Faded Portraits

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May 10, 2010 00:10

E. Breton de Nijs adalah pseudonim Rob Nieuwenhuys, pengarang Mirror of The Indies: A History of Dutch Colonial Literature (diterbitkan dalam bahasa Indonesia sebagai Bianglala Sastra) dan Hikayat Lebak. Terlahir dari ayah Belanda dan ibu Jawa-Belanda di 1908, dia mulai menulis Faded Portraits (diterbitkan sebagai Bayangan Memudar di Indonesia) saat dia dikurung oleh tentara Jepang. Resensi ini juga tersedia dalam Bahasa Inggris.

Satu memoir fiksi dengan setting Hindia Belanda, Faded Portraits dibuka dengan kematian Tante Sophie di 1940 di Batavia. Kemudian, seolah membangun memori, kita melihat cerita hidupnya, suami dan keluarganya sehubungan dengan cerita penuturnya. Meskipun terdapat kesan autobiografis dalam novel ini, rekonstruksi cerita di sini tidak tampak menekankan pribadi Ed, sang penutur (atau alter ego penulis). Lebih terasa adanya kekentalan observasi mengenai atmosfer dan studi karakter sekitarnya, terutama Tante Sophie, dalam “kegagalannya” hasrat dan mimpinya.

Melalui adegan kematian Tante Sophie, kita memasuki suasana Hindia yang kental dengan atmosfer tengkar mulutnya, obsesi pada warna kulit dan kedudukan sosial. (Beekman membandingkannya dengan sastra Amerika Selatan.) Para lelaki dalam Faded Portraits cenderung lebih berdiam diri, menyerah atau menghindari “tanggung jawab”, sementara para perempuan (De Pauly) digambarkan heboh dengan melodramanya:

Dengan diam kami memperhatikan perubahan dalam monolog Tanten Christien: fokus ceritanya tanpa disadarinya berubah menjadi dirinya sendiri. Dia terus berbicara tanpa henti, bukan lagi tentang almarhum, tapi tentang bagaimana dia melakukan ini dan dia melakukan itu, diselingi dengan banyak “oh” dan “ah”.

Dia berseling menyebut-nyebut surga sebagai saksi dari beban pengorbanannya dan membebani diri sendiri dengan apa yang dia sebutkan sebagai kekurangannya. Dengan begini, dia terus menyerepet tanpa henti sampai akhirnya, seperti yang kami duga, dia histeris menangis . . . tidak mungkin kami menawarkan simpati; kami sendiri sudah kelelahan.

Obsesi untuk membangun imej (rajin, berkorban) diri sendiri tampak lebih tragis pada wanita-wanita De Pauly, terutama dalam Tante Sophie. Perhatian, efisiensi dan imej “sibuk”nya membungkus tirani halusnya, bahkan seperti outlet kebencian dan frustasi. Rezim, keresahan dan ketegangannya berdampak pada sekelilingnya. Suaminya, Oom Tjen, terus tertawan hatinya pada almarhumah Winny, yang tampaknya juga dicintai sang narator. Pernikahan tanpa anaknya membawa obsesi Tante Sophie kepada ponakannya, Kitty. Ironisnya Kitty kemudian menjadi saingan Tante Sophie dalam mendapatkan pria pendamping.

Tante Sophie menghabiskan waktu dan energinya membesarkan tiga putri di luar nikah Oom Alex dan Titi, seorang wanita Sukabumi.“Mereka harus dibesarkan dengan cara Eropa; bagaimanapun juga, mereka adalah De Pauly!” Namun cara dia merawat tiga anak tersebut menggabungkan perhatian sekaligus prasangka dan dakwaan berlebihan. Komentar-komentar pedasnya mengenai ras, warna kulit dan kekukuhannya pada cara dan darah Eropa berlawanan dengan gaya hidupnya sendiri. Tante Sophie berkonsultasi dengan dukun, membakar kemenyan, meminum jamu, mengadakan slametan. Suatu sikap kontradiktif yang tentunya tidak hanya dilakukan oleh Tante Sophie.

