James Bond Jakarta Style
Seno Gumiro Ajidarma and Zacky, Sukab, Intel Melayu: Misteri Harta Centini [Sukab, Malay Intelligence Agent: The Mystery of the Centini Wealth], Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, July 2002, 99pp, ISBN 979-9023-79-3.
Reviewed by John Roosa
Sukab is an Indonesian intelligence agent who has never solved a case. He bumbles his way through assignments, lacks any idea of how to obtain information, and always winds up empty-handed. What he knows is how to imitate the Bogart-style detectives portrayed in films of the 1950s: he wears a trench coat and Hamburg hat and repeatedly compares his experiences to Western films.
Sukab is intelligent enough to realise that he is incompetent. He wonders whether he keeps being handed assignments precisely because his bosses do not want the cases solved. In his mimicry, alternately imagining himself as James Bond and Batman, he knows he is not quite fulfilling such heroic roles. ‘I’m a spy but how come it doesn’t feel like the films?’ His trench coat and hat are unsuited for Jakarta’s sweltering heat: ‘I want to follow the style of the detectives in the American comics but I’m burning up!’
Sukab’s failure as a spy is not because he is dim-witted. He is incredibly well read. He freely quotes from difficult philosophical and literary texts, such as those by Nietzsche, Chairul Anwar, Neruda, Beckett, and Levinas. None of the model Western spies are as erudite as Sukab. It is hard to imagine James Bond reading Derrida.
Sukab’s failure as an ‘intel’ appears to derive from his intellectual bent. In the world of gangsters and assassins, he is out of his element. He would feel more at home in café discussions on a university campus. Sukab is brave, daring, and remarkably skillful in martial arts. But he just cannot manage to apply his intellect to detective work.
His failure also appears due to his lack of creative thinking. His exposure to cosmopolitan learning and popular Western culture has only left him with an impulse towards imitation. He relates what he experiences to passages from books and films but he can not untangle riddles and analyze problems.
The story line of this installment, the first in what promises to be a Sukab series, is related to the Suharto family’s massive fortune. The ‘Centini wealth’ in the subtitle is a play on “Cendana,” the street in Jakarta on which Suharto lives. It is also an allusion to the sprawling Javanese text compiled at various times in the 17-19th centuries, Serat Centhini. Part of the humour of the comic book is from such word play. Tommy Suharto becomes Tompel (Birthmark) Suroto, and Orde Baru (New Order) becomes Orde Bobrok (Rotten Order).
Seno’s social commentary is biting. Sukab, while held captive by the agents of Suroto, is lectured on the effects of dictatorship, ‘You think Orde Bobrok is dead? How could that be? For over thirty years we’ve inculcated a backward mentality in this country. You people are still backward.’
Sukab’s designation as an ‘intel Melayu’ harkens back to the colonial-era disdain for natives, when Melayu was synonymous with inferior. Seno’s use of the term is tongue in cheek. Sukab calls himself an ‘intel Melayu’ at one point because he understands nothing of the world of high finance. He tries to think about Suharto’s Swiss bank accounts while sitting in a run-down warung eating fried tempeh, feeding scraps to a mangy stray cat, and reciting melancholy poetry to himself.
The skillfully drawn black and while drawings by Zacky capture the film noir atmosphere of Sukab’s imagination. They also powerfully evoke the smog and filth of Jakarta’s gray concrete cityscape. Still, they strike this reader as excessively foreboding and eerie. The silliness of the scenario (hit men dance disco in one scene) and the ironic, self-effacing side of the Sukab character are not conveyed well through such bleak drawings.
Regardless, this is a brilliant and innovative book. The social commentary and literary allusions (which are even footnoted) make this a highbrow, dizzyingly inter-textual, comic book. Sukab is an original, enigmatic, and amusing character. If Indonesian intelligence agents will not appreciate the book, intelligent adults – and children – will.
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