Review: Cigarette Girl – love, cloves and enmity in post-war Indonesia

The story of two Javanese cigarette-making families is also one of secrets and discoveries, and for readers beyond Indonesia it offers fascinating glimpses of the country’s recent history and its people’s ways

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 12:05pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 March, 2017, 12:57pm

Cigarette Girl

by Ratih Kumala (translated by Annie Tucker )

Monsoon Books

3.5 stars

Redolent of the ubiquitous aromatic kretek cigarettes, this book by Indonesian writer Ratih Kumala follows three generations of two Javanese families from the time of the Dutch surrender to the Japanese in 1942, via the crackdown on the communists and the massacres of 1965, to the present.

Cigarette Girl has been fluently translated by Annie Tucker, who made the sensible decision to leave many terms in either Bahasa Indonesia or Javanese – most, although not all, with explanations in the text, adding a layer of linguistic richness and interest to an already interesting and absorbing novel.

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Idroes Moeria and Soedjagad are the respective patriarchs of the families: we meet them as young men just as the Dutch are leaving Java and the Japanese arriving. The men, initially friends, fall out over a woman, Roemaisa, who rejects Soedjagad and marries Idroes Moeria. The result is a bitter rivalry between the the men in all aspects of life.

Both Idroes Moeria and Soedjagad start cigarette businesses. The clove-scented worlds of Indonesian cigarette manufacturing and consumption provide the compelling, richly evoked social setting for the novel. The sensual pleasure of smoking is stressed throughout; there are no health warnings here.

Idroes Moeria is initially the more successful. He and Roemaisa have two daughters. As a young woman, their elder daughter, Dasiyah, the cigarette girl of the title, has an uncanny ability to roll irresistible cigarettes. In the mid-1960s, she falls in love with the itinerant Soeraja, who washes up in her hometown, and she lets him into her family’s commercial secrets. But he abandons her to marry Soedjagad’s daughter, Purwanti.

Soedjagad brings Soeraja into his own cigarette business to form Djagad Raja Cigarettes, destined to become one of the leading brands in Indonesia and a source of great wealth.

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Much of the plot deals with secrets and discovery. When the book opens, Soeraja is on his deathbed, delirious, and arousing his wife Purwanti’s jealousy by calling for a woman, Jeng Yah. In the teeth of maternal opposition, the couple’s three sons set out to find this mysterious woman. What they find, in addition to Jeng Yah’s identity, are long-held secrets about their father’s private life and the family business.

For readers beyond Indonesia, Cigarette Girl provides fascinating glimpses of contemporary Indonesian social attitudes, and of Indonesian folklore and folk beliefs, and provides a sustained, and brave, exploration of recent Indonesian politics and history.

As newlyweds, Idroes Moeria and Roemaisa are separated when he is taken prisoner by the Japanese. When he disappears, she is a demure and obedient wife and daughter. She falls into depression, but then she takes to smoking her husband’s unsold cigarettes; the smoke invigorates her and she soon evolves into a feisty woman capable of holding her own in the marketplace.

In the next generation, Idroes Moeria’s and Roemaisa’s daughter, Dasiyah is also separated from her beloved, by political events—she and Soeraja are forced apart just before their marriage, during the turmoil of 1965.

Repeating patterns of lives disrupted by collisions with history are found not just down the generations, but also within individual life stories. In 1965, Idroes Moeria, once the prisoner of the Japanese, is again held captive, this time by the National Armed Forces, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI.

The novel contains many moments of humour to leaven the misery of these events, not least the petulant relationship between Soeraja’s three sons. As well as being both moving and funny, Cigarette Girl plays with postmodern ideas about the difficulties of locating truth in lives, and in stories.

Asian Review of Books