The Absurdist Meets Jane Austen in Bloomington

The Absurdist Meets Jane Austen in Bloomington

The Absurdist Meets Jane Austen in Bloomington

Budi Darma’s People from Bloomington engages in a strange realism—where life in a small-town America seems both banal and absurd. 


EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay originally appeared as the foreword to Budi Darma’s People from Bloomington

I first read Budi Darma’s Orang-orang Bloomington (“People from Bloomington”) at a very young age and had little understanding of the book other than that it is a collection of stories about the lives of white people in America. My second and more exciting encounter with Budi Darma happened much later, in my early 30s, when I was writing my novel, The Wandering, about a Third World woman who travels the globe with a pair of cursed red shoes. As I engaged with the themes of global mobility and cosmopolitanism in my novel, I researched Indonesian authors who, like myself, had lived abroad and written stories set outside Indonesia. I was in Amsterdam on a fellowship and decided to pick up a copy of People from Bloomington from the KITLV library in Leiden. It was a strange way to reconnect with Budi Darma and realize that he, too, was a writer in transit. He wrote the book in 1979 when he was a PhD student at a university in the United States, just like I was when I was writing my novel, and he produced some of the Bloomington stories in Europe, en route to Indonesia.

Reading the book as a traveler, I was transported to streets in America’s Midwest, some big and others small, with nice houses and big lawns under a blue sky. Yet, as David Lynch has reminded us, when you see flowers behind white picket fences and “Blue Velvet” plays in your head, you know that you will find a severed ear. Something is lurking beneath the familiar. I recognized the changing seasons, the apartment buildings, and the trees, but I had a feeling that we were not in Kansas, Bloomington, or an unassuming Midwestern city anymore. Budi Darma’s realism is also a strange realm, a universe full of coincidence and cruel fate, where a larger force—deus ex machina?—is laughing at the characters, or at myself, like in the Coen brothers’ films. When I learned that Budi Darma was completing his PhD thesis on Jane Austen when he wrote it, I finally understood his stories, along with his cast of observant but weird characters, in a different light. People from Bloomington is Jane Austen’s world with an absurdist twist. Budi Darma’s new take on the absurd, along with his cosmopolitan sensibility, has added a rich, complex, and vibrant flavor to the history of Indonesian literature.

I use the term “absurd” in the way that authors and critics have categorized him within the Indonesian literary discourse. An umbrella covering experimental, existentialist, and avant- garde works of authors such as Iwan Simatupang, Danarto, Putu Wijaya, the “absurd” has been used to place Budi Darma on the literary map even though his fiction often escapes stylistic boundaries. In 1974, young Budi Darma was already a prolific author and a literary sensation in Indonesia when Horison, a prestigious literary magazine of the period, issued a special edition on his works. It featured four of his stories, an essay about his works by scholar and translator of Indonesian literature Harry Aveling, and an interview with him by legendary poet Sapardi Djoko Damono. In his essay, Aveling described Budi Darma as a writer with “peculiar thoughts,” whose stories were populated with unfortunate characters living in a brutal, frightening world in which agency was elusive as their fate had been decided by circumstances or other characters. Referring to Budi Darma’s earlier essay, “Sastra: Merupakan Dunia Jungkir-Balik?” (“Literature Is an Upside-Down World”), Aveling called his absurd fiction a “jungkir-balik” (upside-down) world where logic fails.

In the same year when the Horison special edition was published, Budi Darma departed to do his postgraduate studies at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. He found Jane Austen’s books after a series of coincidences (serendipity marks not only his stories but also real life). He chose to write a thesis on Jane Austen, going against many people’s advice to focus on another woman writer because too much had been written on Austen. Arguing that he was drawn to Austen for her novels and not her gender, Budi Darma insisted on the topic. Upon completing the thesis, while waiting for feedback from his committee, he embarked on a journey to write about Bloomington city dwellers. In his author’s notes, he claims that the Bloomington stories, unlike his previous absurd fiction, “are realist, and resist flying into the other world.” This “other world,” however, remains haunting.

