Review: M Harper Harringtonon Intan Paramaditha

Wherever You Go, There You Are

When you were a child, you raced through the Choose Your Own Adventure series with a wanderlust that would make international cabin crew blush. You were participating in a publishing phenomenon, which produced over 180 titles and sold more than 250 million copies between 1979 and 1998. The regrets, which have inevitably piled up as you have aged, have given you a mature sense of consequence that amplifies the allure of playing the game as an adult. You like the idea of going back and choosing a better path, or at least a fresh one. But, as you read Intan Paramaditha’s The Wandering and make choices within it, you feel heavy with apprehension wrought from experience. Do different decisions lead to a different you?

In The Wandering, Devil (not ‘the’, or ‘a’, just Devil or, sometimes, Demon Lover) has gifted You a pair of red shoes that will grant Your wish to escape Your humdrum daily life and travel – forever. But while the shoes may enable You to wander, they aren’t good for much else. As in real life, You have little control over the worlds You find yourself in, and a lot depends on the people You happen to meet. You run out of money. You take crappy jobs to pay the rent, stay in sublets and outer-boroughs, marry men you don’t love. You don’t get to decide between options so much as you are forced to resolve dilemmas. When one of Your red shoes goes missing, are you going to try and find it, or hope it never comes back? You may choose between the Devil and the deep blue sea, and then proceed to the nominated page.

And who are ‘You’? You are an unnamed 20-something protagonist who wants to ‘escape the prison of mediocrity’ so badly that you’ll do a deal with Demon Lover. ‘You didn’t know what You wanted, apart from not wanting to be Yourself.’ In addition to Yourself, You are trying to escape Indonesia or, more specifically, Jakarta, ‘a city full of thwarted suicidal urges,’ where ‘distorted mosque loudspeakers, raucous calls to prayer marked the passage of time. Occasionally You’d get a bonus – Islamic singing from frenzied matrons or a sultry dangdut performance on Independence Day.’ In 2017, the capital city’s ethnically-Chinese, Christian governor was jailed for two years after being found guilty of blasphemy against Islam for the way in which he quoted from the Koran during a campaign speech. His persecution, widely considered to be politically motivated, is one example of the powerful nexus of Islamic conservatism and dynastic political collusion that has marked Indonesia since the fall of Suharto.

You can’t figure out why Your sister, who was one of the few women lucky enough to study engineering at the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology, has joined the ranks of this increasingly empowered caste of pious Islamic conservatives. She dropped engineering to marry a man who is on the PR team for a celebrity cleric. Now she runs a Muslimah fashion business and has two children with Arabic-sounding names You have trouble remembering.

Jakarta is full of contradictions. Five-star hotels overlook slums. Alcohol is restricted, but smoking permitted just about everywhere. A bowl of fried rice can cost 10 cents or 10 dollars. In Imaginary City, a love-letter to her hometown, Rain Chudori calls the city ‘beautiful and brutal at the same time.’ Jakarta is a place where, those who are rich enough, can do whatever they like – wear skimpy clothes, take drugs at glitzy nightclubs, drink drive a sports car into innocent pedestrians – kill them – without legal repercussion. But not You. ‘Everything about You is common. You come from a common family that live like the majority of common folk.’ You sweat in the heat trap of your small rented room trying to escape the cacophony of pollution – noise, air, water, garbage. Is it any wonder that You, lover of literature and devil, don’t want to call the place home anymore?

But what hope do You have of transcending Your mediocrity? With Devil You find a solution. You tell him that, ‘my sole wish is to get the hell away from here. I want adventure. Give me money, visas and a one-way ticket. I don’t want to come back.’ What does it say about Indonesia that You pin Your hopes on learning a foreign language and emigrating? Or that the most dire endings of The Wandering unfold in a Jakarta coloured by a conservative Islam, and in which Devil is well connected?

Contrary to Paramaditha’s bleak depiction of the capital, Indonesia is defined by cosmopolitanism. With some 700 language-groups spread across 13,000 islands half-way between China and India, the archipelago has always been a kaleidoscope of inter-cultural exchange. The colonial era brought even more influences from even further afield and, in the digital age, Indonesians are among the most engaged social-media users in the world.

