Miracles or 'les miserables'
in Pasar Senen

Keajaiban di Pasar Senen
Misbach Yusa Biran
Republished 2008
Kepustakaan Gramedia

How hard is it to write a book of events and ideas for readers whose ages are 50 years younger than the author?

It doesn't appear to be difficult for veteran director/script writer Misbach Yusa Biran, 75, but perhaps that's because he never intended to write such a book.

An anthology of essays that were published in various newspapers and magazines back in the 1950s, Misbach's Keajaiban di Pasar Senen is not a true story because some of its characters and events were created and developed by the author.

But somehow it is true, as journalist-cum-writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma writes in the book introduction, that Keajaiban di Pasar Senen is a social documentary, a rare gem in the country's literary scene.

Set in the 1950s in Pasar Senen, Central Jakarta, which used to be one of Jakarta's prominent shopping centers and business districts, Keajaiban di Pasar Senen tells how artists -- both real and self-styled ones -- interact with one another in the gray area between the lower class and the middle class.

The book chronicles how life as an artist in those early years was a tough choice as it was a rough life in a society which in general had poor appreciation for the arts. The irony is that in those years the young nation of Indonesia was led by a charismatic leader, Sukarno, who himself was an art aficionado. Further discussion on that irony would require an entirely different story, however.

Misbach doesn't present the miserable lives as how they really are. Instead, the miseries of being cash-strapped and jobless (if a job means a role to play or something other than a nine-to-five day), are twisted into humor -- oftentimes with an ensuing bitter aftertaste.

The story is told through first-person narration of an "I" who introduces himself as one of those working a nine-to-five job with a meager income (but still better off than the artists) and has no knowledge or sense of art at all. He drops by Pasar Senen where the artists socialize to observe and because it is a community where he can quench his thirst for "smart" social and political comments from his "artist friends".

These comments, however, are the gems that are collected throughout the stories because they genuinely reflect what Misbach thought was happening in his surroundings -- its political upheavals and social dynamics.

The artists' eccentricities which are brought to the surface reveal how Misbach sees the world in his heart. Some are truly funny but others are just deplorable -- to the point of embarrassing.

But artists' lives are nevertheless always exciting subjects for laymen -- especially in times when galleries are few and stages too expensive for mediocre artists. Everywhere in the world it seems, the more tragic an artist's life, the more the worshipping fans.

And so the miserable lives of artists in the 1950s are preserved.

Interestingly, on the Internet some bloggers -- who must be in their late 20s -- have put Keajaiban on a very high pedestal. Some say it reminds them of their childhoods and even remember a book of the same title belonging to their fathers, uncles or elder brothers.

A blogger said he was a primary school student when he first read the book in the late 1980s. "I found this among my uncle's book collection. The book cover didn't attract me at first. But poring over the book later proved otherwise. It's hilariously funny," he blogged.

"'What's so miraculous about Pasar Senen?' I thought before I finally decided to read it." And he enjoyed the book. Several other bloggers agreed. One blogger raised the question: "If he's a filmmaker why have I never heard of Misbach's name before? It doesn't matter, his book gives me a good laugh."

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.