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The Book of Jakarta by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma

Traditional Indonesian textile as portrayed in The Book of Jakarta

The Book of Jakarta begins with a stark introduction to the effects of global warming and over-development on Indonesia’s capital city. Jakarta is “‘sinking faster than any other city on the planet” say the editors, and “will likely see most of its northern districts completely submerged by 2050.”

Given that sobering background you’d expect this collection of short stories to focus on the challenges of living in a city whose very future is threatened. While some of the writers do show people trying to survive and even thrive, others explore class differences and racial attitudes (particularly towards Indonesians of Chinese origin).

Fundamentally the ten stories show the city from multiple angles through the everyday lives of its ordinary citizens: prostitutes, students, low ranking bureaucrats and homeless people. We follow them into government offices, red light districts, suburban cafes, congested residential quarters and up-market villas.

The people in these stories always seem to be on the move. The book in fact opens with B217AN, the tale of a rain-soaked motorbike journey across the city to a seafood stall and ends with A Day in the Life of a Guy from Depok Who Travels to Jakarta in which a man criss crosses the city by train and taxi to complete his day’s errands.

Many of the characters in these stories seem keen to leave the city entirely. The mother in A Secret from Kramat Tunggak saves money she earns from prostitution so she and her daughter can migrate and become domestic workers overseas. In The Sun Sets in the North, a friendship between two girls from different social classes is destroyed when one girl is taken by her wealthy family to the USA to escape a period of rioting and unrest in Jakarta.

Taken together, the stories in The Book of Jakarta show how the city too is on the move, constantly changing and shifting with new toll roads and cultural centres. It becomes a city of “us” and “them” with the workers and merchants occupying the congested centre while the wealthier inhabitants escape to the northern suburbs where homes are modelled on Beverley Hills style mansions and even the sky seems bluer.

Two stories stood out for me. Both deal with the frustrations of bureaucracy.

In The Aroma of Shrimp Paste, we meet a woman who needs to get a passport so she can take the holiday abroad she’s earned as a bonus from her employer. She pays an intermediary to help her circumvent the nightmare of the immigration office only to discover at the last minute that they won’t approve her application because she’s wearing shorts. Her attempt to get around the problem have all the elements of a farce.

Even funnier is Bunyan (a word which apparently means stupid in one of the Indonesian languages). It’s set in the future when half of Jakarta is underwater, the flood waters held back by just a wooden barrier. It’s towards this barrier that a would-be social media star is being driven by a malfunctioning driverless taxi. She frantically calls the taxi company’s helpline – the resulting ‘conversation’ will strike a chord with anyone who has tried to reason with call centres and customer service lines.

‘Ma’am we’re very sorry. We haven’t yet succeeded in taking control of your car because of —’ then in English, ‘— an interrupted connection. … ‘

‘What does that mean? Just speak Indonesian.’

‘Interrupted connection’, repeated the operator, in English.

‘In Indonesian! Please, I’m drowning!’

‘There’s no signal. Ma’am…’

The quality of the stories is mixed. I found it hard to relate to All Theatre is False, tale of a homeless drifter or to grasp the point of Grown-Up Kids which is about a group of elderly people on a day out from a housing complex. But together this collection gives us a tremendous sense of the multi-faceted nature of this city.

The Book of Jakarta: Footnotes

The Book of Jakarta is part of the Reading the City series published by Comma Press. There are 22 books in this series covering cities as far apart as Shanghai and Leeds, Venice and Birmingham. I’ve read one of the earliest titles – The Book of Gaza – but also have The Book of Tokyo and The Book of Shanghai on my shelves.

Each book contains 10 stories written by local authors and translated into English. The Book of Jakarta is edited by Maesy Ang and Teddy W. Kusuma

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