Sun, 09 Mar 2003

Dewi Anggraeni Adds cosmopolitan taste to RI literature

Oei Eng Goan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Beyond doubt, the publication of Dewi Anggraeni's latest novel, Snake, which was launched last month, is a new milestone in the development of modern Indonesian literature and a significant contribution to Southeast Asia's literary treasures, especially given that it is written in English by the novelist herself, who is an Indonesian, and is richly imbued with the local colors and traditions of at least three countries and nationalities in the region.

Besides reflecting Asian traditions, gender roles, the society of Chinese Indonesians, Malays and Australians, as well as modern lifestyles and sexuality, the novel also contains Asian moral values and the respect for familial unity that human beings must possess and adopt in coping with their problems and the evil forces that arise from both the real and supernatural worlds.

Snake is a love story containing suspenseful and intricate plots that are superbly interwoven by Dewi, occasionally using the flashback technique, so as to keep her readers' curiosity and interest aroused right up to the closing page.

The protagonist is Serena Anderson, a Eurasian dancer cum choreographer in her late twenties, "the most romantic and vulnerable" child of Tom Anderson, an Australian and Dede (Dewayani), a Chinese Indonesian. Playing a central role in the story is the peniti ronce, a snake brooch that is doomed to bring bad luck to its owner.

The novel opens with a visit to Malacca, one of Malaysia's most important historical cities, by Serena and her lover Kurt, who seek consolation in each other following marriage breakups. While stopping by an antique shop, Serena happens to come across a snake brooch and immediately falls for it not only because of its exotic beauty but also because of its striking resemblance to one she had seen as a child and which, according to her mother, was designed by her grandmother. The brooch, however, brought bad luck to her grandparents and was discarded. Kurt, knowing how much Serena wants it, buys the brooch, despite its high price, as a token of his love for her.

But the jinx of the brooch soon begins to play its malignant tricks. Kurt has to fly back to Melbourne because Kathryn, his young daughter from an earlier marriage, has had an accident. Serena, who is looking for a new theme for her coming dance production, does not accompany him back to Australia.

Left alone in Malacca and gripped by a sense of loss, Serena begins to experience strange dreams, dreams that often frighten her. But she soon finds consolation when she meets Nancy Tan, a Malaysian doctor of Chinese descent, as the two women find that they have many things in common and that each seems "familiar" to the other.

Nancy's mother, Ay Ling, tells Serena that she used to own a kerongsang, the Malay word for brooch, in the shape of a snake and studded with bluish red gemstones, similar to the one newly- acquired by Serena. Ay Ling relates the story of the tragic accident that killed her husband and crippled her for life. She also tells Serena how her parents-in-law blamed her for her defying their advice to discard the snake brooch, which had brought such great misfortune on the family.

Misfortune also befell two other former owners of the snake brooch, and is now hanging over Serena like a Sword of Damocles as her relationship with Kurt deteriorates.

The last few chapters of the novel -- which comprises 38 chapters in all, with each being given a subtitle -- relates Serena's struggle to overcome her sense of foreboding, especially after she has been visited by ghostly apparitions and experienced even more frightening dreams, as well as found out revelations about the skeletons in her family closet and the mystery behind the brooch.

Novelist Dewi is a storyteller par excellence, and Snake attests to her ability to craft a melodrama that, at times, strains but never shatters the readers' credulity, despite her excessive use of coincidences and a degree of character-overload. All this is acceptable as life itself is sometimes full of strange chances and coincidences, while the gallery of characters, representing people of different cultural and religious backgrounds, reflects universal humanism in that these people can live harmoniously together and even build familial ties when faith and trust hold firm.

Dewi's portrayal of her characters is solid and lively thanks to the keen observational skills she has gained from her calling as a journalist.

Her style and ability to blend reality and the supernatural world reminds literary aficionados of Daphne du Maurier, whose haunting novels Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel have been widely accepted as literary classics.

All said, it would come as no surprise if one day, given some fine-tuning of her artistic abilities, Dewi's works will be able to hold a candle to those of Du Maurier's.

Snake, a novel by Dewi Anggraeni 237 pp., published by Indra Publishing, Victoria, Australia, 2003