“People from Bloomington” by Budi Darma

bloomington2

People from Bloomington is, true to its name, a collection of stories about various people in the American Midwest—in the university town of Bloomington, Indiana to be precise—set in the late 1970s. As examples of the craft of short story writing, these will do nicely: each is well-constructed and plotted, with distinctive characterization and more than enough tension to get the reader through to the end.

The author is known for absurdist fiction; a great deal of that feeling remains in this collection. The protagonists—first-person narrators all—while entirely believable, are disturbed: each suffers from social isolation and is socially maladroit; each is observant to a fault and displays an unhealthy obsession with one or more of the other characters and prey to at least an overactive imagination if not downright paranoia. They snoop from windows and from across yards.

 

As I began to take this route and see Mrs. Eberhart more frequently, I became increasingly troubled by how filthy her living conditions were. She would sit on the front porch nearly the whole day long, waving at anyone who passed by. Her hair was dirty, her clothes were wrinkled and grimy, and she had let her home fall into such disrepair. The house was actually much nicer and better built than those of her neighbors’. But it looked old, dilapidated, and about to fall apart. The unkempt lawn only augmented the house’s shoddy appearance… It was an irritant I could have easily removed from my life by simply avoiding Jefferson Street. What happened was the reverse.

 

The narrators, if not necessarily the stories, as often as not display a preoccupation with disease and there is an undertone of violence which sometimes, although not always, breaks into the open.

The author lists as influences authors as varied as Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, but he also seems to be channeling Roald Dahl, another writer whose short stories feature vaguely off-kilter protagonists in unhealthy (literally or figuratively) situations, yielding a similar sense of unease and discomfort that remains behind after the stories conclude.

And then there’s Bloomington, a very real place where the author passed six years of graduate school, drawn from life (there really is, for example, a “Tulip Tree” apartment building, “a massive affair, tall, imposing and aloof”, although in reality considerably less than “fifty stories high”), but here an eerie and disconnected place.

 

People from Bloomington, Budi Darma, Tiffany Tsao (trans) (Penguin Classics, April 2022)
People from Bloomington, Budi Darma, Tiffany Tsao (trans) (Penguin Classics, April 2022)

But what is most astounding—and it really is—is that if short stories could be subject to the literary equivalent of a blind wine tasting, I doubt anyone would pick these out as anything other than American, even to the nuances of irony:

 

Her son, Matthew, was also utterly nondescript. A good fit for any job: hamburger-flipper, health-insurance agent, congressman.

 

They read as of their time, slightly dusty in tone, and entirely authentic, with nothing to indicate they were in fact written by the late Indonesian author Budi Darma around 1980. This is nothing remotely “foreign” about them.

The effect is as surreal as the stories themselves; it is hard to know what to make of it, whether it is an artifact of Tiffany Tsao’s pitch-perfect translation (if evoking late 20th-century American fiction was the pitch being aimed for) or whether everything was there in the original. The first story, in the original Bahasa Indonesia begins

 

Fess bukanlah jalan yang panjang. Hanya ada tiga rumah di sana, masing-masing mempunyai loteng dan pekarangan yang agak luas.

 

Tsao renders this as:

 

Fess Avenue wasn’t a long street. There were only three houses on it, all with attics and fairly large yards.

 

Those (like me) with even the tiniest amount of Bahasa Indonesia and perhaps those without any at all, can see how the translation tracks the original. But they sound—feel—different; how could they not? Tsao recognizes this: as she writes in her Introduction:

 

People from Bloomington certainly troubles Western expectations about what constitutes Indonesian—and Asian—writing. As such, it also unsettles something else: the traditional compartmentalization of literatures according to national, continental, and linguistic lines.

 

Unsettling indeed, as if Budi Darma had translated his American experiences into Bahasa Indonesia and Tsao translated them right back, the two translations the inverse of the other, canceling each other out. Which, of course, is not what happened. People from Bloomington is a reminder, if one were needed, that translation is—and can’t help but be—an act of creation.

Tsao’s erudite and informative Introduction goes on to discuss what these works might tell us about “universality” in fiction and takes a potshot at current literary debates on cultural appropriation:

 

It is also my hope that this English-language translation will prove useful in ongoing debates concerning the ethicality of writers making use of subject matter and experiences that are not theirs.

 

In one story, “Joshua Karabish”, the narrator—on something of a whim—nicks some of his recently-deceased roommate’s poetry and enters it into a competition… and wins. The poetry isn’t what it appears to be, or perhaps it is: the words are the words regardless of provenance… aren’t they?

Unsettling.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.