Published: Sep 22, 2007

Ayu Utami, Saman, Jakarta, KPG (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia), 1998, ISBN 979-9023-17-3, 208pp.

Reviewed by MARSHALL CLARK

Saman is said to be merely the first part of Ayu Utami's forthcoming novel, tentatively titled Laila tak mampir di New York ('Laila didn't call in New York'). Nevertheless, it is thoroughly worth considering in its own right.

Saman stands out amongst recent Indonesian fiction. Ayu's confident storytelling technique adequately carries the weight of a broad thematic scope, highlighting the full complexity of previously shunned issues such as female sexuality and the struggle between personal faith and political action.

Although Saman attempts to present an intimate psychological portrait of a group of young Indonesian women, plot-wise it is dominated by the mental and physical challenges faced by a politically-engaged Catholic priest, Wisanggeni, or Wis, who is assigned to a parish in South Sumatra. After becoming involved in an armed struggle between villagers and government-backed developers, Wis is smuggled out of Indonesia and changes his name to Saman.

At times, Saman is simply impossible to put down, an unusual experience when reading an Indonesian novel. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why between April and August this year Saman went through six editions. By Indonesian standards, this is a spectacular turnover.

Elsewhere, for this reviewer at least, Saman is somewhat confusing, with numerous flashbacks and changes in narrative voice occurring seemingly at random. Certainly Ayu seems hesitant at times, most noticably with the deeper psychological motivations of several of her main characters, particularly male characters such as Wis and Sihar.

Yet minor quibbles such as these may be easily resolved when Saman appears in its entire form. That is, if it appears in its entire form. Despite the huge praise for Saman, there has also been some public doubt about the novel's authorship. Many believe that Saman is simply too good a novel to be written by a female journalist not yet thirty years of age with virtually no previous literary output.

Part of the reason for such criticism, which appears to be largely unfounded conjecture, is that if Ayu really did write Saman then she must be greeted as one of the most promising young writers to emerge in Indonesia over the last decade. Furthermore, with the literary careers of New Order cultural icons such as Pramudya Ananta Toer, Rendra, Umar Kayam, YB Mangunwijaya and even Emha Ainun Nadjib appearing to be winding down, Ayu Utami's emergence is a strong reminder that reformasi should stretch much deeper than politics.

Marshall Clark is a PhD student at the Australian National University, Canberra.

Inside Indonesia 57: Jan-Mar 1999