Sun, 03 Aug 2003

Cala Ibi: Weaving a tale that keeps the mind spinning

Lie Hua, Contributor, Jakarta

----------------------------- Cala Ibi Nukila Amal, Pena Gaia Klasik, Jakarta, 2003 271 pp -----------------------------

In our hectic contemporary world, there seems to be hardly any time for our overwrought mind to find relief in contemplation.

Material things get the better of us; even if we happen to ponder over something, this is prompted more by the desire to get ahead of others rather than to develop ourselves spiritually. In such a situation, novels are read for the sheer delight of the plot twists, which often reflect the detours of our own destiny in this hustle-bustle world.

Cala Ibi comes with a difference. The moment you read the first lines, there is the feeling of something new: Is the writer telling us a story or is she playing with words to appeal to our sense of beauty, now generally dulled with the mundane aspects of our everyday lives?

"My dad is a white orchid from the forest," the opening reads. "My mom, a red rose in the garden close to the front fence. They met in a harbor one morning. They gave birth to me -- A pink- colored baby like a frangipani. The flower of the grave." (p. 1).

Read on, and you feel the poetry in every sentence. And Nukila, a 32-year-old author with a background in the tourism and financial services sectors, does not care whether this is pleasing to the readers or not.

She keeps on weaving the words into sentences each of which contains, quite frequently, separate yet connected ideas.

"Underneath the photograph, you can see handwriting -- God knows whose hand it was, but it is beautiful handwriting that is neatly continuous -- the names of my grandad and his friends, from right to left," she writes on the opening page. Or, "I didn't know what this extra-strong medicine for a headache was that I had found in the drawer, I took two at one go, three gulps of coffee. (p. 5).

The more you read through the book, the more familiar you become with Nukila's novel narrative style. It is like watching cinematographic scenes, agilely moving from one angle to another, depicting the roundness of life. In a film, the camera moves very fast from one object to another, creating a series of connected yet separate impressions that will finally give you a real awareness of an object.

Isn't this the process that we go through in life? We never pay attention to the details in our surroundings. Our senses capture a number of realities around us, which we understand as a single reality, but we are unable to articulate them each in detail. We are content only with the sum of everything. This is the impression that you will get if you leaf through Cala Ibu from page one to the last.

In Indonesian literature, this may be considered a new way of narrating a story. Of course, we have the versatile Putu Wijaya and the contemplative Budi Darma. Both writers very often delve deep into their intellectual recesses and present in their novels and short stories images that, cursorily captured in our reading, hardly replicate real life.

Yet, upon closer reading, you will realize that this is actually a process that we go through every day in our contact with reality. We believe we know well a certain reality but when we have to describe it in detail, we realize that we have only a broad impression. Although in this sense Nukila shares a similarity with Putu Wijaya and Budi Darma, she is unique in that she allows herself to express sentences freely, producing a series of connected yet separate ideas to form a single impression.

In her continuous expression, she seems to be spinning words into sentence yarn and then weaving this into a narrative fabric that keeps the reader's poetic mind actively searching for meaning.

In this regard, the novel reminds us of Ulysses by James Joyce, a novel in which the story is narrated as a continuous discourse with the punctuation being left to the reader. Therefore, the reader's active mind will in a way determine his understanding of the novel.

So you get acquainted with Maya Amanita, the main character. Then you have Maia, another character resembling her in many ways, that appears in her dreams. Events evolve around Maya and Maia, strange yet ordinary happenings that Nukila presents to the readers alternately in the first-person (as Maya) or in a third- person or omniscient point of view.

This is an interesting way of narrating a story because at one time Maya can reveal everything about herself very intimately while when telling about Maia, there is a distance when the reality is related, and of course, there is a greater chance to give comments about the character.

What is the story about? There are events that involve both Maya and Maia. There are other characters involved with both Maya and Maia. There is a historical description about places in the Molluccas (the author herself if from Ternate). But in the process of reading, you will feel that these events and characters simply pass by, jumping from one sequence to another like the movement of real life around us.

Only when you have completed the novel can you think back and reflect on the novel and enjoy your impression of these events and characters and then you wish to read it again for the sheer enjoyment of Nukila's plastic sentences. This is what Nukila may say about the novel: "That's why reality is best narrated through allegories, metaphors -- images that flow like dreams, unreal, beyond what is real .... never getting to reality. Remember this, never. The rest is left to the readers. (p. 74)

In one publication, noted critic and poet Sapardi Djoko Damono said that this novel was not intended for those used to finding a message in a novel. He added that the strength of the novel lay in the writer's form of expression.

Do not try to find what it is about, just read on and enjoy Nukila's narration. It is the impressions that are created on your mind that matter as they, upon reflection, will tell you what you have really read.