The Indonesian Edition
Title: Bilangan Fu
First Edition: June 2008
Published by: Kepustakaan Gramedia (KPG)
Size: 13.5 x 20 cm
Price: Rp 60,000
Celebrated author Ayu Utami shares her thoughts on her latest book, Bilangan Fu (The Fu Numeral), at her house in Central Jakarta. She moves fluidly between subjects, from critical spiritualism to rock climbing and her partner in life, Erik. I even get treated to a dance with the couple's beautiful dog, Alpo.
I arrive at Ayu's house in Utan Kayu area at noon on a Monday. The men hanging around street outside tell me the doorbell is behind the brick wall, next to the rustic Balinese wooden door.
Peeking out from behind the wall is a man who flashes me a smile as he opens the door.
This is Ayu's partner, Erik Prasetya: freelance photographer, Jakarta Institute of Arts lecturer, rock climber and inspiration for her new book, due for release next month. Just behind him is the writer herself.
The two look 10 years younger than their years. Ayu, who will turn 40 in July, is slender in dark jeans, with a purple tank top showing off her toned biceps. Her skin, tanned from her 10 to 15-kilometer runs, glows. She wears her thick wavy hair down and looks beautiful with little makeup.
Erik has reached the ripe age of 50. Spectacles perch on his nose and I catch a glimpse of silver grays in his short hair. Dressed in a black-and-white batik sarong and gray sleeveless shirt, he looks in good shape, thanks to a disciplined fitness regimen.
They show me into the study and Ayu offers me dim sum to eat. I tell her I am a vegetarian and she disappears to the kitchen.
The study is spacious and opens onto other rooms. A tall white cabinet filled with books stands along one part of a wall. In front of the cabinet sits an antique desk with a laptop. A wooden art installation hangs from the high ceiling.
As I sit, a beautiful creature with big eyes and long eyelashes hops forward and rests its front legs on my lap. This is the couple's dog Alpo.
"Back up a little," Erik tells me. "She can stand on her feet and dance."
It is true. Alpo is not only beautiful -- she really can dance.
Ayu returns from the kitchen with a jug of water and a plate of tasty homemade energy bars, and we sit in wooden chairs in the middle of the study to get down to talking.
Right away, Ayu launches into an explanation of the concept of the fu numeral, which is the essence of her new book. She talks fluently, the words and sentences flowing freely from her lips.
Ayu is characterized by a mixture of sound historical knowledge, a healthy dose of free imagination and a critical way of thinking. This mixture led her to the concept of the fu numeral.
"The fu numeral is something that I've formulated. It's a number that has the properties of both one and zero. It's not a mathematical numeral, but a metaphorical numeral; not a rationalistic numeral but a spiritual numeral," she says.
"I use this to criticize monotheism."
With this last statement, her voice takes on a stern edge.
In the background, Erik, his legs resting on an exercise ball, is nodding off to sleep.
"I feel quite happy with my formulation," she says with a laugh.
And with another laugh: "I feel quite a genius with my discovery."
Ayu thinks monotheistic traditions understand the concept of one in an overly mathematical way, "whereas monotheism actually developed before the number zero was conceptualized".
To understand Ayu's concept of the fu numeral, it is first necessary to understand the history of religious development and the history of numerical development.
The concept of one god in the monotheistic tradition that started with Abraham around 4,000 B.C. emerged before the concept of zero was incorporated into the numerical system. The concept of zero or nil was first discovered in India around the fifth century.
"There, the concept of nil came from the concept of sunya or emptiness. The concept of a holistic divinity in the Eastern tradition is conceptualized into nil, while in the Semitic tradition it's conceptualized as one," she says.
"The numeral one, which monotheistic traditions use to define god, is actually one that is whole. However, we've come to understand the concept of one in a very mathematical sense since zero was discovered, which has resulted a very mathematical monotheist belief."
She incorporates this concept of the fu numeral in her book, along with "critical spiritualism", another concept she developed, by telling the story of a skeptical rock climber named Yuda.
By "critical spiritualism", Ayu means attempting to use our mind, living on Earth with our bodies and struggling against the urge to surrender to fatalistic faith.
"After we struggle to the very final moment and realize that we cannot grasp the ineffable, then yes, we surrender," she says.
This critical spiritualism is reflected her own spiritual journey. Raised in a Catholic tradition, she grew up despising religion. She became an atheist in her 20s, rejecting all religious values.
As she entered her 30s, she says, she came to view religion in a different light.
"I see in religion humanity's attempt for dialogue. Scriptures cannot be read literally, but have to be read contextually and metaphorically.
"Religion can renew itself. It's like a historical reality. In the end, what is important is not what is true, but what we do on Earth. Truth will always be delayed -- what's important is kindness," she says.
The spiritual Bilangan Fu has a different emphasis to her previous books Saman and Larung, which dealt with sexuality. What they do have in common is that they serve as a social critique.
Saman, released in 1998 just months after the toppling of former president Soeharto, was a critique of the hypocritical patriarchal society and repressive New Order Regime. Its sequel Larung shared the same broad themes.
Bilangan Fu is a critique of the growing power of religious fundamentalists, such as the Islam Defenders Front, and the increasing violence toward religious minorities over the past 10 years.
Both Ayu and Erik have signed the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Belief.
"In the past 10 years, people have been interpreting religion in a very shallow and fatalistic way. Religion is used to give life to power, or people are lured to the powerful side of religion. It's a sad development," she says.
Ayu dedicated Bilangan Fu to Erik. She was inspired to write a novel about rock climbing because of him. Once an avid climber, Erik stopped for 14 years after the death of his best friend in a rock climbing accident.
"When I first started going out with Erik, I didn't do any rock climbing, and neither did Erik, because of his trauma. But he kept telling me all these stories about rock climbing. I thought, why are you telling all these stories if you don't even do it anymore?" she says.
"So I decided to write a book about it."
By this time, Erik has woken from his doze. He joins us at the table and places his hands behind his head.
"I dedicated this book to Erik. This is a way for me to picture him in his youth with his late best friend and his girlfriend who left," she says, looking at him with a smile.
She started to learn rock climbing in late 2003, after which Erik returned to the sport.
"The first time back was magical. It all came back, the smell, the feel of the wind," Erik says.
They now have their own climbing wall in their house.
According to Ayu, Bilangan Fu was her hardest book to write, taking her around four and a half years to finish.
"There was so much that I wanted to say, my concepts of the fu numeral and critical spiritualism, but I didn't want that to ruin the structure of the story. Finding a simple structure for a complex matter is the hard part," she says.
"I saw her struggle to put her ideas into her book," Erik chimes in.
"It was not easy, and there were times she despaired and even said that her ideas could not be put into a book. But then she found her way."
Ayu likens writing to rock climbing.
"In rock climbing, a good climber should climb clean, which means we have to find a natural path, we can't destroy the rocks. That was my principle in writing as well -- if we can't find one path, we choose another," she says.
"And in desperate times we usually find the way."
artcile: The Jakarta Post