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This bird also rises

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is the third Eka Kurniawan novel to be published in English (all by Speaking Tiger in India). The first, the magical realist family epic Beauty is a Wound, was rapidly acclaimed as an Indonesian answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Kurniawan has become the first Indonesian novelist to enjoy international popular success (his great predecessor, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, had a foreign readership substantially consisting of writers and critics). Vengeance is a very different book, and the absence of the overtly surreal or fantastical is the least of it.

Graham Greene famously divided his early oeuvre into “novels” (The End of the Affair or The Power and the Glory and “entertainments” (Our Man in Havana or The Confidential Agent). The latter were not necessarily less skilled or powerful, but they were marked by thriller-like plots and a cinematic pace and tone. Vengeance is wonderfully entertaining, and highly cinematic, its critique of patriarchal Indonesian society wrapped in picaresque adventure and anarchic comedy.

Truckin’ on

Kurniawan’s previous novel to appear in English, Man Tiger, was a murder mystery in which — in the manner of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History — the opening reveals the identity of both killer and victim. Here, too, the opening lines give away the central fact of the plot. Ajo Kawir is effectively impotent: his penis, usually referred to as his “bird”, “couldn’t stand up”. In a book full of characters — they tend to embody that word in both senses — and subplots, his uncooperative bird drives most of the action.

This bird also rises

Vengeance is told in a sequence of brief episodes that are non-linear but always easy to follow — it is both (unabashedly) pulp fiction and reminiscent of the film Pulp Fiction. Thus we gradually discover the circumstances that led to Ajo’s impotence. He and his best friend Gecko are a pair of adolescent voyeurs who roam their neighbourhood spying on couples having sex, until they attempt to spy on Scarlet Blush, a beautiful widow regarded locally as a “crazy woman”.

The boys walk in on Scarlet Blush being raped by a pair of policemen. The rapists coerce Ajo into joining them, but he is so traumatised that he is unable to attain an erection, then and henceforth.

He attempts a series of home remedies for his condition, but succeeds only in torturing himself — one of many instances in which the book walks the line between gross-out comedy and the more grisly kind.

Scarlet Blush dies soon after, but Ajo does not recover. He grows up to be a small-time hoodlum and trucker, his vehicle blazoned with the slogan that is the book’s title. He coaxes and cajoles his bird, but largely gives up on active attempts to cure himself.

Instead, his emasculation expresses itself through physical combat. He becomes a street-fighter, and wins fame for his ruthlessness and determination.

Vengeance is full of violence, but it is at heart not a thriller or a dystopian account of mindless brutality; it is a love story. The other half of the romance is Iteung, and before Ajo falls in love with her he fights her. “He had never hit a woman, so he just shoved Iteung aside. Unexpectedly, the girl grabbed his arm and pinned it behind his back, and with just a little push threw him to the ground.” She turns out to be the hardest opponent he ever encounters.

The story of Ajo and Iteung runs parallel with his career as a thug, which climaxes in his assignment to murder a man called Tiger. Ajo is imprisoned for the murder, and it is there that he encounters Jelita, a “hideous” woman who offers him and his bird a chance at redemption. All this is done with admirable control and consistency.

But the novel’s greater pleasures lie in the details of lower-middle class Javanese life, in Ajo’s hapless and eccentric associates, and in its jokes, ingeniously rendered in English by Annie Tucker.

Bollywood taste

In its account of an epic romance held back by a man’s impotence, Kurniawan’s novel can read like a satirical take on Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It belongs, however, to a totally different narrative tradition, and it often reminded me, stylistically, of Bollywood cinema.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash will not be to every reader’s taste. The violence, sexual and otherwise, approaches the pornographic, but this serves to amplify the force of Kurniawan’s critique of the appalling sexism that he sees in Indonesian society.

But those Indians not repelled by the violence are likely to find it both much more accessible than Kurniawan’s earlier books, as well as more enjoyable and provocative than the vast majority of Western fiction that they encounter.

That is, if they ever come across this book. All kinds of fiction in translation are under-published, under-reviewed and under-promoted in India, but South-East Asian novels are as ill served as any, especially given how well the tone and themes of novelists like Kurniawan resonate with contemporary India. Speaking Tiger is to be congratulated on their support of Asian, African and Caribbean fiction, almost unique among Indian publishers.

The author is a writer based in Delhi.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:14:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/this-bird-also-rises/article19690535.ece

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