Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mochtar Lubis, The Outlaw and Other Stories (1987)

This is in poor taste, but I'm saying it anyway: what do you call big fans of Mochtar Lubis?  Mochtards.  OKAY THEN.

This is another book that cannot get its story straight: per the back cover, these stories are "spanning three decades--from the 1950s to the 1970s--the selection represents Mochtar Lubis as a writer at the peak of his power."  Okay.  But then, per the translator's note, "this collection of short stories was written in 1982 when [Lubis] was invited to spend one month working at the Rockefeller Foundations centre for study at Bellagio in Italy."  So who knows?  It's really kind of a problem that these books are so light on supplementary content, given that Lubis isn't exactly a household name in the Anglosphere.  There's no information regarding the publication dates of any of these apart from the above.

But whenever these stories were written, there are twelve of them.  They're generally quite simple and straightforward.  And they are a bit of a mixed bag.  In general, they treat of the ways in which people's lives are shaped and molded by forces over which they have limited control, often but not always with tragic results (some of them feature Lubis himself as a narrator and character; it's not clear to me to what extent these are meant to be about Real Events).  My favorite, probably, is "The Supplier," a satire on Indonesia's corruption as Lubis saw it, narrated by a vapid young man who, thanks to family connections, gets rich by lending his name to a new corporation.  His narrative is quite funny--he really sounds exactly like today's self-satisfied investment-banker-type assholes in the US, smugly lecturing everyone on the importance of Hard Work &c in getting ahead.  The title story is also very good--an extremely spare tale of a man who makes a living as a bandit and how circumstances prevent him or his family from ever breaking out of this cycle.  "Burnt to Ashes" is another winner, about a woman whose uncertain cultural identity is instrumental in destroying her.  And don't forget "The Hero;" admittedly, you could probably guess just from reading the title that the upshot is "the hero isn't as heroic as advertised," but it's still well-done.

Those are the best, I think.  But in a few of the lesser efforts (and even in a few of the pretty-good ones, to be honest), we can see that Lubis has a tendency towards the didactic, as in "Dara," in which Lubis's daughter's friend is kinda bummed and rebellious because her parents are fighting all the time and her father is a corrupt businessman and a philanderer--but then, at the end, he puts his faith in God so everything's better huzzah.  Seriously, it's like an Indonesian Chick tract.  And then there's "Life Is a Game of Roulette," in which the protagonist is a successful businessman who retires 'cause why not, but then he finds roulette, and you think, JEEZ, is this going to devolve into an intensely banal "gambling is bad" story?  And yeah, it totally does.  Blargh.

Also, special note should be made of the last story, "The Hunt," which I'm going to totally spoil here, 'cause…well, you'll see.  Mahmudin is a young man in a village in Sumatra.  He's a good hunter (although he really dreams of being able to kill a tiger) and he's going to get married soon and generally life is good.  He goes with some of his fellows to hunt for some of the wild pigs that eat the village's crops.  They get some pigs, and also some deer.  Good trip!  So they're heading back to the village, and one of them goes "last one back gets eaten by a tiger!" so they all start running and Mahmudin falls in a pit trap and gets impaled and dies.  Seriously.  That's the story.  All the pathos of a man in a Monty Python sketch being crushed under a sixteen-ton weight.  I don't think "hilarity" was the reaction Lubis was going for, but it's the one he gets, dernit.

So anyway, that's it for me with the Lubis, for the time being, and maybe all-time, unless someone gets up the gumption to publish English versions of his three untranslated novels.  He does have one other book in English, a history of Indonesia, but that's not so interesting to me.  As best I can tell, he abandoned literature after the seventies to focus on his journalism.  I don't know how effective said journalism was, but it still seems a loss; he has his off-moments, but he was definitely an author worth discovering--which I probably never would've done if I hadn't gone to Indonesia, so cheers to that.


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