In The Wandering, Paramaditha is reclaiming a cosmopolitanism that is intrinsic to Indonesian culture. The Indonesian born, NYU-educated, Australian resident told The Guardian that she laments Indonesia being ‘reduced to a “place traveled” as opposed to a point of departure.”’ The cover of the original, Indonesian version of the book hints at this dynamic. On it, Your red shoes sit in snow, in front of a yellow road sign with the English word ‘end’ written on it. It’s a scene impossible in equator-straddling Indonesia, one that hints at the reversal of the typical dichotomy between privileged traveler and ‘developing’ destination. There is also a gendered dimension to this re-empowerment. By accepting the shoes and journeying forth into the unknown, You are rejecting Your sister’s way of life, and the expectations put on young women that she was all too eager to meet. Your mother warns You that ‘bad girls go wandering,’ but You’d prefer that to ending up like her.

The translation of The Wandering into English – by Stephen J. Epstein, and made possible by grants from the PEN Translates program – is an extension of this reclamation, as it opens up a fresh perspective on travel and internationalism to audiences reading in the lingua-franca of globalism. But what is lost in translation? Your red shoes are also on the cover of the English edition, but they appear in a hallway of what could be an airport or train station anywhere in the post-industrial world.

The Wandering was originally published in Indonesian in 2017 with the title Gentayangan: Pilih Sendiri Petualangan Sepatu Merahmu – which translates as ‘The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure’. But ‘gentayangan’ has more nuance than ‘wandering’. It conveys the sense of ‘wandering aimlessly’, or ‘roaming about’, as distinct from the whimsical mystique of the English ‘wandering’. This subtle shift in translation also obscures the centrality of other-worldly beings that haunt the story. In interviews, Paramaditha has spoken about even deeper meanings of the term that will indeed seem foreign to most English speakers. In an interview with Nikkei Asia, she explained that gentayangan described ‘ghosts who are not in the world of the living but have not crossed over to the other world. … That state of being neither here nor there.’ This essential theme of the text does not come across in the presentation of the English translation, or the reviews of it. 

This liminal world, where spirits rub shoulders with humans, is a familiar locale for Indonesian story-telling. The ancient fables of wayang theatre and the placed-based legends of Rara Jonggrang or Nyai Roro Kidul are classic examples. But this is a living, contemporary tradition. In Iwan Simatupang’s The Pilgrim (2010) an inconsolable widower accepts a job white-washing a cemetery wall. Originally published in Indonesian in 1969, it is regarded as the first ‘modern’ Indonesian novel, but spirits still share the stage with bureaucrats and everyday villagers. When a mysterious figure appears to the widower, ‘he hoped she wasn’t a vampire or a ghost or some other sort of creature which still seemed to be everywhere in the space age.’ In a more recent example, the central character of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound (2015) is a woman who has risen from the dead. The story, which became an international sensation, opens with the line, ‘one afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.’ The entanglement of this world with others is presented as matter-of-factly as the book’s second line: ‘A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst.’

As a torchbearer of Javanese mythology (and the Sanskrit epics it fed on) Paramaditha revels in the ambiguity of a morality that is not a dichotomous matter of ‘good’ ‘versus’ ‘evil’. Her writing is also imbued with a distinctly Indonesian perspective on the question of free will. In The Wandering, choosing your own adventure will not help You to escape Yourself.

In the Javanese religious tradition known as Kejawan, the concept of ‘nerima’ encourages an active knowing of the world, and one’s place within it, as it is. Coming to peace with this requires ‘nerima’ or, loosely translated, acceptance. While we are in denial about ourselves and our condition, we are bound to that condition. Nerima is the opposite of this denial. It is the acceptance of our true self that sets us free, precisely to the extent that we can accept it. This way of thinking starkly contrasts with the neoliberalal mantra of freedom through choice; that free markets free people. In consumer society, identity can be constructed through consumption, and the possibilities for consumption are – for some people at least – endless. Don’t like where you are? Go somewhere else, and buy a new wardrobe to match. The dubious power of Your red shoes can be read as a comment that an abundance of choice is not the same as freedom. In ‘The Wandering’, You are the choices that you make, and happy endings are hard to come by.

Paramaditha has a penchant for stories about people who find themselves stuck, one choice at a time. The tension, between destiny and decision, is also explored in the short-story collection Apple and Knife, the only other book by Paramaditha available in English (and also translated by Stephen J. Epstein). In ‘Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf’ a man desperate to maintain his social status takes a job as a professional rapist, only to end up the victim himself. In ‘Scream in a Bottle’ a woman interviews a mysterious figure who helps women dispose of unwanted babies, only to learn a difficult truth about herself.

