It has been more than ten years since I last read 5cm, an Indonesian novel written by Donny Dhirgantoro. My memory is foggy. But, I still remember the gist of it.
While Indonesia is not a global cultural powerhouse (which is pathetic considering the richness of our heritage), we have our share of novels translated into foreign languages. But, I can definitely say this one in particular will never be translated… and for two good reasons.
Reason number one is the pervasive presence of wordplay. It is not like in Harry Potter where the puns are hidden as place names and they have no effects on the narrative whatsoever.
Here, however, the puns are the dialogues. They affect the pacing, they are the jokes and they lighten the moods when needed.
The characters speak with Jakartan dialect, laced with English words, which is indicative of their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Without the puns, it would be harder to characterise their motivations and their social statuses; while it may seem trivial for some, I want my immersions enhanced with genuine depth.
The second reason why this novel is untranslatable is also the reason why it is a massive disappointment.
To summarise the story, it tells the lives of a group of friends who ceases any contact for three months. The reason? Wanting to leave their friendship bubble and experience life with a different light.
Three months later, unbeknownst to most of them, one person planned a road trip for the gang, in which they will hike Mount Semeru, Java’s highest peak. To get there, they take an economic class train ride which is almost 24-hour-long instead of taking a plane ride (which is undoubtedly faster) or a business class train ride (which is undoubtedly comfier). After many arduous hours of hiking (their inexperience certainly does not help), they reach the peak just in time for a flag ceremony; their hiker friend makes sure they arrive on the morning of independence day. The novel ends with an epilogue set many years later, with them living lives none of us can predict.
Throughout, the characters have lots of philosophical musings, whether with themselves or with each other. From what I remember, they muse mostly about the meanings of life and what it means to be an Indonesian, the latter also includes commentaries about Indonesian mentality.
How the author treated his own idea, however, was unbelievably disappointing.
The philosophical dialogues proudly lack any subtleties; he felt the need to explain every thought, none of which were even that profound in the first place. It feels less like a philosophical novel and more like a preachy pamphlet.
The nationalism only worsens the shallowness. Instead of asking why Indonesians disregard their own homeland, it just simply demands us to love it….. just because.
Instead of subtly conveying how the characters feel about their own homeland, the book brazenly informs us about its positive features, as if knowing them is more than enough to make us love our country unconditionally. Not only that, a character calling off his plan to study abroad is seen as an act of love, love of his country.
It is very dishonest. It ignores that many Indonesians who study abroad -me included- eventually return home, some of whom develop a heightened appreciation for their country; because we have been abroad, we realise Indonesia does have strengths which many other countries lack.
It ignores the reasons why Indonesians hate their country: poor infrastructures, limited job opportunities, unappreciation of highly-skilled citizens, corruption, incompetent leaders, prejudice, widespread anti-intellectualism, sleazy media outlets, you name it. While cultural cringe is also a factor, the hatred is often justifiable. Educated Indonesians know damn well our country has strengths; but, the weaknesses are too big to ignore. It feels less like a social novel and more like a condescendingly-written children’s book with nationalistic agenda.
It is a giant pile of missed opportunities.
The author clearly set the story to become philosophical. Not only the characters face a sudden change in routines which greatly affect their daily lives, they also endure a once-in-a-lifetime physically and mentally-arduous journey. The ending’s lack of foreshadowing is a reminder of how unpredictable life is. In that situation, anyone are bound to contemplate about how they live their lives, albeit with varying depth. He could have asked what is the meaning of life.
The author also had the chance to discuss about what it means to be an Indonesian, especially when the characters are upper and/or middle class Jakartans who love western pop culture and speak with lots of English words, who travel to a relatively less affluent and more traditional part of the country. He could have also asked if the country is worth loving, how to balance love of one’s country and openness to the outside world.
Instead, he ended up with a pseudo-inspirational, borderline nationalistically chauvinistic piece of text. Even without the wordplay, the shallowness would still put foreigners off from even considering reading it.
It seems, at the time writing, he thought he was genuinely onto something and he thought writing his thoughts down did us a favour.
Obviously, I am projecting myself onto him; I never meet him, let alone knowing him personally. But, I genuinely cannot help it. The book’s content reminds me of my old self, who was a giant sanctimonious piece of shit.
In fact, me being one was the reason why I loved the novel. My pathetic excuse of a mind was so deeply inspired by it, I actually lent the book to a classmate of mine, thinking it would blow their mind… who lent it to another classmate and lost it in the process.
For a while, I hated losing my personal copy. But, after watching the film adaptation (which, admittedly, exceeded my low expectation), I finally realised how skin-deep the source material is. I guess the words hit different when they are spoken out loud.
I don’t know what will happen if I still own a copy. I can only imagine that pulling myself from the rut of self-righteousness would be an even more gruelling effort.
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