Life

Polite teacher views human
absurdity


Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

After sinking themselves in the dark, absurd and insane world of Budi Darma's novel Olenka and short-story collection Orang-orang Bloomington, some readers made the trip to meet the author in person.

They all returned with the same news: Budi Darma is -- to an almost disappointing level -- a polite man.

Wearing thick glasses and dressed conservatively, he speaks with the reserve and polite manner of an old-fashioned teacher of morals.

The person who wrote about wild sex on a table and insane thoughts of an alienated man who wanted to yank the arms of two poor children from their joints said he appeared that way because before he was essentially a teacher.

Budi Darma, 68, has lectured for decades at the English Department of the State University of Surabaya (Unesa, formerly IKIP Surabaya), where he once was the rector in the 1980s.

""As a teacher, I had to set a good example especially for the students. Everywhere, I try to speak the language properly and appear neat,"" he told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of the Literary Biennale in Jakarta last week.

When he was young, he said, he always wanted to be a teacher. So his good manners somehow stemmed from his aspirations to be a teacher.

Choosing his words carefully, Budi explained that, when he wrote fiction, he was not a teacher but an author.

""That's why there is a contrast between my everyday demeanor and my literature,"" he added.

Moreover, his literature mirrored his concerns about humanity, while his teaching job demanded that he think about the future of his students, so in his daily life as a teacher, he is an optimist, he said.

""But as an author I look at the world and that life is dark,"" he added.

The author, who was born in Rembang, Central Java, on April 25, 1937, received an Achmad Bakrie Award in August from the Freedom Institute for literary achievement.

In the citation, the Freedom Institute wrote: ""In Budi Darma's hands, the Indonesian language is able to deftly grasp absurdity that is often considered an experience only European logic and language can fathom.

""Either in the absurd or in the realistic, in the automatic writing or in the more-programmed style, there are things that always remain a part of Budi Darma's signature style. Short, eloquent and orderly sentences which have a burst of vocabulary from colloquial speech or local languages here and there; a depiction that avoids the use of the third person; and his politeness in elaborating the insanity of the characters. All of those characteristics provide readers with an irony and dark humor unrivaled by other writers,"" it reads.

The paper also mentioned that among all Budi Darma's works of fiction, Olenka, Orang-orang Bloomington (People of Bloomington) and Kritikus Adinan (Adinan the Critic) are the most important.

He wrote all the stories in three books in the 1970s when he was abroad, largely when he studied for a master's degree and later a PhD at Indiana University in the U.S. Orang-orang Bloomington, released in 1980 was his first published work of fiction, while Olenka, which he wrote in less than three weeks, was published three years later.

Kritikus Adinan was published in 2002, although it contained a collection of stories he wrote in the 1970s.

Besides the three titles, Budi Darma also wrote novels Rafilus in 1988 and later Ny. Talis (Mrs. Talis) in 1996.

However, the latter two, which he wrote partly in Indonesia amid his tight schedule as a professor, did not gain as much attention as the other three.

While he was in the U.S. his main activity was to finish his dissertation to give him time for writing fiction there.

""I wrote Olenka in less than three weeks. I'd lock myself up in my apartment, eating and sleeping only when I had to. I was hibernating,"" he said.

He launched himself into a writing frenzy after he met a woman and two shabby boys in the elevator of his apartment.

""The woman -- her face, the way she spoke and everything else about her -- reminded me of a character in a short story of Anton Chekhov, which I read when I was in junior high school,"" he said.

The Chekhov character, he said, was a woman who always had bad luck every time she married someone.

When she married a theater worker, she talked about the theater world passionately as if it were her world. When she married a carpenter she continuously talked about carpentry as if it was her sole life source, Budi Darma said.

Since then, Budi Darma became obsessed with the character. When he saw the ""elevator woman"", he was overwhelmed by the urge to write something.

""I thought I would write a short story. But, surprisingly, I just went on -- I couldn't stop,"" he recollected.

And that was how Olenka was conceived.

The two urchins he saw in the elevator also appeared in Keluarga M (M Family), a short story in Orang-orang Bloomington, which he wrote during the same three weeks.

It has been almost 30 years since Budi Darma wrote his monumental, critically acclaimed fiction.

When he retires as a professor at 70 (in 2007), will he write another masterpiece during his peaceful retirement?

""I'm not sure. Because after my retirement, I will become an emeritus professor, which carries the same workload as a professor, but probably even more so,"" Budi Darma said.

So, when would he have time to write fiction again?

""Yaa, that's the problem,"" he replied.

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