The stories in the English Apple and Knife were drawn from two earlier, untranslated short-story collections: ‘Sihir Perempuan’ (2005) and ‘Kumpulan Budak Setan’ (2010) (on which she collaborated with Eka Kurniawan and Ugoran Prasad). One of these short stories, ‘A Single Firefly, A Thousand Rats’, appears as one of the many tangents you can take in The Wandering. Across her publications, Paramaditha has created an intersecting, self-refracting world. It’s a world in which the membrane between this reality and others is permeable, and in which opportunity and decision are the difference between heaven and hell. This world has a folkloric quality. With a demon, an irresistible woman, and a pair of magic shoes, The Wandering is a classic moral tale: you make the choices, you live with the consequences. Like Simatupang, Kurniawan, and Toer, Paramaditha mixes history, folklore, and scathing social critique into captivating story telling. Like Indonesian cosmopolitanism itself, Paramaditha also has a striking talent for weaving meaning out of heterogeneous cultural strands and, as you wander, you’ll take in the rich symbolism of tales from the Ramayana to Britpop, and hear Hecate quote the Koran.

The adaptation of the Choose Your Own Adventure structure for grown-ups is not without precedent. Recent titles include Pretty Little Mistakes by Heather McElhatton (2007) and its 2010 sequel Million Little Mistakes; If by Nicholas Bourbaki (2014); and Ryan North’s choosable-path books based on the works of Shakespeare. But many of these are gimmicky and lack real engagement with the metaphysical questions Paramaditha raises.

Meticulous attention to detail is needed to pull off the ‘choose your own adventure’ style (especially over four hundred pages). Your numerous paths overlap and intersect. You may read about Yourself in the same place, with the same people, from multiple perspectives. But the multiple mini-adventures also give The Wandering the feel of a short story collection: the adventures you can choose only last a couple of dozen pages before they end. The intersection of Your possible paths means that similar themes are repeated, and similar endings are reached. This limits the opportunity You have to develop as a character. How might You change if you had all 400 pages to grow? Paramaditha has shown that she excels at the short fable, but it would be good to see what she could do with an epic. Moreover, her writing includes quite a bit of ‘telling, not showing’: ‘You have a feeling you’re not in Jakarta anymore. Actually, you’re en route to John F. Kennedy Airport, ready to leave New York.’ But perhaps with the second person narrator it is necessary to give the reader a lot of information; things can only be described from ‘Your’ perspective. There is no omniscient narrator providing multiple perspectives, and You can’t hear what other characters may be thinking.

It is curious that You don’t have a name. In the The Pilgrim, the central characters are ‘the painter’, and his employer, ‘the overseer’ of the cemetery . The painter has thrown away his talent for art (along with his paintings, into the sea) in response to the premature death of his wife (whose name he does not know). He becomes an alcoholic, the village idiot, doing his best to escape himself. But, when the overseer offers him the job of white-washing the cemetery walls, he processes his grief as he paints and, ultimately, accepts that he is who he always was – an artist. ‘The man collapsed under his own freedom. He had made choices among possible choices and borne the consequences of his freedom to choose.’ The name of the central character of Indonesian literature’s magnum opus – Pramoedia Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet – is also an enigma. The saga begins with the narrator saying that, ‘people call me Minke. My own name…for the time being I need not tell it.’ Minke’s identity is only revealed as you learn who he really is, and his name is wrapped up in this identity. In his introduction to the English translation, Max Lane points out that Minke’s mother is constantly reminding him that ‘a Javanese must eventually come to terms with his own identity.’ She tells him that, ‘you must be able to recognize limits.That’s not too hard to understand, is it? If people don’t recognize such limits, God will make them realise in His own way.’ As You try to escape Jakarta, and Yourself, You too are trying to come to terms with Yourself and the limits of Your world.

In a time when unfettered jet-setting seems like a fantastic dream, it is striking to encounter a ‘travel’ novel. By stopping you in your tracks, COVID-19 has forced you to reflect on who you are, where you are. And this is exactly what The Wandering encourages you to do. As the world learns the lesson first hand, Paramaditha reminds you that travel is not an escape from self. You may find Yourself in New York, where ‘Your life is still aimless, and growing ever more tedious.’ You are plagued by an existential question: ‘How does life go on? More precisely, how can you start living with purpose?’ Wherever you go, there you are.