The uncanny in People from Bloomington appears not through fantasy, horror, or magical realism, but in small ruptures within the mundane daily lives, presented to us by narrators with peculiar ways of seeing the world. Poking holes in reality rather than violating it, the book is both subtle and sadistic. While there is no excessive violence in the book, some stories are quite visceral, and they violate our expectations of unremarkable characters and places. Like Austen’s novels, the Bloomington stories allow us to see the world through the eyes of characters who observe and make social commentary on reality. However, if Austen uses characters to convey her views on morality, Budi Darma’s reality is already filtered through polite but morally questionable narrators. Austen’s women characters observe social situations from a limited sphere due to their gender; in contrast, Bloomington’s narrators are characters who transgress borders in disconcerting ways. They are more voyeuristic than curious, more perverse than quirky. They enjoy seeing other people’s misfortunes and even shamelessly benefit from death and calamity.

Social realism has always had an important place in Indonesian literature, perhaps most recognized in the global world through the political novels of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but some influential writers, including Budi Darma, occupy a more experimental space, rejecting realism through stories that defy narrative logic and coherence. What complicates the map is that Budi Darma’s strange stories do not always sit comfortably with the “absurdist” group. People from Bloomington situates him in an in-between-space, a realist world portrayed through an absurdist frame, morbid and funny at the same time. This makes the story collection a distinctive contribution to Indonesian literary history.

Budi Darma’s in-betweenness can also be seen from how he navigates through different cultures and the idea of being in the world. Unlike today, where travel is a common theme in Indonesian popular novels, often framed as the desire of neoliberal subjects to explore, consume, and seize opportunities, the theme of transnational mobility in Indonesian literature in the 1970s was quite rare and largely depended on privilege received through scholarships or marriage. A few authors who had the opportunity to travel, such as Umar Kayam, Nh. Dini, and Budi Darma, wrote about different cities—New York, Paris, or Bloomington—and engaged with cosmopolitanism in different ways. Cultural clash, disconnection, and the nostalgic longing for home are always haunting the fascination with the West in Umar Kayam’s work. On the other hand, Nh. Dini, whose observation of other cultures was shaped by her experience as a flight attendant and wife of a diplomat, proposed a redefinition of national identity by incorporating the idea of the citizen of the world. Budi Darma’s cosmopolitanism moves away from the questions of national identity; he takes from the West, turns influences into his own, and subverts them.

In February 1950, a group of artists associated with the cultural journal Siasat wrote a manifesto called Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang that opens with a bold statement with a cosmopolitan spirit, “We are the legitimate heirs to world culture, and we are furthering this culture in our own way.” People from Bloomington is Budi Darma’s way of asserting his position as the legitimate heir to world culture. He refuses to be marginalized by the Western gaze that situates the Third World as an object of study but not a valid producer of knowledge about its own culture, let alone Western culture. With influences ranging from Kafka to Hawthorne, Budi Darma turns the West into a form that is often unrecognizable or, in his words, “upside-down,” and conveys this through a language at the margin of the global literary landscape. This explains why some readers, translators, and publishers have been pessimistic about whether People from Bloomington would have a global appeal. While the Western practice of representing cultures in the Third World is, however inaccurate, acceptable and normalized, a distorted reflection of Western society in a mirror held up by a Third World author reveals anxiety about who has the authority to produce knowledge.

Unlike Budi Darma’s male narrators, the protagonist in my novel, The Wandering, is a Third World woman whose decisions are limited by national borders; colonial legacy; and gender, racial, and class boundaries. Yet Budi Darma’s unapologetic cosmopolitanism, in addition to his subtle and sadistic style of storytelling, is a major influence on the book. Budi Darma has indeed inspired generations of writers in Indonesia, from veteran journalist and writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma to younger, bold queer writer Norman Erikson Pasaribu. Ajidarma, for instance, claims that Budi Darma, along with other absurdist writers Putu Wijaya and Danarto, has inspired him to unsettle reality and blur boundaries between fact and fiction in his works on Indonesia’s authoritarian regime (1965–1998) and military violence in Timor Leste. He praised Budi Darma’s deceptively simple prose in portraying complex characters who are honest about their improper or cruel thoughts.

Through decades, Budi Darma has touched so many writers, artists, filmmakers, and readers in Indonesia, yet his stories also transcend time and place. In 1980, before we were shaken by the black comedy and arbitrariness in Fargo and other Midwestern gothic films by the Coen brothers, Budi Darma had painted stoic and darkly funny portraits of the Midwest. Budi Darma’s eccentric portrayal of the society, capturing randomness and monstrosity in a Jane Austen world, will continue to inspire us to reimagine reality and storytelling while pushing the questions around national, cultural, and aesthetic borders.

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