Arthur Harahap is a man of many talents who lives in Indonesia, but nobody has ever met him. Some people call him a writer, some say he's unemployed, some say he's a cook at a Padang restaurant.
Sabda Armandio, the author who first debuted Arthur on his blog, admits that he's still not sure who Arthur really is. That hasn't stopped the Indonesian literary scene from taking him on as one of their own, giving him their own backstory and injecting life into the character. But Armandio still maintains control over Arthur, controlling the details and narrative behind his life.
Armandio has never publicly admitted that Arthur is his alter ego. He's said that him and Harahap share a similar worldview. "[But] I think perhaps my manuscripts aren't worth publishing."
Since debuting on the literary scene with his acclaimed novel Kamu in 2015, Armandio has been growing the cult of Arthur while writing his own work. The alter ego has also become as family as Armandio, which led to Arthur writing the preface for Armandio's new book 24 Hours with Gaspar: A Detective Story (24 Jam Bersama Gaspar: Sebuah Cerita Detektif).
VICE Indonesia met with the young writer to see who Arthur Harahap really is and why Armandio has gone into the world of detective novels.
VICE Indonesia: First off, Arthur Harahap isn't real, is he?
Sabda Armandio: He could be your neighbor, or somebody you see on a bus. That's the kind of person I had in mind when I created him.
In your previous work you wrote stories about characters and the absurdity of modern world. How did you make the shift to detective stories?
The clash between detective stories that offer a moral story of good people in a crooked place and the evil games I play, raises the question of what is good and what is evil. That became more complicated when I read Beyond Good and Evil when I was 20. The more I read books the farther away the answers seem to be. Why in every story the good always wins, by all means?
Can you tell us what the novel is about?
I want explore what it means to be good. Hitler killed Jews for the sake of good, Suharto killed people for the same reason, those motivators give a false conscience to their audience. What does it mean to be good? Gaspar was born out of those thoughts. It may sound serious, but really it isn't. All I did was compress those thoughts into the characters in the novel.
So, why do you name the protagonist Gaspar?
I'm never been good at choosing names, I chose Gaspar out of laziness. When I was confused on what to name my protagonist, I suddenly thought of the director Gaspar Noe. I said his name out loud, I recorded it and listened to it again, and it sounded good, so I used it.
This is the first glimpse of 24 Jam Bersama Gaspar: Sebuah Cerita Detektif (24 Hours with Gaspar: A Detective Story), exclusive for VICE Indonesia:
People can be a royal pain in the ass, but boy, are they amusing. I was not very good at chess—I rarely thought three steps or any steps ahead when I made my move—but I was pretty sure that the knight, be it black or white or, god forbid, turquoise, was supposed to move in an L shape. At first I thought that's just how it's written in the Complete Summary of General Knowledge and thus became the consensus within all mankind, but maybe Wan Ali disagreed or maybe Wan Ali wasn't a man or maybe Wan Ali was the only man on earth, because he moved his knight to a square that was one square away horizontally, then another one vertically, then another horizontally, and one last square vertically, forming an S shape. And he did so with full confidence—let me rephrase that—he made that move as he rubbed this beard and didn't even look at me for a cue.
I moved my knight and captured his pawn. I did it as a subtle warning for him so next time he would move his knight the way I just did, which is the way everyone I ever played against did, which is the way it had always been in every chess game I'd ever witnessed. But that only pissed him off and now he accused me of being a liberal airhead. "You see," he said as he pointed his finger at me.
"The L-shaped move was deliberately made by those infidels to infuse liberalism into everyday life. L for Liberalism—that message too obvious to overlook. You shouldn't have been fooled by such a cheap trick."
So he corrected my knight's position, returned his pawn onto the board, and warned me not to make the same mistake by telling a clichéd squirrel proverb even though I didn't look like any kind of rodent. I was clicking my tongue and thought of how insignificant I was in the world, of how little I knew, of how people could be so amusing, to the point that I lazily concluded that every person was born to be a clown.