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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Sitti Nurbaya

Marah Rusli

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To purchase Sitti Nurbaya

Title: Sitti Nurbaya
Author: Marah Rusli
Genre: Novel
Written: 1922 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 303 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Sitti Nurbaya - US
Sitti Nurbaya - UK
Sitti Nurbaya - Canada
Sitti Nurbaya - India
  • A Love Unrealized
  • Indonesian title: Sitti Nurbaya: Kasih Tak Sampai
  • Translated and with an Introduction by George A. Fowler

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice, unexpected mix

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Sitti Nurbaya -- Nurbaya, also called Nur, is the teenage heroine of the story; 'Sitti' a not-age-specific female honorific (i.e. -- but not quite -- both 'Miss' and 'Ma'am') -- is subtitled: A Love Unrealized, which kind of gives away where this story is headed. From its beginning, Sitti Nurbaya does indeed seem like it will follow the more or less traditional romance-tale course, focused on the doomed love between Nur and Sam -- Samsulbahri. It turns out, however, that there's a bit more to it, as the novel is also decidedly polemic (especially about women's rights and marriage, though also addressing some of the local-tradition and colonial issues of the day) and veers away from its romance story in a rather startling way. (Without giving too much away, let's just say that with more than a quarter of the novel left the full unrealizability of the love has manifested itself -- not that Rusli doesn't have one or two more nice twists up his sleeve to surprise the reader with.)
       The novel is largely set in the late 1890s in Padang, a city on the west coast of Sumatra, with a few excursions to Batavia (present-day Jakarta) on Java; only the last few chapters jump a decade ahead in the story. When the novel opens Sam, the son of the district head of Padang, is in his last year at the local Dutch school, soon to be sent to further his studies in Batavia. Nur, in her mid-teens and the daughter of a low-born but very successful merchant, and he have been close friends since earliest childhood, since their fathers have always been extremely close. With Sam leaving, the two youngsters profess their love for one another and vow to eventually be together.
       The two young lovers are separated by considerable distance, but they write to one another -- and both in letters and in person there's an extensive exchange of poetry between them. The verses are of reasonable charm, and are a welcome change of pace in the narrative; of course, they do include lines along the lines of:

Thinking of you, my golden one,
I groan with an endless misery,
Longing envelops my heart's depth,
As if wrenching from me my very soul.
       The villain in this story is Datuk Meringgih -- over fifty, "a decrepit and repulsive person, without compassion and mercy, and by nature rough and brutal [...] mean-spirited, grasping and greedy". Extremely successful, he cares for nothing but money:
Indeed, Datuk Meringgih knew no better pleasure than to gaze at his strongbox while counting coins and rubbing his bills.
       Nur's father borrows some money from Datuk, and, in truly villainous manner, Datuk sees to it that he can't pay it back. Nur's father faces complete ruin; the only way to save what he has left is for Nur to make the ultimate sacrifice, and marry the disgusting old man.
       Rusli sometimes gets carried away with the melodrama, but there's no question he hams it up effectively. When Nur sends Sam a letter, to tell him about the catastrophe that has been visited upon her father, and the consequences:
     Just as he was about to tear open the envelope, the photograph of Nurbaya that hung on the wall fell to the floor, smashing both the frame and glass. The picture itself was damaged and a shard pierced the breast of his beloved, right in the heart. Samsu picked up the picture and slowly plucked out the piece of glass. But no matter how hard he tried to smooth it over, a tear marred the photo at Nurbaya's chest.
       Sam pledges his devotion to Nur, come what may -- "Never doubt me in this ! Whatever happens, you will always be my younger sister. I cannot and will not abandon you." -- but the ugly situation is not easily improved on; indeed, things only get worse. Sam gets in trouble with his family and is disowned by his own father, Datuk goes so far to set his henchmen on Nur, and true love remains elusive.
       As promised in the subtitle, this is the story of A Love Unrealized -- but Rusli takes things beyond that, too, and while perhaps not romantically entirely satisfying he does tie up some loose ends to presumably general satisfaction with a nice surprise-twist.
       Beyond the romance-tale and the Victorian-novel-like occurrences around it, Sitti Nurbaya also addresses several social and political issue of the time. One is that of marriage, with Nur, for example, expounding at length about changes in local customs she believes are necessary -- notably that girls should not be married at too young an age ("Here in the Indies, girls should not be married off until they are twenty [...] The older, the better") -- as well as general practices she believes advisable (a couple should be of roughly equal age and intelligence, for example).
       Rusli also addresses local (Minangkabau) customs -- where, for example, it is not only common for men to take several wives, but where nobility bears no responsibility for their off-spring. Sam's father only has one wife, which his siblings find baffling:
     And why won't he accept marriage proposals from other families or take on more than one wife ? Isn't it all because of money ? Each time he got married, he'd receive two or three hundred rupiah in proposal money, so why would he even need a salary anymore ? If all the money gets spent, marry again. What's the problem with having lots of wives and children ? After all, an aristocrat need not look after and provide for his wife's children. That is someone else's responsibility. What's the use of a high birth and position if they don't get you anything ?
       There is also some debate about the taxes the Dutch want to impose, the belasting, opposition to which leads to a local uprising around which some of the final action is the built.
       Some of the polemical parts of the novel are not entirely well-integrated into the story-proper -- tending a bit too much to speeches and the like -- but on the whole it's not too disruptive. There is an odd feel to the narrative, as it veers between comic or sentimental action and then sets out a variety of social and political arguments, but Rusli manages it all with considerable charm. The twists and turns of the story in fact work to good effect: this is not your usual romance tale -- even as that is a significant part of it. And if a bit choppy, especially in its transitions, the writing is very good and the novel holds up very well, even nearly a century later: it's not surprising that this is a still-popular classic.
       An odd tragic romance, with both a lot of humor and didactic purpose, however unlikely it somehow all works very well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 May 2015

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Sitti Nurbaya: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Marah Rusli (1889-1968) was also a veterinarian.

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© 2015 the complete review

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