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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Pilgrim

Iwan Simatupang

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To purchase The Pilgrim

Title: The Pilgrim
Author: Iwan Simatupang
Genre: Novel
Written: 1969 (Eng. 1975)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: The Pilgrim - US
The Pilgrim - UK
The Pilgrim - Canada
The Pilgrim - India
  • Indonesian title: Ziarah
  • Translated by Harry Aveling

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd but appealing philosophical fiction

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Archipel . (1978) Umar Junus

  From the Reviews:
  • "Storywise, Aveling is successful in conveying it in his translation. (...) Simatupang makes use the shifts of style to enhance the sense of movements, Aveling , on the other hand, fails to transfer it. He tends to employ a single style, somewhat a social style, based on the general rules of English. He tends to translate everything in terms of language elements only, forgetting about the style." - Umar Junus, Archipel

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Even though the central figures -- a painter and the overseer of the local cemetery -- are emphatically presented as individuals, neither they nor any of the other characters in The Pilgrim are identified by name. Author Iwan Simatupang wants his character to exist predominantly in relation to each other and their surroundings: the painter mourns his dead wife, for example, but when asked what her name was admits: "You won't believe this but I don't know."
       It is the characters' functions, rather than their names, which identify them -- even when these shift and, occasionally, mislead (as when figures aren't exactly what/who they first appear to be). The cemetery nightwatchman turns out to have served a different role previously, for example, while the painter is first an artist and then merely a whitewasher (of the cemetery fence); eventually he is identified as the 'former painter', and all set to take on a new, different role.
       The novel begins with the death of the painter's wife. True: "She had, in fact, been dead for some time", but time here is not a neat and evenly paced progression: the novel opens with the words: "It was a day like any other day", and most of its days are like that; past and future easily meld for long stretches. For the painter, almost everything has been lost with the death of his wife:

     Since she died, his life had been a succession of todays patched on to a succession of tomorrows. Tomorrow became now, and now included with itself all of life's possibilities.
       The painter was a promising artist, but gave that up after his wife's death and became a laborer (though his preference was still to wield a brush, painting or whitewashing). Eventually, he is hired by the overseer of the cemetery, to paint the outside of the wall -- an enormous undertaking. The consequences -- for the whole town -- are far beyond what one would possibly expect.
       While The Pilgrim would seem, at first, to be about the painter's life-journey, it turns out that there is considerably more to the overseer than one would first expect as well, and he too is -- more (self-)consciously -- on a journey of self-discovery; one might consider him an Indonesian Wittgenstein .....
       The Pilgrim isn't entirely timeless -- there is an arc to the story, covering more than a quarter of a century, as it progresses from the death of the painter's wife, to the hiring of the painter as whitewasher, to the overseer reaching a conclusion to all his thought- and practical experiment(s) -- but it is not neatly chronological, instead shifting back and forth across time in a way that is surely meant to suggest a kind of timelessness.
       At one point the nightwatchman tells the (by then former-)painter about the overseer:
We both believed that philosophy meant learning from the dead, from death. The cemetery is the highest academy for philosophy as a science and a means of human welfare.
       But while Simatupang leads readers into and through this thicket of mortality, he rarely gets too obvious. This is a novel that is strongly pitched towards the philosophical, yet avoids getting mired entirely in it. Only occasionally does the abstraction get to be a bit much (or too obviously spelt-out), as when the painter's wife's mother explains to him:
I was her mother, who could say who her father was ? So I always told her that her father was War. A very abstract thing to say, wasn't it ? And war is the essence of man and man is war. I used to widen the abstract idea by explaining: your father is Humanity. That's the greatest abstraction of all, isn't it ?
       One of the reasons that The Pilgrim works as well as it does is because Simatupang continually manages to surprise. His approach to philosophical fiction isn't an obvious one, and the characters (and their backgrounds) as well as some of the circumstances they find themselves in make for a good (if odd) story, too. There is a surprising charm to this weird story, too.
       At one point the painter's wife throws away an: "essayistic novel", not having finished reading it; she describes it as: "Science fiction. No hero, no theme, no morals" -- and suggests:
     The futuristic novel is a rocket shot into outer space by human behavior and feelings. The crisis of the novel has been going on a long time. All sorts of crises have. Man is never satisfied with himself, whether or not his literature reflects him accurately. The problem facing man is not his goodness or evilness, truth or deceit, beauty or ugliness, but whether the ultimate essence of humanity will survive when he reaches the outermost reaches of his own being.
       Simatupang's characters are such border-creatures. His painter abandons art and settles for whitewashing walls; in a different way, the overseer, too, has tried to reduce his interaction with the outside world to a minimum, to present himself as simply as possible (indeed, only as a function rather than identifiable (not just by name but even by sight) individual) even while maintaining a sense of self (but keeping that all to himself). They come to their inevitable conclusions -- but it's a long, strange journey.
       Simatupang's novel is of this futuristic sort -- and even as he splatters a bit wildly in his rocket-shot effort, it is a fascinating one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 June 2012

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The Pilgrim: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Iwan Martua Lokot Dongan Simatupang lived 1928 to 1970

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© 2012 the complete review

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