Seperti kebanyakan orang Belanda (peranakan maupun totok) saat itu, situasi paradoks ini berkelanjutan dalam bentuk keterasingan, ketiadaan akar, dan kerinduan pada memori tempo dulu. Pendatang Hindia membentuk komunitas mereka sendiri di De Haag, dekat Beuk Square atau Thomson Avenue, tetap dengan kunjungan-kunjungan dan jamuan-jamuan mereka. Nieuwenhuys menjelaskan bagaimana, dalam segala kerinduan hati, kemanjaan dan kekesalannya, mereka beradaptasi, dan perlahan-lahan putra-putri mereka muncul dengan warna kulit yang lebih putih, mengabulkan mimpi ambivalen mereka dengan cara yang mungkin tidak mereka bayangkan sebelumnya.

Dibandingkan dengan Ups & Downs of Life in the Indies, Faded Portraits menampilkan perspektif yang lebih simpatik, meskipun tidak tanpa humor ironisnya. Jika Daum terasa lebih blak-blakan dan sinis dalam penggambarannya mengenai orang-orang Belanda maupun Indonesia, Nieuwenhuys terasa lebih berhati-hati, dengan keragu-raguan dan renungan yang seolah-olah mempertanyakan dan menghakimi dirinya sendiri.

Beberapa contohnya, dia mencoba berteman dengan Sudarpo, putra doctor djawa di Leiden (berdasarkan Setiadjit), yang sangat membenci pendapat konvensional Nieuwenhuys sebagai representasi orang-orang Belanda. Nieuwenhuys kecewa pada gadis yang dicintanya, Rienke, karena komentar-komentar dangkal Rienke mengenai inferioritas ras dan warna kulit. Disapa oleh pembantunya, Alimah, dia membayangkan—dengan sedikit tersenyum sekaligus heran mungkin—bagaimana bisa wanita tua bongkok dan ompong ini dulu kerap hamil dengan frekuensi alamiah seekor kucing!

Seperti kebanyakan sastra kolonial (Belanda), Faded Portraits menggambarkan suatu tempat evokatif dengan realita penuh kekhasan indrawi: deskripsinya membuat kita merasa hampir dapat menyentuhnya, mencium baunya. Melalui buku ini kita belajar mengenai berbagai kebiasaan dan ekspresi mereka. Sebagai contoh, “Write a letter in English” ternyata adalah ekspresi untuk tidur siang. (Nah, kenapa pula ini? Apa saking ngantuknya menulis dalam bahasa Inggris?)

Di akhir cerita, E. M. Beekman menyediakan pembaca dengan catatan-catatan akhir yang cukup detil dan menarik, seperti apa itu seriawan (dari bahasa Belanda spruw); fotografer Inggris di akhir abad 19, Woodbury & Pages; malam djumahat, dan sebagainya. Juga disediakan glossary dan pengantar oleh Beekman, seperti biasa sangat komprehensif. Satu lagi buku menarik dari seri Library of the Indies.

Title: Faded Portraits: A Novel of the Indies
Author: E. Breton de Nijs (Rob Nieuwenhuys), 1954
Publisher: Periplus, 1999 [U. of Massachusetts, 1982]
Call No.: F DEN Fad


E. Breton de Nijs is the pseudonym of Rob Nieuwenhuys, author of Mirror of The Indies: A History of Dutch Colonial Literature (translated into Indonesian as Bianglala Sastra) and Hikayat Lebak. Born from a Dutch father and a Javanese-Dutch mother in 1908, he first wrote Faded Portraits, his only novel, during his intern in a Japanese concentration camp. This review is available in Indonesian language.

A fictionalized memoir set in Dutch East Indies, Faded Portraits begins with the death of Aunt Sophie in 1940 in Batavia, then almost whimsically goes back to the stories of her life, her husband’s and their families, intertwined with the narrator’s own stories. While to a certain extent we can detect the usual autobiographical elements, the fragmentary, world-weary reconstruction puts less emphasis on himself (or the author’s alter ego), and more observations—portraits—on the surrounding atmosphere, particularly on the matriarch Aunt Sophie, her desperate longings and desires.

