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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Ayu Utami

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To purchase Saman

Title: Saman
Author: Ayu Utami
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 180 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Saman - US
Saman - UK
Saman - Canada
Saman - France
Saman - Deutschland
Le donne di Saman - Italia
  • Indonesian title: Saman
  • Translated and with an introduction by Pamela Allen

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Our Assessment:

B : all over the place, for better and worse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 19/3/2016 Angela Schader

  From the Reviews:
  • "Politischer Widerstand, Geschlechterrollen, Sexualität: Mit diesen Themen stellt sich Ayu Utami einerseits in die Reihe junger Autorinnen, die gegen das noch immer alle Dunkelzonen ausblendende indonesische Geschichtsverständnis opponieren; anderseits in den Trend der sastra wangi, der «duftenden» Literatur, die mit den Tabus einer sexuell konservativen Gesellschaft brechen will. Das imaginative Potenzial der Autorin manifestiert sich in Passagen, wo sie auf das Substrat magischer Vorstellungen und Praktiken zurückgreift, das unter und neben Islam und Christentum in den ländlichen Gemeinschaften ihrer Heimat fortlebt" - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Saman shows signs of being a draft -- scenes undeveloped, sketchy characters -- but is still an impressive work, written in fresh, lively prose shifting among different times and locations. (...) But Saman is less about politics than love and personal awakening, as if Costa-Gavras were directing Magnolia. (...) Part of what makes Saman so extraordinary is its undermining of expectations." - Jonathan Napack, International Herald Tribune (27/5/2000)

  • "Perhaps the clearest example of a writer consciously seizing political ground in the portrayal of ordinary lives is Ayu Utami, whose phenomenal novel Saman (2003) related, in unflinchingly frank fashion, four womenís views of female sexuality, explosively mixed with a dose of religion. Utamiís venture into taboo territory was distinctly reminiscent of Pramoedya, as was her judging of the mood of her times (the novel remains one of the bestselling titles in Indonesian publishing history); but in appealing to an entirely new, younger readership, Utami arguably went one step further." - Tash Aw, Times Literary Supplement (3/2/2016)

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:

       Saman opens in New York City, in 1996, Laila hoping to meet the man she last saw and kissed 424 days earlier, Sihar. Deeply in love, the relationship is a frustrated one: Sihar is married, and Laila is a virgin, so far unable to give herself fully to him. This brief first scene already looks back on their relationship, before the story then jumps back to 1993, when she first encountered him on the oil rig in Indonesia on which he worked -- and where he stood up to a well-connected superior who insisted on charging ahead with a dangerous operation, causing a damaging accident.
       Laila has remained close to a group of school friends she first made in sixth grade: Shakuntala -- who is living in New York when Laila visits in 1996 --, successful lawyer Yasmin, and Cok. She is also in occasional contact with a man now going by the name 'Saman' -- someone: "who tried to reinvent himself, but I believe that he is essentially the same compassionate person as before" -- and, after the events on the oil rig, puts Yasmin and Saman in contact with Sihar, to at least get some media exposure and possibly some justice for what went wrong there.
       The story then leaps back and goes on, at some length, describing how Athanasius Wisanggeni, ordained as a priest in 1983, came to take on the identity and name Saman. It involves injustice in the backwater near where he had spent his childhood -- as he also still is burdened by the trauma of his own family tragedy from back then -- where he gets involved trying to better the lot of the local rubber tappers, drawn into their lives by a mentally severely underdeveloped, almost feral young woman called Upi. Eventually, a conflict with well-connected corporate interests leads to violent confrontation, forcing the priest underground.
       Saman's story, from years earlier, takes up a big chunk of the novel, but there are also other strands. Laila's friend Shakuntala relates some of the background of the four girl-friends, and their different paths and attitudes, as well as her own path to New York, and her hatred of her father. A final section consists of e-mails between Saman and Yasmin from 1994, the two lusting for each other, despite the fact that Yasmin is married.
       The movement back and forth between different times is a bit awkward: Laila in New York in 1996, hoping to see Sihar, seems at first to be the focal point of the story, a time that is repeatedly returned to, but Utami doesn't anchor her story entirely there -- moving, in the last part, back a few years, focusing on Saman and then him and Yasmin (though with New York also playing a significant role). Throughout the novel, Utami also shifts perspectives and narrators, from first-person-narration -- Laila and Shakuntala, for example -- to letters and e-mails to omniscient third-person narration, adding to the slightly off-kilter feel.
       If somewhat oddly put together, the pieces of the novel are certainly engaging. Utami addresses a variety of issues, including large-scale political and capitalist corruption -- though also noting that Indonesian-style oppression at the time isn't nearly as black and white as outsiders see it: Saman comes to work with Human Rights Watch in New York and is immediately struck by how:

     At the same time, people in the office also seem to have an exaggerated notion of the effectiveness of an oppressive system like the one in Indonesia; they don't seem to realize, for example, that it's not all that difficult to obtain the books of Pramoedya Ananta Toer and other banned authors. Or that you can throw a small party for your friends in jail and give them a laptop computer or a mobile phone !
       Ethnic and religious friction figure throughout the novel, from Saman being troubled by how readily Chinese figures are targeted to the different ethnic and religious backgrounds of the characters. Above all, Utami presents sex and all the difficulties it poses in a deeply conservative society. Laila is already thirty and still a virgin -- and more troubled about whether or not to give herself to Sihar than the fact that he is married, the perceived dishonor to family if she should have sex before she's married outweighing almost all her other concerns. Meanwhile, Shankuntala has to face (and has made peace with) the fact that:
     My father and sister call me a whore because I've slept with a number of men and a number of women (even though I've never asked them to pay). My sister and my father don't respect me. I don't respect them.
       Cok suddenly disappeared from their school in grade eleven, sent away by her family because she was too forward with the boys. And Yasmina, though married, becomes involved with the completely inexperienced Saman -- who, however, got more than an eyeful in the countryside, especially with Upi, who acted out on her natural lust with no sense or awareness of shame. (Trying to be helpful, the young priest salvaged a large wooden pole -- "about 1.8 meters high and twenty centimeters thick" --, carved a face into it and added some makeshift arms and well-meaningly offered it to the girl: "Upi ! Come and meet your new boyfriend ! His name is Totem. Totem Phallus. You can masturbate with him. He's a good faithful man".)
       The frank description of sex and lust is admirable, if also, very often, cringe-worthy (see: six-foot 'Totem Phallus' ...), and while virginity is a particular sticking point, Utami impressively empowers several of the women who have taken complete charge of their bodies and desires (though rather more time is spent on Laila's more traditional frustrations).
       Utami wants to do a great deal in Saman. Both in the events surrounding Laila's first encounter with Sihar as well as Saman's struggles in the countryside the story is, for long stretches, primarily social-political, and even though sex then repeatedly comes into the mix -- often right at the fore -- the novel never settles into simply being one about romantic-sexual tensions. Saman's mother's experiences, or the quartet of girls at school-age, are also interesting if too-brief episodes in this novel that stretches -- too much and quickly -- in far too many directions.
       Despite juggling too much, Saman is a fresh and lively read. Some sections do work through events at the right, deliberate pace, but overall the story tears too often abruptly in new directions (and different times). Some of the characters remain underdeveloped too, as Utami repeatedly shifts focus, and there's certainly more one should and wants to learn about several of them. Nevertheless, Saman is a quick and rich slice of a great deal of Indonesian life and culture -- too abrupt and fragmentary, but still packing a great deal in.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 June 2019

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Saman: Reviews: Ayu Utami: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Ayu Utami was born in 1968.

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© 2019 the complete review

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