You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
People from Bloomington are strange indeed, at least in this translated collection of stories from Indonesian writer Budi Darma. In these seven fiction stories, Darma takes a mirror to the wide open spaces of the Midwest American college town of Bloomington, Indiana, where he studied for his PhD in the 1970s. What he reflects back is great loneliness, isolation and, despite all that space, a creeping claustrophobia.
For readers of Indonesian literature, Darma is well known for his surrealist fiction, bordering on the absurd. For English readers, however, People from Bloomington may be a first introduction to this important voice of Indonesian literature. Darma wrote only in Indonesian and this collection of stories, populated almost entirely with American characters about an American town, was originally written for an Indonesian-speaking audience. Tiffany Tsao’s excellent translation, however, preserves Darma’s fluid, almost conversational, writing style adapting it to the American vernacular.
At the time it was published in 1980, People from Bloomington was considered a departure for Darma. Here, the characters are grounded in a realism that, as he writes in the preface, “resist flying into the other world” of the absurd. As he makes clear, however, Darma was also seeking to challenge Indonesian readers, to convince them that, with a deep focus on character, a short story could pack the same punch as a novel.
Yet, if Darma’s style makes for easy reading, his challenging characters do not. The America that is refracted through Darma’s stories is a bleak world of unneighbourly neighbours, viciously guarding their privacy even as they long for connection. All of the stories are told from the first person and each is narrated by a different character. The first two narrators are foreign students and the others are American residents of Bloomington. Yet each story shares a similar, voyeuristic style that blurs the lines between them and gives the overall impression of an outsider looking in.
Several recurring themes are set out in the first story, “The Old Man With No Name,” one of the strongest in the collection. A lonely student rents an attic room for the year and observes the routines and rituals of his elderly landlady and her alienated neighbors. He is jolted out of his isolation when he observes an older man, in a similar attic room across the way, brandishing a gun.
Isolation, illness, and old age return again and again throughout this collection. In “Joshua Karabish,” the narrator wrestles with the death of his titular housemate, a sickly young poet with “eyes that seemed on the verge of taking flight from the sockets where they nested”. The narrator goes from annoyance to paranoia, fearful of catching his house-mate’s unnamed disease.
Many of the stories’ narrators also seem to gaze at an unsettling version of their future selves, aging and lonely. This is the case in the last story of the collection, “Charles Lebourne,” in which the narrator living in an apartment block “perfect for single people” begins to spy upon an older man in a much larger building that he comes to believes is his estranged father.
There is also a running undercurrent of violence, often from unexpected sources, such as with the initially mild-mannered narrator of “The Family M.” The character is so enraged by the suspected mischief of a pair of children that he wreaks oblique vengeance on the entire family.
This is, perhaps, one of the most frustrating aspects of Darma’s characters in People from Bloomington: they are unable, for whatever reason, to tackle their frustrations directly, finding ways to harass their intended targets with anonymous letters and disguised phone calls, creating elaborate plots that rarely bring about the changes they desire, whether it’s tidying up a neighbor’s overgrown yard in “Mrs. Elberhart” or coveting a house-mate’s girlfriend in “Yorrick.”
The standout story in the collection is “Orez” both because of its fable-like quality and the narrator’s propulsive, if selfish, power. In pursuing an all-consuming but doomed relationship, the narrator finds he is unprepared to deal with the child that, inevitably, emerges from this union.
In the preface to the book, Darma writes: “Fundamentally, the narrator figure in People from Bloomington is a portrait of torment. Whether he is trying to do good, act indifferently, or behave badly, he is tormented all the same. The narrator’s relationship to the world around him is based on self-interest, and is not organic. In the context of such relationships, the narrator becomes a victim.” Indeed, many of the main characters in this collection do seem to be victims but of torments that they have created for themselves.
Darma notes that the inspiration for these stories came from meandering through the suburban neighborhoods of Bloomington and observing the residents there. But during this time, Darma was also writing his PhD thesis on the works Jane Austen and, in a sense, People from Bloomington is also a reflection of what he studied. Austen references are strewn throughout the collection including several characters named for Austen stories. Like the writer he admired, Darma concerns himself with the web of relationships between ordinary people, focusing on the many failed attempts at connection.
In fact, as shown in the book notes, Darma makes frequent reference to Western literary works, including The Scarlet Letter, Hamlet and even the Leo Tolstoy novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. There are also a few fleeting references to works of Indonesian literature but, in this collection, the vast majority of the stories are deliberately grounded in the American and Western world.
Budi Darma once described his writing as a means to arrive at truth though the exploration of an ‘upside-down world’. Sadly, Darma passed away in 2021, one of the many Covid-19 deaths that swept through Indonesia. It was a great loss to the country’s literary community. With the translation of People from Bloomington English-readers now finally have the opportunity to explore the dark corners of Darma’s upside-down worlds.
Atika Shubert is a writer and journalist based in Valencia, Spain. For more of her work, you can go to her website: www.atikashubert.com