Eka Kurniawan is the Quentin Tarantino of Indonesian literature: a brash wunderkind, delivering gleeful references to pulp fiction, lashings of stylized violence, and an array of characters and scenarios that far surpass the tropes and clichés which inspire them. But as with Quentin Tarantino, one might occasionally wonder just how much substance lies beneath the indisputably stylish surface.
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (a peculiar rendering of the Indonesian title, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, which might be better translated as “like revenge, longing must be paid in full”) is Kurniawan’s third novel to be translated into English. It follows his acclaimed debut, the surreal historical epic, Beauty is a Wound, and the short, sharp Man Tiger. As with the previous books there is plenty of sex, brutality and outrageous humor. But this time around there is no direct engagement with Indonesian history and few overtly supernatural elements. What we have instead is the violently quixotic odyssey of a man who can’t get an erection.
Eka Kurniawan is the Quentin Tarantino of Indonesian literature
The book begins with the protagonist—street thug and sometime assassin Ajo Kawir—sitting on the edge of his bed, staring forlornly at his flaccid penis, “nestling like a newly hatched baby bird—curled into itself, looking hungry and cold”. And the opening dialogue is the first of Ajo Kawir’s many one-sided conversations with his unresponsive member:
He whispered to it, get up, Bird. Get up, you Wretch. You can’t just sleep forever. You have to get up. But that damn little bird didn’t want to get up.
The reason that Ajo Kawir’s “bird”—a direct translation of the Indonesian word burung, a commonplace euphemism for penis—won’t get up is soon revealed. During a bout of boyhood voyeurism he and best friend Gecko witnessed the brutal rape and murder of a gangster’s insane widow by a pair of rogue policemen (a typically lurid Kurniawan scenario). His own enduring sexual dysfunction is a result of this adolescent trauma.
That Ajo Kawir’s life of violence is down to sexual frustration is made clear from the book’s very first line: “Only guys who can’t get hard fight with no fear of death.” And the idea of violence as a sublimated sexual urge is further underscored when Ajo Kawir first meets the love of his life, the beautiful martial arts expert Iteung.
After beating each other to a bloody pulp they collapse side by side in what clearly resembles a moment of post-coital intimacy. Romance blossoms, and marriage follows—though Ajo Kawir’s sense of inadequacy and Iteung’s unsatisfied lust soon drive the couple apart.
Ajo Kawir then embarks on a meandering quest for solace through casual brutality, agrees to kill a notorious gang leader named “the Tiger” on behalf of a rival Mafioso, and serves time in jail. Along the way he continues to talk to his slumbering penis, and believes that he hears certain responses, on the basis of which he renounces violence and becomes a long-distance truck driver, accompanied by an assistant with the memorable name of Gaptooth Mono, himself a pint-sized bundle of frustration and aggression. All this is delivered in a punchy, colloquial style, skillfully translated by Annie Tucker.
Though the book’s overall progression is linear, chapters are broken into short vignettes. These allow for a patchwork of points of view: Ajo Kawir; Iteung; Gaptooth Mono; and once, in a brief and supremely surreal moment, a first-person commentary in an otherwise exclusively third-person-narrated novel from a lizard watching events from the ceiling:
I’m just a lizard on the ceiling of the cell. Waiting for a mosquito or a fly to pass by. I don’t know what you all are doing down there, stripping this guy naked and then beating him with a cane until red lines shine on his back.
The vignette structure also lets Kurniawan switch rapidly back and forth between different times and places, allowing him to develop a nifty technique of describing an event and its origins in tandem. This works particularly well in the book’s two brilliant set-pieces: an edge-of-your-seat account of a duel between a pair of speeding trucks on a rural highway, unfolding over ten pages; and a supremely bloody bare-knuckle fight organised by corrupt soldiers.
All of this is tremendous fun, even if the brutality is sometimes a little hard to stomach: the aforementioned fight scene features gauged eyeballs, shattered kneecaps and much multi-directional blood-splatter. But the question has to be asked, is Vengeance is Mine actually about anything? Does the violence have any real symbolic value, or is it simply gratuitous? Is this, ultimately, anything more than witty and well-crafted pulp entertainment? It’s a question which is sometimes also asked of the films of Quentin Tarantino.
Eka Kurniawan is often described as a “political” writer, thanks to his unflinching confrontation of the darkest aspects of Indonesia’s past in Beauty is a Wound. But there are only oblique glimpses of such things here: a passing mention of the “mysterious killings” of criminals (a term originally used for a series of state-sponsored extrajudicial murders in the 1980s); an aging mobster’s statement that “I’ve massacred communists. I’ve killed East Timorese freedom fighters”; and a line about “the turmoil that never stops in the far-flung corners of this republic.”
Of course, it is possible to conjure a symbolic reading of the book’s violence and its cause: a political or intellectual impotence as the root of Indonesia’s violent history, with true fulfillment only possible through the renouncing of that violence. The fact that it is specifically an act of brutality against a woman that prompts Ajo Kawir’s impotence could also be seen as a critique of a patriarchal society (though there’s a debate to be had here about whether depictions of violence against women in artistic works—particularly those created by men—can themselves slip into tawdry misogyny, even if their notional purpose is to set up a satisfying revenge narrative). There’s even a precedent in classical Indonesian literature for a story with a penis as a key player: the Suluk Gatholoco, an outrageous satirical attack on the ascendance of conservative Islam in the 19th century, written in traditional verse form.
But ultimately, to spend too much time digging around for subtle inferences and “messages” risks spoiling the book. Perhaps it is best simply to take it like a Tarantino movie: as a sort of bravura, X-rated pantomime, delivered with style and panache by an author who knows he can get away with just about anything. And as high-end pulp fiction, Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is superb.