Saman: A very inaccurate synopsis

Saman, Ayu Utami, 1998

  • Indonesia, #12
  • Kindle, $5 on
  • Read: June 2017
  • Rating: 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: I don’t even know

California, 2005

So, there is recent evidence that the physical structure of the brain changes during pregnancy, and that these changes–which include a loss of gray matter–persist for at least two years after giving birth. My daughter turned two a few months ago, but my gray matter does not seem to have bounced back yet. To wit, here’s my memory of Ayu Utami’s Saman, which I read a little over a year ago:

Central California, 2005

There are three or four women (I seem to remember that it’s actually four, but I can only remember any details about three of them) who are childhood friends and all have a crush on the same young priest who teaches them. The girls are from different religious backgrounds (maybe one of them is Muslim? Which would make sense in Indonesia, which is a predominantly Muslim country, except I don’t know why she’d be in Catholic school). At least two of them end up in New York, one of them (the one from the most repressive background) as a dancer. Another one becomes a journalist. The young priest, meanwhile, is sent to some isolated parish where he helps the villagers plant orange groves, but then the government decides the orange groves need to be plowed under and everyone needs to grow palm trees for palm oil, and they’re not going to compensate the villagers at all. The priest is angry so he leaves the priesthood and becomes a rebel (or maybe an ecoterrorist, I can’t remember). And he changes his name to Saman.

Side note: the worldwide demand for palm oil (which is in EVERYTHING) is fueling the complete collapse of the Indonesian ecosystem. Vast tracts of rainforest are being burned to clear room for more palm plantations, and besides the destruction of habitat and many many species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else, the air pollution generated by all the burning is having massive effects on human health and welfare; children are literally dying of respiratory failure from the smoke. Orangutans will probably be extinct in the wild within the next fifty years, so, you know, if you like orangutans, don’t buy things with palm oil in them.

Evil, evil palm trees

Anyway Saman has a relationship with one of his former students, I think, or maybe it’s just that she’s in love with him. Maybe the one who ends up in New York but isn’t a dancer. And when he’s a child his mother gives birth to several younger siblings who die shortly after being born, but the implication is that she’s been impregnated by a spirit who then takes the children to his world to live with him. Saman (who isn’t Saman yet) sometimes hears them playing as a child, and then later when he’s an adult they save him from government operatives by leading him off into the forest (even though they’re invisible, I think. Or maybe they’re not, I also remember something about them being terrifyingly deformed, or else maybe wearing masks. But they’re definitely invisible for at least part of the book). This episode was kind of my favorite part of the book, but it was really short and didn’t really relate to anything else, and was totally tonally inconsistent with the other parts. Then the book closes really abruptly with some increasingly explicit romantic emails between Saman and the woman who has become a journalist, which came totally out of left field–like there was nothing building up to them even having a relationship or knowing each other in any way and then suddenly they’re e-mailing about licking each other and stuff.

That’s pretty much everything I remember about the book, and that can’t be ALL of it, right? It doesn’t seem to make any sense. There’s also the passage where the girl talks about selling her virginity to an ogre (the narrator of that section was the one who becomes a dancer in New York, who was my favorite narrator). And there’s something about squirrels. These things don’t seem to come together to form an intelligible plot. On the other hand, the only note I wrote for myself after finishing this book was: this book is very confused, but I liked it anyway. So maybe that’s all there is to it.

Palo Alto, 2004

4 thoughts on “Saman: A very inaccurate synopsis

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