Book 38: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan

When I lived in Indonesia I was struck by the lack of local literary voices.

While there was fiction about Indonesia – Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously and Bryce Courtenay’s The Persimmon Tree to name some Australian examples (one successful and the other decidedly less so) – there was very little written by Indonesians.

The notable exception was the work of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who I wrote about at the time of my posting.

Widely regarded as the country’s only truly great novelist, Pramoedya’s most acclaimed work was the Buru Quartet – a sweeping four-book epic about Indonesia’s journey from Dutch colony to independent nation, which many believe should have won its author a Nobel prize.

But when I came to those books, Pramoedya had already been dead four years and there did not appear to be a literary successor on the horizon.

My search of Jakarta’s bookstores was clearly lacking because I never heard Eka Kurniawan’s name – probably because he hadn’t yet been translated into English. He’d written two novels at that stage and has written four now, the first three of which have just been translated.

Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger both attracted worldwide critical acclaim when the English versions were released last year but I’ve started with his third novel, the wonderfully named Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash – a sex-drenched, blood-soaked orgy of pulp.

Told in short, sharp bursts of manic energy, the story revolves around Ajo Kawir, a tough Indonesian teen so traumatised by something he’s witnessed he’s incapable of getting an erection. He takes out his frustration by fighting, but two women – Iteung and Jelita – will complicate his life.

The writing is refreshingly unadorned and the story clips along at a rapid, almost staccato, pace. Sex infuses everything; violence erupts suddenly and spectacularly.  The book plays with timelines like Quentin Tarantino’s early work and one could imagine it working beautifully as a dirty, cerebral crime film like Amores Perros. I say cerebral because for all its filthy excesses, this is not a cheap or gratuitous novel: it’s a whip-smart examination of sexual politics and trauma.

It’s fucking fantastic.

Author: adamgartrell

Political journalist drowning in books

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