Not a Virgin – Nuril Basri

In 2019, the Indonesian writer, Nuril Basri, came on a short writing tour on England at the invitation of The British Council, having been marked out as one a group of young Indonesian writers to watch. The bookgroup read the recently translated 2017 version of ‘Not a Virgin’ which had been originally been published in 2012.

We discussed the novel for over an hour, a record length for our group. This was due mainly to the divergent views on the book, and for many who read the book, a sense of conflicting reflections and consternation.

Some liked the portrayal of another culture and another age group; e.g. the pesantrin ‘loosely religious boarding schools’; which felt strange but real. But other readers thought aspects of the story implausible, especially towards the end.

Many were struck by how introverted many of the characters were, with shades of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. Also, the lack of adults in the story; readers unsure if they were absent or excluded from the story.

Attitudes and laws re. homosexuality in Indonesia seem to be a complex and fluid issue with real  contradictions in attitudes between the state, religion and culture. Some readers felt this was apparent in the writing; persecuted minorities, sex often portrayed as a transactional commodity, the sense of a gay culture quite alien or elusive.

There was much discussion of the plot, many thinking that the second half seemed rushed, either by the writer and or the translator. Some thought that there were many stories here, enough for several novels. But in contrast, someone got a feeling of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and a sense of there being no agenda, refreshingly so. The ending was the subject of much discussion, the twist causing consternation for the majority or readers.

There did seem to be general agreement that the translation seemed poor, ‘not one beautiful sentence’ and that it hadn’t been helped by the translator’s notes at the end of the book.

One summed the book up ‘A bit all over the place but nevertheless exciting and interesting. This is a young writer from a different culture and in translation.’  Overall, a thought provoking book both in terms of content and style.