awaited book by Ayu Utami, a breakthrough novel for its author which virtually pioneered Indonesia’s “chick-lit” genre. Falling loosely under a group of writers called sastra wangi (“fragrant letters”), the book became a literary sensation after it was first released in 1998. Formerly published by Gramedia in 1998, the Equinox publication is the first English-language edition.

Because the novelist unabashedly and provocatively expressed herself from an Indonesian woman’s perspective – some would think to the point of vulgarity – the book was truly a first in modern Indonesian literature. Saman enjoyed spectacular sales of over 100,000 copies in its Indonesian language edition in a country where a book which sells more than 5000 copies is considered a bestseller. The title went on to win the Jakarta Arts Council award for fiction in 1998 and the prestigious Prince Claus Award in the year 2000.

Saman is a story seen through the lives of its feisty female protagonists – Cok, a businesswoman; Laila, a 30-year-old writer/photographer; Shakuntala, a dancer; and Yasmin, a lawyer – as well as the enigmatic hero Saman, a catholic priest turned human rights activist.

The author was born in Bogor, grew up in Jakarta and obtained a B.A. in literature from the University of Indonesia. She worked as a journalist for Matra, Forum Keadilan, and D&R. Not long after the New Order regime closed Tempo, Editor, and Detik, she participated in the founding of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists to protest the closure of those three weeklies.

Saman was one of the first Indonesian novels in which the author conducted rigorous in-depth on site research to lend authenticity and flavor to her story. For example, she displayed an almost obsessive eye for detail when vividly describing the environs of an oil rig in the South China Sea where she had two of her characters meet. She displayed an equal passion for cultural detail when writing about the comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, Kermit the Frog, and French ticklers.

Rendering literary works from Indonesian into English poses many difficulties, and Dr. Pamea Allen’s translation is accurate and crisp, though perhaps a tad dry. The story is at times confusing and even clumsy as it jumps between characters, locations, times and points of view. Nevertheless, the tale still manages to captivate the reader, reading occasionally like a riveting newspaper story.

It is at once an exposé of the oppression of palm oil workers in South Sumatra during the autocratic Suharto regime, a lyrical quest to understand the place of religion and spirituality in contemporary Indonesia, a playful exploration of female sexuality and love in all its permutations, while at the same time touching on all of the country’s long-forbidden taboos: extramarital sex, the loss of virginity, brutal government repression, political corruption and the explosive religious relationships between Christians and Muslims.

If Saman serves to whet your appetite for more of this keen-eyed and wildly popular author’s work, be aware that Ayu has joined the International Writing Program at Iowa University in the U.S.A. and is now writing her third novel, an English-language version of Saman’s sequel, Larung!

Saman by Ayu Utami, Equinox Publishing 2005, ISBN 979-3780-118. Softcover 184 pages.

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