This week Kill Your Darlings, in partnership with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), presents a showcase of emerging Indonesian writers, who are all previous UWRF artists. The 14th UWRF runs from 25–29 October in beautiful Ubud, Bali. The first lineup has been revealed, and early bird tickets are on sale until the full program is announced on 16 August.
The first time I attended a short-story writing course, I was asked to tell the saddest true story I had ever heard. So I told a story about the time I was rejected from a job as a kindergarten teacher because, when asked to tell the saddest true story I had ever heard, I told my interviewer the story of the Alarm Man. It was a story that I heard from my late mother, who once lived in the same kampong as the Alarm Man.
I told the interviewer how the Alarm Man, who could only wake up by the sound of an alarm, forgot to set it up the night before his first date with my mother’s best friend, whom he had loved from a distance for seven years. He didn’t manage to wake up that day and my mother’s best friend waited in front of the cinema until the sun went down. My mother’s best friend assumed that he had been played, and eventually dated another man. Fifty years passed by, and one day the Alarm Man woke up with a jolt and was surprised to find his bed covered in hair, which he soon learned was his own. After cutting it, he was more astonished to find himself old and bony. Standing in front of his dusty mirror, he put the pieces together, and he cried and cried. He finally remembered that he had a date with his beloved. In a flash he dried his tears, bathed, dressed up, and left to try his luck. On his way to the cinema, he was understandably confused so he had to ask passers-by for direction. After several hours, he finally found the building, which now had been turned into a shopping mall. Once more he cried, this time by the side of the road. After he put himself together, the Alarm Man decided to visit his beloved’s house, although he knew the young man would no longer be young, nor would the Alarm Man still be his beloved. As it turned out, the young man had moved out of town long ago – and at the house the Alarm Man met my mother instead. He told my mother everything, cried, continued with his story, and in the end asked my mother for his beloved’s current address. My mother told him the truth: her friend had died two years before, due to prostate cancer. Again, the Alarm Man cried, this time at our terrace, out of his frustration with the world. ‘Then he told my mother he was hungry, and after gobbling up plates and plates of food, he left. That’s the last we ever saw of him,’ I ended my story. My interviewer raised his eyebrows and asked whether my story was true, and I nodded. He asked how it was possible that the Alarm Man could live without food and water for fifty years and how no one felt his absence or looked for him for such a long time, and I told him the truth: I didn’t have any logical explanation for that, but that was in fact what happened. My interviewer asked how he became the Alarm Man that I knew today, also about the time when the Alarm Man was not yet the Alarm Man, and again I told him the truth: my mother left out that part every time. There was a long silence, and then my interviewer said, ‘It’s impossible that he stayed alive,’ and that I wasn’t fit for the job. I returned home crying because I really needed the money to cover for my mother’s medical bills. When my mother died the following month, she took with her the complete story of the Alarm Man – I didn’t have the heart to burden her with my questions.
It wasn’t until later that I realised that at the moment my application was rejected, I had acquired a new saddest true story. To experience something truly unfortunate is one thing, but to be accused of lying when retelling that experience is another; isn’t the denial of a genocide is more heartbreaking even than the act of killing itself? It dawned on me that if I had told my interviewer the story of how I was rejected for a job because my interviewer thought the saddest true story I knew wasn’t true enough, I would have got that job. A story like that has at least one part that made sense: a person was rejected from a job as a kindergarten teacher. Thus, if ‘I Told Someone the Alarm Man Story but He Accused Me of Lying’ was a sadder story than the Alarm Man Story itself, don’t you think that ‘I Was Accused of Lying About The Story of Being Accused of Lying About the Alarm Man Story’ is an even sadder story still? It’s a story on which I can stack one brick of pity after another, building a Babel tower of sadness. I believe such a story might come in handy one day. Maybe I can tell it to someone who needs to hear a really sad true story before bed. I think my story could put that person to sleep peacefully for a very long time – perhaps forever? Ever since, in order to turn the sad true story into an even sadder one, granting it more somniferous power, I have been participating in short-story writing courses, where mentors ask questions such as, ‘What’s your worst experience in life?’ and ‘What’s your deepest secret?’ And these questions are asked of people who believe they have gone through the worst of life experience, kept the strangest of secrets, and materialised the craziest of imaginations, so much so that they never take much interest in me, or what I have to say.
This story was originally published in Indonesian as ‘Pengantar Tidurmu yang Panjang’ in the short story collection Hanya Kamu yang Tahu Berapa Lama Lagi Aku Harus Menunggu (‘You Alone Know How Much Longer I Should Wait’), Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2014.
Norman Erikson Pasaribu will be appearing at multiple events at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, between 1–3 September.
English translation by Shaffira Gayatri and Syarafina Vidyadhana.