The Tulip Tree apartment building in Bloomington, Indiana, sits on the edge of the Indiana University campus, 11 stories high with over 200 units. I recently drove past the structure, which curves inward around a wide expanse of grass. I had just been tent-camping in the nearby forest beside Lake Monroe with my son and his Boy Scout troop, where we orienteered, hiked, and spotted turtles, frogs, and deer in the woods. After days and nights spent beneath towering pines and the stars for a roof, the concrete-and-glass Tulip Tree Apartments looked otherworldly.
These apartments make an appearance in the Indonesian writer Budi Darma’s 1980 story collection People from Bloomington. The first English edition of the collection, translated by Tiffany Tsao, was published by Penguin Classics in April. The book’s version of the Tulip Tree reaches 50 stories high, “capable of swallowing five hundred large families whole,” as the story “Charles Lebourne” begins. The characters in People from Bloomington are isolated by their living situations, whether it be an apartment with many units or a rental house with a disagreeable landlord, or neighbors who confront a man who indiscriminately brandishes a gun (“The Old Man with No Name.”) The universal problems of the stories’ titular “people”—loneliness, longing for connection—could be set anywhere. Yet they are distinctly and precisely here, in this southern Indiana town.
People from Bloomington was largely written during Darma’s time as a PhD student in English literature at IU, with far-ranging influences that include Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, and William Faulkner, among others. Austen was the subject of Darma’s dissertation, and as he waited for his advisor’s feedback on drafts of each section, he took walks around Bloomington. Most of the stories in the collection were inspired by his observations of the “old timers,” students, and others he encountered while walking around town. This is also when he wrote his novel, Olenka, which likewise features a Bloomington setting. (IU’s Wells Library lists one copy in its catalog, in Indonesian.) He wrote that novel in only three weeks, and the short stories arrived very quickly, too. “There were times when, to my surprise, I ended up writing an entire story without realizing it,” he describes in People from Bloomington’s preface, where he congratulates Tsao for a successful translation. The realist mode of the Bloomington-based work is a departure from his mostly absurdist fiction.
“After finishing the stories I wrote in Bloomington, I realized that even though my method, style, and subject matter differed, I was still writing about the cruelty of life, as I had done in my previous stories,” Darma continues in the preface. “The difficulties that people face in relating to each other while negotiating their own identities—it is this that has always colored my fiction.”
Bloomington, an hour-and-a-half south of my home in Indianapolis, is a college town where students, alumni, and fans flock to Memorial Stadium for football games, and Assembly Hall for Hoosier basketball games. IU is an R1 Research institution, drawing students and scholars from around the world. The city and campus are surrounded by beautiful hills, lakes, and the nearby Hoosier National Forest, over 200,000 acres of densely packed woods that bordered my son’s Scout camp. Every day I studied the map. I was a stranger to these woods, a parent volunteer responsible for guiding children. I needed to know where I was.
15 minutes away was the campus where I visited friends at IU more than two decades ago. Back then, I often felt lost, disoriented, dependent upon them to lead me to the restaurant or bar, to point me back to the highway, to home. I am a good navigator with a sound sense of direction, but in Bloomington and its surrounding areas, I could never get my bearings. Maybe it was because I didn’t have to. I could count on someone else to take care of the details and be responsible for me. I had chosen another school twelve hours away; I was welcome to visit Bloomington, but I did not belong there. I was a temporary visitor with in-group privileges.
Darma’s narrators know no such luxury. They are often isolated, longing to know others, and their embedded and necessary knowledge of Bloomington’s map permeates each story: Tulip Tree, Fess Avenue, the now-defunct Marsh Supermarkets chain, the Union, Dunn Meadow. At times the map is used fictitiously, though the details remain precise. In translating Darma, Tsao referenced online archives and maps of Bloomington to be certain of the place, and she also consulted with Darma. (He died in 2021, prior to the English edition’s publication.)
The characters who populate People from Bloomington may not know others as they would like, but they know the place. Darma’s Bloomington renders people strange, sad, or harmful. His characters have little awareness of how they affect one another, particularly how they impact the unnamed first-person narrators in each of the collection’s seven stories. Darma maintains a cool, distanced control over his narratives; he easily veers from realism into absurdism, with a nod and a wink to the reader.
The story “Yorrick” begins with a short guided tour, wending along Grant Street, South Tenth, the Union, the bookstore, and College Mall. It is on Grant Street that the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman named Catherine, and sets his sights on winning her affection. She finally notices him when he offers to patch her flat bicycle tire, but it’s clear that she doesn’t reciprocate the narrator’s intense interest: “She answered all my questions thoroughly. Yet she never showed any desire to learn more about me. After I told her my name, she didn’t inquire where I lived, or about my job, or my background or family.”
Later, the narrator is invited to a party by Catherine and her friend Yorrick (who, in an allusion to Hamlet, is described as looking skeletal). He accepts and, once there, the jealous narrator realizes he is odd man out; moved to action, he deflates the partygoers’ car tires. Soon after, an elderly woman, who had been dancing that evening “like a bucking bronco,” needs medical attention; the flat tires create delay and confusion as people try to get her to the hospital. No one suspects the narrator as perpetrator, nor does he admit what he’s done. But he knew exactly where to find a pump to let the air out of the tires, a tool he’d observed earlier at the corner of South Tenth and Fess.
If only we could pinpoint human motivations with such map-like precision. The characters in People from Bloomington overlook and underestimate the first-person narrators, who respond with secretive and vindictive behavior. Even if the characters’ self-perceptions are muddled, Darma sees them clearly. In “The Family M” the adult narrator feuds with children over a scratch on his car, then hides in the bushes and throws a large rock at a child, sending him to the hospital; “Orez” is a strange child (zero spelled backwards) who invites others’ scorn, confounds his parents, and pushes them to the brink of a horrific action; “Joshua Karabish” features an unloved and ill roommate who dies, and the narrator passes off Joshua’s poetry as his own; in “Mrs. Elberhart,” the narrator changes his walking route to further observe this unusual older woman and her unkempt yard, and then he becomes wrapped up in her health woes after she wrongly accuses him of giving her an illness.
Darma draws these characters in sharp relief, as if looking down from the roof of a multi-story apartment building with a birds-eye view. As I drove by the Tulip Tree four decades after Darma wrote these stories, the building reminded me of a giant spaceship. I wondered about all the lives housed inside.