Sitti Nurbaya: stupid teenagers

Sitti Nurbaya: A Love Unrealized, Marah Rusli, 1922

  • Indonesia, #6
  • Kindle edition, $10
  • Read May 2017
  • Rating: 2.5/5
  • Recommended for: poet laureates of adolescent angst

This review is going to have spoilers, because the ending really annoyed me and I want to talk about it. That being said, the fact that this book is often described as the Indonesian Romeo & Juliet should give you some pretty serious clues about how the story turns out, so I’m probably not ruining a whole lot for you by discussing the conclusion here.

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Paris, 2012

At a superficial level, I can see the comparison: Sitti Nurbaya is about a pair of star-crossed lovers who die untimely deaths and has probably inspired generations of ill-advised teenagers to find suicide romantic. However, I’m not sure Shakespeare would be flattered by the comparison. Sitti Nurbaya, for one thing, falls very squarely into the category of melodrama, with a villain more reminiscent of Much Ado About Nothing‘s Don John (or, let’s be honest, Snidely Wiplash) than any character from R+J. Then, too, while Romeo and Juliet certainly can be read as adolescent wish-fulfillment in the everyone-will-be-so-sorry-when-I’m-dead variety, that’s far from being the only valid interpretation (there’s also, for instance, the theory that the play was intended not as a tragedy, but as a farce about stupid teenagers making lust-driven decisions, or my current personal favorite, the Romeo is the Villain interpretation). That’s one of the things that makes Shakespeare great–you can read his plays so many different ways and find textual support for all sorts of crazy theories (I’m remembering a story I heard from one of my theater friends or relatives–I can’t remember who told me, so if you happen to be reading this, speak up!–about an actress who was cast as Ophelia and then found out that she was pregnant. She was terrified to tell her director, thinking she’d be fired, but he was delighted–Ophelia is pregnant! Of course! It makes complete sense!). But Sitti Nurbaya does not have this flexibility; in fact, much of the subtext is actually just text, usually dialogue in the mouths of Rusli’s main characters. Every theme of the book is hashed out in discussions, and there is really no way to read the plot except as pure unmitigated melodrama.

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Paris, 2012

Here’s a basic rundown: Nurbaya (“Nur”) and Samsulbahri (“Samsu”) are best friends and neighbors in Padang, West Sumatra. At the beginning of the book, they realize they are in fact in love with each other and make plans to marry, with their families’ approval, but decide to wait for seven years while Samsu goes to Batavia (what is now Jakarta) to finish his education. They are both wealthy and educated, but soon after Samsu’s departure, Nurbaya’s father falls prey to the schemes of the miserly and covetous Datuk Meringgih (there’s all sorts of class stuff going on here, wherein an essential part of the baseness of Datuk Meringgih’s nature is that he was born poor and worked his way up, in contrast to the beautiful, fair-skinned, and noble-born protagonists). Nurbaya offers herself in marriage to save her father from debt (I mean, I say “offers herself” but her father lays a pretty heavy guilt trip on her–“oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just die, it’s no trouble, really”); Datuk Meringgih, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a terrible husband and she runs away from him repeatedly, eventually going to live permanently with a cousin, and planning to go to Java to be with Samsu. But Meringgih finds her and takes his revenge by poisoning her, and when Samsu finds out he tries to kill himself, which is the occasion of some extremely dramatic note-writing:

Just as he was about to write “Stay in Peace,” Samsu’s hands trembled and he was nearly unable to sign his name. His breath became choked and his face pale from holding back the sadness that flooded his chest. He felt dizzy and couldn’t see straight, especially since his eyes were filled with tears he had not been able to restrain.

We find out pretty quickly though that his suicide attempt is unsuccessful, and ten years later, as a soldier in the Dutch colonial army, he returns to Padang to quell an uprising led by none other than Datuk Meringgih. He manages to kill Datuk Meringgih, who has a last-minute epiphany and regrets his evil nature and his checkered past and apologizes to the also-mortally-wounded Samsu (Samsu basically tells him he’s a terrible person, and even though it surely can’t be the first time anyone’s taken him to task for his wicked deeds, “The Datuk did not say a word, for he saw the truth in what Samsulbahri said. And only then and there did it become clear to him that he had never done any good with all his possessions.” I mean…just come on). Samsu dies in the hospital after being reunited with his estranged father, and is buried next to Sitti Nurbaya.

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New Mexico, 2005

Here’s the thing. For all my criticism, I have to be impressed by what Marah Rusli achieved with this book. He had an almost impossible brief: he was writing for Balai Pustaka, a publishing house devoted to spreading literature in “high” Malay that would compete with the wildly popular pulp literature written in “low” Malay. From the translator’s introduction by George A. Fowler:

Balai Pustaka had strict publishing criteria: no writing critical of Dutch rule, partial to a particular religion or portraying heterodox moral standards in anything but an unequivocally negative light would be accepted. Furthermore, writings had to be of a didactic nature. In regard to its Malay literary output, Balai Pustaka’s editorial policies have been criticized for imposing a rigid uniformity of style… To some degree, this reflected the ideas about proper High Malay of the predominantly Minangkabau writers themselves or their counterparts on the Balai Pustaka editorial staff.

Within that rigid framework he managed to create a story that—despite its stilted dialogue and melodramatic plot—was both revolutionary enough that it got him disowned by his father, and classic enough that it’s still required reading in Indonesian high schools. There’s extensive use of the classical Indonesian poetry forms pantun (quatrains of rhyming verse consisting of two parts that seem unrelated but contain some symbolic meaning—for example, “Pandan Island lies far out at sea/ its sight by Angsa Dua Isle conceals/ However broken the body may be/ Kindness is always the balm that heals.”) and syair (four rhymed lines, more direct in meaning, usually with some sort of moral or explanation, and generally sung rather than recited).

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Paris, 2012

And while not all of the author’s ideas toward women read as feminist by current standards, many of his theses—his opposition to arranged marriage, his emphasis on the need for education for women, his rejection of tradition for tradition’s sake (“If it’s clear that a tradition is wrong,” Nurbaya asks, “why isn’t it just done away with?”)—were extremely progressive at the time and still hold up pretty well today (and while it would be nice to think that society has moved on so much that all of Rusli’s arguments would seem dated or at least uneccessary today, as per the introduction,”The issues of injustice and indignities suffered by women that this novel raised and which clashed so sharply with Minangkabau adat traditional law, continue to be debated to this day in West Sumatra”). The cultural influence of Sitti Nurbaya is clear in works ranging from the mid-century literary classic This Earth of Mankind to the shock lit/magical realism tour de force that is Beauty is a Wound.

One final note, which is really not germane to any of the foregoing discussion, but was so interesting I felt I had to include it: this book introduced me to the origins of the phrase “run amok.” There is a scene early in the book where alarms begin to sound; “usually,” the author explains, “it meant that someone had gone amok and was causing a disturbance.” I never knew this was a phrase with a literal meaning, nor did I realize it was a word borrowed from Indonesia. According to Wikipedia (and I know this is lazy of me but I’m just not up for in-depth etymological research just at the moment), people (generally men) who ran amok were believed to be possessed by an evil tiger spirit that caused them to run around armed with a sword or kris and kill or injure everyone they came in contact with. Usually the episodes would end with the attacker being killed or committing suicide. Although this is considered a “culture-bound syndrome” it bears obvious similarities to modern mass shootings and vehicular killing sprees—which are far more common than running amok ever was in Indonesian or Malay culture. The only thing that has changed is the weapon, the justification, and, sadly, the frequency.

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Paris, 2012
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