Tender Novel ‘Nel’ Breaks the Rules

Traveljunkieindonesia.com – With his first solo novel, “Nel,” reporter and writer Dalih Sembiring combines bold stylistic excursions with compelling emotional content.

Before branching out on his own, Dalih — who is also a feature writer with the Jakarta Globe — co-authored “Cha untuk Chayang,” a “teen lit” story about the friendship between a girl and a transgender person, with Abmi Handayani.

“Nel” is a far more daring novel, with rapid shifts in perspective, from first to second to third person, and shifts in style, from a lean journalistic style to sections that read like a film script.

The first chapter is told from the perspective of Vian, a former lover of Nel’s, and it chronicles the disintegration of their relationship.

Nel, the nickname of Daniel Sebayang, is a gay man whose present and future are suffocated under the weight of his memories of two past lovers: Ilham and Aryo.

As Nel says to Vian in the novel: “Their shadows haunt me constantly.”

The second chapter is written in the third person and flashes back to Nel receiving news of Ilham’s death.

Nel is informed: “Ilham is dead […] he was hit by a sudako [public transport vehicle in Medan, North Sumatra].”

Ilham had spent his childhood playing with Nel and reading books from Nel’s ever-growing collection.

Nel and Ilham had their first sexual experience with each other as children, which, as they grew older, blossomed into a romance.

It was cut short, however, when Nel’s family relocated to Canberra, Australia, due to Nel’s father’s work (the author has also studied in Canberra).

While in Canberra, Nel often sent letters to Ilham. In one letter, sent during his last year of junior high school, Nel wrote: “There were beautiful memories. We keep them in the hope they will happen again one day.”

Following Ilham’s death, Nel — now living in Yogyakarta – travels to his hometown of Binjai in North Sumatra by boat, meeting Aryo along the way.

Binjai is also the author’s hometown, and here Dalih draws an implicit parallel between his life and Nel’s.

Nel is intent on visiting Ilham’s grave and also on meeting Elis, a friend from his days in Australia. The chapter titled “Elis” is written from her perspective, and begins with the declaration: “I am Elis. A child who was raised by the devil.”

Elis suffers from Capgrass syndrome, where a person holds a delusional belief that someone they know has been replaced by an identical-looking imposter.

Dalih has divided the chapter into several subchapters, putting Elis in different settings to show her paranoia.

When Elis speaks of her “fake” mother, the strength of her conviction is frightening. “You’ve stolen my real mother […] I’m not sure when you kidnapped her. You appeared suddenly in front of me, with the same appearance, slapping my arms when I broke a glass plate.”

When Nel visits Ilham’s grave, the experience triggers a dream in which he is visited by the ghost of his lover.

The ghost says to him: “There are only two choices, Nel. Either you died or I did. You and I had gone too far. No, not because we are both men. Death is the only way to redeem us…”

The novel then focuses on Nel’s struggle to interpret Ilham’s message. Was it simply a dream or was there more to it than that?

The novel took eight years to finish.

“The early chapters were me venting […] the latter chapters were explorations of language,” Dalih said.

Dalih, as a writer, is something of a stylistic chameleon. His linguistic abilities allow him to intersperse the novel, which is written in Indonesian, with the dialects of Sumatra and Manado, as well as English, and Chinese.

The best of Dalih’s approaches is, by far, when he tells the story in novelistic third-person, using rarely spoken words and phrases to beautiful effect. As a result the other styles — especially the script style — feel less polished, though still engaging.

Dalih is an original storyteller with a captivating voice.

Dalih Sembiring

Happy Green Travels!

Follow us on Twitter @TravelJunkieID & like us on Facebook.

Taken from thejakartaglobe.com