Review: The Book of Jakarta

by Chiara Pistillo

What do you know about Jakarta, or Indonesia?

If the answer is “not much” then you should definitely pick up this collection of short stories. And if the answer is “a lot, actually” well, you should read it too, you will probably relate or find some familiar elements.

The Book of Jakarta is a collection of ten short stories put together by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma, publishers and owners of an independent bookshop in Jakarta, Indonesia. The authors you will meet in the collection are Indonesian, or have lived in Jakarta at some point, or have other connections with the city.

In just over a hundred pages you will live Jakarta across its neighbourhoods and through time. You will not necessarily meet interesting people, yet they will drag you into a past of unrest, sordid corners and not so distant future scenarios.

Inevitably, politics is a major topic throughout the collection. Indonesia is still a very young country, only become independent in 1945 after centuries of occupation by Japanese, Dutch and other western countries. However, Indonesia was immediately taken under a new dictatorial regime, which was overthrown in 1998 when riots and protests led President Suharto to resign.

The student manifestations are a topic, for example, in The Problem by Sabda Armandio. Police brutality, sudden disappearances and violence show how reluctant some citizens might feel about joining the protests. I did like in particular a thought from the author about the spirit of a revolt:

Disorderly. I hate that word. What did they expect? For people to show up to the protest, take out a mat, and have a picnic?

The Problem by sabda armandio alif

A social topic wired within the collection is the climate crisis. Jakarta is the most affected city in the entire world by the rising oceans: each year 15 centimetres of land disappear beneath the sea level. That’s the length of a brand new pencil. Every year. That is A LOT.

There is a hint at the uncontrolled building development of Jakarta in The Sun Sets in the North by Cyntha Hariadi, where it’s said that “the sun sets in the north there […] the rich made it that way so they could watch the sunset with the sea at the perfect backdrop”.

But it’s Buyan by utiuts that shows us what Jakarta could look like if no action is taken now to fight the climate changes. In a future not so far away, where we are driven around by driverless taxis, a car with its maps not updated could be a deathly trap, carelessly driving towards the flooded part of the city, with no one to stop its route straight into the water.

The other stories revolve around other more or less ordinary topics, bringing the reader inside the daily life of Indonesian people struggling with bureaucracy, social pressure, love, fear, religion, racism, aging and commuting to the big city.

A story I personally believe to be a true gem is Grown-Up Kids by Ziggy Zezsyazeoviennazabrizkie. It’s about growing old in a city that has outgrown and consumed itself, the problematic healthcare system and, if one wants to really read into it, a consideration about euthanasia. It reminded me of Arto Paasilinna’s Hurmaava joukkoitsemurha (which translates as A Charming Mass Suicide, still unpublished in English) with its unusual, provocative and twisted take on suicide and mental health.

I am glad Comma Press decided to bring to the UK this short story collection under the series A City in Short Fiction, to tell, among others, the stories of places too often forgotten in the Western countries.

The Book of Jakarta is published by Comma Press, out now:

About the Writer

Chiara (she/her) was born in Italy in 1994, then fell in love with the UK and moved to London. She’s a reader, writer, translator and traveller. While working in finance, Chiara dreams of a career in journalism and publishing – work in progress.

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