GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
by Tse Hao Guang, 18 May 2016
Eliza Vitri Handayani, From Now On Everything Will Be Different (2015), Vagabond Press.
From Now On Everything Will Be Different is not a love story, nor is it a book about Indonesia. Although Eliza Vitri Handayani’s first novel in English depicts an on-again, off-again relationship set against the fallout of Soeharto’s New Order, both elements seem tangential to a larger, more ambitious project. Call it the paradox of time, where the title is constantly at war with Handayani’s portraits of society and characters, which seem, in different ways, unable to move on; where all the action happens within a day, crosscut with flashbacks to various moments in the past. Call it the difficulty of art, where photographer Juli’s attempts to capture her world are always on the cusp of something monumental, but somehow fall short, are aborted. Call it the absurdity of life, where doctor Rizky and Juli enact a years-long game of waiting for Godot, trying again and again to meet, to be honest with each other, even as nothing really happens between them.
That is not to say Everything does a poor job of photographing Indonesia or the figures which people it. Handayani’s Jakarta is stressful, chaotic, paradoxical and colourful as a murder scene:
On a curve a bus stops without warning to drop off passengers, Rizky brakes just in time. From the other side of the road people are hurrying to get on, running in front of cars as if they had spare lives stored away somewhere. On the sidewalk a barefoot man is pushing a cart of scrap metals, on its front he has attached a Mercedes hood ornament and on its back he has fastened an expired license plate. (9)
She finds a small mosque and sits on the stairs amid people’s flip-flops. Inside people are praying together. From the house next to it trance music roars, mixed with a woman’s sighing in sexual rapture. (127)
In many ways, Indonesia is another character in the novel, a repressive figure that both repulses and defines the free-spirited Juli, its rural regions Rizky visits on humanitarian missions to escape from his parents just as he sleeps with women, I suspect, to escape himself. At the end of the novel, it is one of Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams that serves as a third party, a stand-in for Rizky’s wife Ina, keeping him and Juli apart, perhaps forever.
While the landscape and politics of Indonesia are important to Everything, they serve to tell human stories, capturing singular aspirations; just like Juli’s photos of the Reformasi protests:
“You took pictures of individuals. Other photographers showed burning buildings, the marching army, the students in masses—their photos looked like stills from an epic film. You showed the people behind it all, you made it clear that this was more than about toppling a corrupt government, this was about us coming out of hiding, this was our chance to take control of our lives”. (23)
It is these human stories that prove to be the most political of all. Juli’s repeated attempts to remake herself echo the spirit behind political revolution—“She came up with the idea to recreate photos of herself in various bedrooms to show a woman’s quest to discover herself by testing diverse paths with diverse types of lovers” (108). But where Handayani decides to be more didactic, the political edge is blunted, replaced by a less interesting voice—“Is this what Jakarta has become? A city where might is right, where the different and weak ones will be crushed under the wheels or bespattered with mud?” (127). Thankfully, moments like these are very rare.
The heart of this story seems to me to beat within the two boxes Rizky and Juli keep. Rizky’s 'Box of Essential Memory' is where he stores traces of important moments in his life, even those unacceptable in Indonesian society: him in a rock band, hair dyed, his letters to Juli, recordings of juvenile attempts at theatre. It is a continual look back to the past, the physical distillation of Rizky’s regrets. Juli’s 'Box of Unfinished Projects' appears to be the opposite, a projection into the future, one where she will one day complete all of the photography assignments she has ever begun. It is easy to think of Rizky as representing the conservative, and Juli the liberal. However, Juli’s rebelliousness is shown to be the reactionary response:
In a country where everyone ignores traffic rules and bribes their way into getting driving licenses we must obey those rules and follow the correct procedures. Just like our sexual rebellion, it will set us apart from the masses.—Julita (122)
And Rizky is, after all, the character more at ease with himself:
Personally, I don’t see myself as a rebel. A rebel always needs a reference: a rebel from what? He separates himself from his reference only to strengthen his bond to it [ . . . . ] If I’m taking girls home because that’s what “Rizky” does, then I’m not really free, am I? Then I’ll only be serving this image of myself that is not even real. (143)
This contradictory dynamic plays out in the fate of the two boxes. There are hints that Rizky’s box makes Ina leave him, potentially changing his life forever, and Juli’s box is abandoned, her projects unfinished at the close of the book.
It is this tension between the past and the future that drives From Now On Everything Will Be Different, allowing it to rise out of the mire of mere history and characterisation to become an urgent, upsetting novel of our times. At about the same time that Indonesia was guest-of-honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, where books on its politics were on display, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival caved in to police pressure and cancelled the launch of Everything. I like to think that the authorities were being savvy here. Far more politically dangerous is a novel that deals with ambiguity, complexity, and paradox than one which is baldly political, ideological, an activist in paper form. Rizky and Juli, even as they are well-rounded and compelling figures in their own right, also dramatise the artist’s struggle to capture a moment, a soul, the smell of the air, the human condition in all its dignity and ridiculousness. While Everything does not necessarily scale those heights (success must come once in a hundred years or less), it reaches out for them, clear-eyed, tender.