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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Y. B. Mangunwijaya

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To purchase Durga/Umayi

Title: Durga/Umayi
Author: Y.B.Mangunwijaya
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 212 pages
Original in: Bahasa Indonesia
Availability: Durga/Umayi - US
Durga/Umayi - UK
Durga/Umayi - Canada
Durga/Umayi - India
  • Translated and with an Introduction and Afterword by Ward Keeler

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting but -- despite good presentation - not very accessible

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Journal of Asian Studies . 5/2007 Susan Rodgers

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The complete review's Review:

       Durga/Umayi is a novel focussed on Indonesian history, from before World War II through 1991 (and, nominally (and entirely fictionally), a bit beyond). The title refers to the myth of Lord Guru's (Siva's) beautiful wife, Umayi, who is cursed with a second, monstrous form, called Durga. As translator Ward Keeler explains:

The ambiguous status of the goddess's identity, beaurtiful and monstruous, paragon of virtue and icon of female danger, both somehow present in a single but bifurcated being, sums up the contradictions in the novel's multi-named but single protagonist
       Durga/Umayi tells the story of modern Indonesia through the story of this protagonist:
Pu(an) Nyo(nya) Nusamusbida, or in full Punyo Iin Sulinda Pertiwi Nusamusbida (even though the lady herself preferred to be called by her more familiar names Iin or Linda or Tiwi or later, Nus or Nussy or Bi, depending on the situation and mood)
       This character comes to witness and participate in much of Indonesian history. Close to Bung Karno -- as Indonesia president Sukarno was popularly known -- she rises from relatively humble beginnings to become terribly wealthy. The novel is a mad rush of narrative, following her rise (and occasional falls), reflecting and refracting Indonesia's own tumultuous (and often ugly and brutal) history over these decades.
       Actual events (and people) abound, and the novel offers both the author's footnotes and additional endnotes by the translator to explain the many references. From mentions of specific political organisations to Western luxury goods-influence, Mangunwijaya uses broad strokes to cover everything from ideological-political matters to the decadent abuses of the ruling class.
       Durga/Umayi is a tour de force, a compact novel adeptly dealing with the complicated culture and history of Indonesia over some five decades. Of particular interest is the use of language, as Mangunwijaya is determined to present polyglot Indonesia in the text, playing with language and dialect -- something that is, of course, lost in the translation, beyond what Keeler hints at and acknowledges. In addition, Mangunwijaya makes what Keeler describes as:
indiscriminate use of grammatical structures available in Western languages at some points, and Austronesian (including Indonesian) ones at others. This eclectic approach to grammar enables him to write improbably long sentences with barely a cadence till the end of each chapter.
       Keeler presents this -- or at least something resembling this -- in his rendering; not surprisingly, it doesn't make for easy reading. Between the unfamiliar (and compressed) history, often obscure references, and run-away sentences it's a lot to demand of the reader; Durga/Umayi isn't a leisurely read.
       The wild ride is entertaining and often fascinating, but the text throws up a lot of hurdles. An introduction and afterword, and the fairly useful notes are adequate to guide the reader through the thickets, but it's still a text that requires considerable work. In addition, the long sentences -- which jump more than they meander -- are simply uncomfortable for the English-speaking reader, the grammatical awkwardness, the presentation and irresolution likely to quickly try the reader's patience. (Even keeping track of the protagonist -- referred to by what seem like countless names and variations -- can be trying.)
       Durga/Umayi is worth working through; it's unlike most fiction, and is an interesting exercise in the presentation of history and politics in a novel. A crash course in recent Indonesian history and culture (as well as the shadow-play tradition that's integral to the novel), and an often entertaining fiction by itself, it is a dizzying example of what contemporary international fiction can do -- but it requires considerable work and patience on the part of the reader, and can easily frustrate.
       Of considerable interest -- but be well aware of what you're getting yourself into.

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Durga/Umayi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwijaya (1929-1999) was also a Catholic priest, engineer, and architect.

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© 2005-2012 the complete review

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