Within the burial scene, we are introduced to the overbearing atmosphere of the bickering, skin colour’s snobbism, and obsession with one’s place in the social hierarchy et cetera so rampant in the Dutch East Indies. (Beekman drew some similarities to the American South.) The men tend to take a backseat, heaving a resigned sigh in front of all the histrionic melodramas of their female (particularly De Paulys) counterpart:

As we listened in silence we felt the change in Aunt Christien’s monologue: the emphasis had been unnoticeably shifted to herself. She talked and talked, no longer about the deceased, but about how she did this and how she did that, all interspersed with many “oh’s” and “ah’s.”

She alternated between calling to heaven to witness her own exemplary burden then burdening herself with self-reproach. In this way she rattled on for quite a while until, as expected, she burst into tears . . . It was impossible to offer any more symphathy; we were just too tired.

This frantic, obsessive need to build an (industrious, self-sacrificing) image around oneself tends to be somewhat more tragic among the women of De Paulys, particularly manifest in Aunt Sophie. “[T]he obvious care and concern that was behind all her tyranny” seem to be driven by a bitter efficiency likely to be hatred denied expression, while her unstoppable regime, outbursts and tensions never let up. Her husband, Uncle Tjen, is hung up on his dead love, Winny—whom the narrator also seems to have had taken a romantic interest in. Her childless mariage leads her to obsess over her sister Christien’s daughter, Kitty, who almost becomes her surrogate daughter but ironically ends up competing with Aunt Sophie for the same man (and wins).

She devotes her energy and time taking care of the three illegitimate children of Uncle Alex and a native Titi. “They had to be brought up the European way; after all, they were De Paulys!” But her repressive method of upbringing “was based on a strange mixture of frantic care and Indies prejudice.” Despite the standard callous and hurtful remarks about race, skin colour and her insistence upon “European” culture and bloodline, Aunt Sophie herself consulted dukuns, burned incense and menjan, drank djamus, held slametans and practiced conjuring spirits herself, a contradictory attitude that is definitely not unique among the Indies.

Like many other Dutch living in Indonesia during that period, this paradoxical situation extends itself in the feeling of being somewhat out of place after the 1950s—a feeling of rootlessness, a longing for the crumbled past. Indies emigres formed their own community in The Hague, in a typical Indies quarter, near Beuk Square or Thomson Avenue, with their endless visits and dinners. Nieuwenhuys described how, bitter and homesick, they slowly adjust, and gradually their offspring is of lighter and lighter complexion, granting their fervent yet ambivalent desire in a way perhaps different from they—represented by Aunt Sophie—have previously imagined

Compared to Ups & Downs of Life in the Indies, Faded Portraits seems to lend a more symphatetic–at the same time weary–persepective on Indonesian life. If Daum portrays both the Dutch and the Indonesian unsparingly in his novel, Nieuwenhuys tells his story more hesitantly, with a persistent self-questioning doubt and a guilt-ridden conscience, but never without thewry irony: he attempts to befriend Sudarpo, a son of a doctor djawa in Leyden (modeled on Setdiadjit) who attacks his “conventional opinions with pent-up rage”; a common deploring remark on the native dark skin colour by the girl he desires annoys him; greeted by his babu, Alimah, upon his return, he describes how no one would expect this “stooped and toothless little woman . . . had been pregnant in the past with the natural regularity of a cat.”

Like most (Dutch) colonial literature, Faded Portraits portrays an evocative place with an almost palpable reality and olfactory peculiarities. We learn about some of their weird habits & expressions. “Write a letter in English” apparently is a common expression for taking a nap. A very detailed notes by E. M. Beekman at the back provides the reader with interesting tidbits such as what is seriawan (from Dutch spruw); British photographer in Batavia Woodbury & Pages; malam djumahat, et cetera, along with a glossary and the usual comprehensive introduction. Another  interesting book from the Library of the Indies series.

Title: Faded Portraits: A Novel of the Indies

Author: E. Breton de Nijs (Rob Nieuwenhuys), 1954
Publisher: Periplus, 1999 [U. of Massachusetts, 1982]
Call No.: F DEN Fad

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: Founding director, c2o library & collabtive. Currently also working in Singapore as a Research Associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). Opinions are hers, and do not represent/reflect her employer(s), institution(s), or anyone else with whom she may be remotely affiliated.
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