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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Putu Wijaya

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To purchase Telegram

Title: Telegram
Author: Putu Wijaya
Genre: Novel
Written: 1973 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Indonesian
Availability: Telegram - US
Telegram - UK
Telegram - Canada
Telegram - India
  • Indonesian title: Télégram
  • Translated by Stephen J. Epstein

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective, creative approach; solid novella

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Telegram is narrated by a journalist, somewhat adrift in the Jakarta of the early 1970s. He is originally from Bali, but he has distanced himself to some extent from his family there; when a telegram arrives he knows, however, that he may be forced to choose between assuming his familial duties, or cutting his ties more or less completely. Trying to avoid having to face the stark choice, he does not immediately open the telegram: he knows it will inform him that his mother is very sick or dead, and summon him back to do his duty as male heir and head of the (large) household. But, as he repeatedly asserts: "I wanted desperately to live free of responsibilities."
       In fact, he does have some responsibilities: he's adopted and raised the now-ten-year-old Sinta, a girl whose mother -- his niece, Sri -- couldn't take care of when she was born. Complicating matters, Sri and her husband are now angling for the girl -- and could at least provide more material comfort for her. But this is a responsibility the narrator wants to cling to, even as he is unsure it is in the child's best interest.
       The narrator is unmoored -- and spends much of the novel wandering around, in what seems more avoidance than seeking. Part of the time he is literally feverish and to varying degrees delusional; at one point his introspective journey even becomes literal:

I entered the closed orifices of my mouth, nose and eyes. I went into my throat. Fiery. I cleared out the phlegm. I continued downward to the cage of my heart.
       Most obvious in the narrator's feverish state, there is ambiguity throughout much of Telegram -- beginning with the telegram(s) themselves, whose message(s) repeatedly remain unread -- put off as long as possible -- but also manage to contain surprises and even shifting messages when they are opened. The general ambiguity extends to many of the other situations, too, reality shifting repeatedly as the underlying facts are shuffled slightly. The narrator and Sinta are also entwined in an odd game of deception, with Sinta playing along with the narrator's lies even though -- as he comes to realize -- she knows he is not being truthful.
       Even as he has left Bali and his family there behind him, it is only to a certain extent: the feature article he is working on, for example, is one about Bali, and the changes it is undergoing -- specifically the commercialization of it, as he see it essentially being sold off. Meanwhile he can joke with the woman he is having an affair with:
     "That means we haven't sold out in an era when everything is for sale."
     "Then we're still free and happy."
     "At least within ourselves."
       The narrator is torn, between looking entirely within and considering the others in his life. It's something he's been struggling with for a long time: near the end he comes across a letter -- "A letter to myself, it seems" -- written before he had adopted Sinta, and in which he explains deciding to commit suicide (obviously rather noncommittally ...): "Now all that remains is finding the right moment." Only now, apparently, has he definitively been able to choose, realizing: "I want to live."
       Wijaya juggles quite a great deal in this short novella, with the many shifts very effective. Resorting to some feverish ramblings can seem a bit easy and pat -- though the narrator's wild night in the offices of the paper he works at (which includes him dancing naked across the various editors' desks ...) is impressively done -- but overall Wijaya handles the presentation of the (multiple) realities (and the narrator's attempts to avoid on settling on one ...) very well.
       A good piece of writing, a fine novella.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 April 2012

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Telegram: Putu Wijaya: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indonesian author Putu Wijaya was born in 1944

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© 2012 the complete review

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