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New York Stories

Reviewed item: 

Reviewer: Niels Mulder

Reviewed publication: Kayam, U. 2012. Fireflies in Manhattan.Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation. 200 pages. ISBN 9789798083846

This review was also published in The Newsletter issue #67 (p.16)


From his return from Cornell in the ominous year 1965 until his demise in 2002, Umar Kayam, or UK as his wife tenderly recalls him in her Introductions, was one of the towering figures on the Indonesian cultural scene, even as it lasted up to the publication of Seribu Kunang-kunang di Manhattan with Pustaka Jaya in 1972, before he also established his name as a short-story writer.

The present collection of his stories divides into three parts that coincide with separate creative periods, of which in the first two—New York and 1965—he deals with the challenges posed by living as a naïve and relatively isolated Indonesian graduate student of New York University in the big-city American environment, and then with the challenge of dealing with the incredible realities of massacre, fanaticism, incarceration and persecution. The third part, Lebaran, is set in the familiar circumstances of the festive yet hectic Idul Fitri or Lebaran holiday—comparable to the Christmas season in Christian countries—celebrating the end of the yearly fasting month of Ramadan.

The light and semi-ironic toneUK's New-York stories combines with a mood of loneliness. In contrast to the sociability of Javanese life, his New-York characters are generally loners or feel themselves to be alone, and are fighting their own individual problems. Even as this may reflect his and his wife's feelings of living in the midst of a concrete and steel jungle, the sketches of life in that environment strike as true to life and are always spiced with humour and refreshing amazement.

As may be expected, the tone set in the period of the anti-Communist pogroms of 1965-66 is entirely different from the light irony of the New-York stories. The three stories that comprise the second part focus on individuals and their plight in a world gone out of balance. It is through the experience of personal crises thatUKmanages to grasp the ambience of what people and country went through. Interestingly, the three rather lengthy narratives also offer lots of deep insights in Javanese mentality and how it changes with the times.

It is this quality they share with the Lebaran stories. In the tone UK sets in dealing with 'things Javanese' vibrates his love for and fascination with the wisdom former generations went by and that will hopefully—albeit in different forms—endure as guidelines for individual comportment in these times that offer little to personally hold on to. During my own research on Javanese mentality and civilisation, I was privileged thatUKregularly resided at the university housing complex of Bulaksumur inJogjakartawhere, from time to time, I took the liberty of disturbing him with my questions that he gracefully endured.

UK was a gifted teacher, which shines through in the open-ended way he concludes many of his stories, in that way leaving it to the reader's imagination to chew the cud. It is a wonderful and stimulating way of story-telling which draws the reader into the scene.

The introductions to the three parts give a generous share of biographical and professional information; they trace his careers as a civil servant and author. In the first, a poignant picture is drawn of the life of short-kept students in the early 1960s in the inhospitable climate ofNew York—far different from the imagination shaped byHollywoodmovies. Upon coming back toJakarta, the couple's circumstances in run-downIndonesiawere not much better, while they were soon to be engulfed in the madness of the times, such as the collapse of Sukarno's reign, the extermination of 'Communists', and the rise of General Suharto.


Niels Mulder retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he concluded his swan song, Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia; Reflections and observations. Saarbruecken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing (print-to-order ed., ISBN 9783659130830), 2012. <>.


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