Monday, February 19, 2024

Cigarette Girl (2012) by Ratih Kumala #IndonesianLit

🚬 I'm proud to say that Cigarette Girl is the best Indonesian historical fiction I've read so far. A highly entertaining story with good plot and pace. Most importantly, it is unpretentious, unlike most of others in the same genre from the same country. This is my second read, and I enjoyed it as much as before.

🚬 Whether we, Indonesians, like it or not, cigarette is always part of our culture. For me personally, the aroma of tobacco sticks to my memory. It is something I grew up with. My late father was a smoker until many years later when he stopped smoking. The tobacco smell coming from my father's body or clothes always associated to me the sense of love and protection. No matter how hard life is, it will be okay because my father will there for me. God, how I miss those feelings right now! Nowadays people might condemn cigarettes as silent killer etcetera, but I always have a soft spot for cigarettes, tobacco, and cloves. But enough about me, now about the story itself.

🚬 Tegar, Karim, and Lebas are the offsprings of a wealthy cigarette business owner Soeraja. They are summoned home as their father is dying. Unexpectedly, on his death bed, Soeradja mentions a woman's name they've never heard of, but enrages their mother: Jeng Yah ("Jeng" is a respectable address to a woman, similar to Ma'am). Who is Jeng Yah? And why does their father want to meet her? The brothers decide to solve the mystery and look for the answer by taking a trip to M town, where it all began.

🚬 Parallel with the present line, Ratih Kumala brings us to the past. It all began in the early 1940s when the Dutch was still colonizing Indonesia. A visionary ambitious young man called Idroes Moeris was working as a cigarette roller, but longed to produce and sell his own cigarettes. His time came when the Japanese arrived in 1942 and confiscated Moeria's boss' belongings. Fortunately the boss still keep some cloves and tobacco in stock, which Moeria then bought for his first venture in cigarette industry.

🚬 Soedjagad was Idroes Moeria's colleague, and close competitor, not only in stealing the heart of a pretty girl called Roemaisa - daughter of a scribe - but also in buying the boss's cloves. Roemaisa rejected Soedjagad's proposal because she fell in love with Moeria; and we know who eventually got the cloves. These brought bitterness to Soedjagad, and from then on he was like a thorn in Moeria's flesh, a shadow that shrouded his life.

🚬 Both competitors thrived as two big cigarette industries, but Moeria was always leading with his genius business inventions and good taste in concocting delicious sauce for his clove cigarettes. Soedjagad, meanwhile, was always copying his ideas, but lacked Moeria's secret recipe of the sauce. But it would all change in the hand of their successors.

🚬 Moeria and Roemaisa had two daughters. The elder one is the most beautiful and intelligent. Her name is Dasiyah, but people called her Jeng Yah. The enigmatic Jeng Yah. Dasiyah inherited her father's knack of cigarette making, and was soon entering the industry. How did she meet Soeraja, and what happened then, is an engaging mystery to unfold!

🚬 What I liked most from this book is how Ratih Kumala alternately and proportionally tells the story from the point of view of characters from both the past and present, and was able to connect them so seamlessly, yet we still distinctly perceive the time difference. It is equally amazing how she could explore each character - present and past - beautifully in just under 300 pages.

🚬 I love mostly the portrayals of the three Soeraja brothers. Tegar was made the heir from childhood, but envied his brothers for happily living their childhood, while he was forced to learn about family business. Lebas, the laid-back child, on the contrary, envied Tegar for being with their father all the time, while he and Karim played together alone. And Karim, the calm trustworthy Karim, who later becomes the mediator between the two opposite-pole of his brothers, is satisfied to work for their family business. Lastly I'm satisfied with ending, with the way the three brothers react to the revelation of Jeng Yah and their family secret history.

🚬 On the whole, it is a story about two most important events in Indonesian history: Japanese occupation which led to independence proclamation in 1945, and the 1965 genocide. They are nicely presented through the intricate stories of love and jealousy, ambition and struggles, business intrigues and betrayals, as well as the interesting history of clove cigarettes industry. Cigarette Girl has also been made a Netflix series, currently playing. I haven't had chance to watch it (some people had recommended it), but I'm pretty sure that the book, as usual, would be much better.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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  1. I don't know a lot about Indonesian history, so this book sounds like a very interesting read to me.

  2. I hope you can see the Netflix series someday, Fanda, it was so good. It sounds like it followed the book pretty well. But as you say, the book is always better. The story was fascinating to me, especially Dasiyah and her ability to make the finest cigarette aroma. All the back story of history was not known to me and left me also intrigued. I hope I can get a hold of the book.

    1. First of all, I'm glad to see you here, Laurie! It's been a while.
      Yes, the cigarette making story is the most fascinating aspect of this book for me.
      I read the e-book from Google Playbook; I hope you can get find a copy soon, and enjoy the read!

  3. This sounds so interesting! My dad gave up cigarettes when I was a baby, but he still smokes cigars from time to time, and so the smell of a cigar makes me think of him. Smells can be so good for bringing memories to life!

    (And, oh look, I finally have time to finish reading people's posts for my blogathon from last month!)


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