Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash
This is the third novel in translation from Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian wunderkind whose Beauty Is a Wound was an unlikely smash in 2015 and was followed the same year by Man Tiger, which made the Man Booker International Prize longlist in 2016. Both books were noteworthy for their quality, but also their sheer unlikeliness: it is rare for a book in translation to be such a hit. Moreover, Beauty Is a Wound speaks from a distinct sensibility. A thickly braided novel of ambitious extent, it links the fates of one family of surreal, tough-minded women to Indonesia’s dreadful progress through the 20th century. It sets the reader sailing on bubbles of dreamy fantasy and in the next paragraph drags them through the scatological soup. It is problematic, it is valorous and gritty, it is thrilling.
It is wrong to fault this new book for not being like the others, but without the complexity of Kurniawan’s breakout work – a signal of intent – it can be hard to know just what is meant by Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. It presents the same sensibility but less of it, and perhaps less is not more. A lizard craps on a prison guard and you think, of course it did. What once seemed sly and impish now seems artistically thin, as when a hero demonstrates his steadfastness through a long torture sequence: a teenager’s conception of steely masculinity, something that needs to be visibly tested, in a prison scene, no less.
This complaint is a compliment. Kurniawan is so good at evoking genre conventions that you wish he would do more with them, especially when you’ve read him doing it before. He sometimes does it here.
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash can be a charming novel, even big-hearted, despite some very dark events. The source of its charm is Ajo Kawir, the protagonist who, along with his best friend, Gecko, grows up in Bojong Soang, a village in West Java, a place where everybody knows your name. After witnessing the truly revolting rape of a local woman by two police officers, who catch Ajo Kawir spying and demand that he join in, he finds himself impotent for (almost) the rest of his days.
This horrific situation – which incites and guides the plot – is sometimes mined for dark humour, but more often for its pathos. Sometimes there are colourful comparisons of penises to pets and food, but Ajo Kawir’s deep and changeable relationship to his “Bird”, or “ginger root”, probably makes him unique in literary fiction.
At 19, he’s tortured and moony in ways that are less endearing – when he finds work as a long-haul driver, it’s not very surprising that he “thinks of the road as his home” – but through it all, he speaks passionately and philosophically about erectile dysfunction to friends, the dads of friends, violent enemies and possible sex partners. There is also a frankly moving scene built on his learning other skills, which ends with the line, “And so their wedding night was filled with beautiful and pleasurable finger play.”
Meanwhile, he’s surrounded by an amiable cast of companions. They meander through plot points that sometimes take a long time to eventuate and sometimes come to an abrupt stop, which keeps you on your toes and also gives the book the sense of a wandering and sometimes hallucinatory soap opera. Towards the end, our hero’s view of his erectile dysfunction becomes strangely serene. “Sometimes he’d smile and say, Hey, how are you today, Bird? If you want to keep sleeping, sleep as soundly as you want. I won’t bother you.” That his penis “lives in peace” makes him extremely likeable.
These elements should combine into something rare and weird, a book that says something vital about gender, genre and sex. But much of it is poorly written, and while some of this could conceivably be the fault of translation, it compares unfavourably with Beauty Is a Wound, which was also translated by Annie Tucker.
“If the girl’s breasts were like a pair of small mountains,” the hero thinks, “his fingers were like five hikers in no hurry to reach the summit. They took the scenic route, going up and down and around and around, as if they wanted to explore every section of the hill from every angle, without missing a thing.” Writing good sex is difficult – and pointing out bad sex-writing is easy – but I wondered if this spoke to a wider set of issues, as if sophistication in content and expression were linked.
The violence also lacks sophistication. In Beauty Is a Wound, there is a lot of rape that is presented with confronting purpose; its sheer relentlessness has something to say about tragedy and time, and the disproportionate effect of political upheaval on women, which is explored as well as in any contemporary war novel. I had trouble locating the same depth in this story.
And while here, as in Kurniawan’s previous work, most of the villains feel like people – and this is important, perhaps especially when dealing with truly hideous ones – I wasn’t so sure about the comic, scary character who is always threatening young delivery drivers with rape. He seemed more a crude character from a less enlightened story than part of the grotesque, inventive carnival this novel is much of the time. You can write a character like this, but you should do more with it.
Put differently, this book wants to be provocative, and often it is. Part of the multi-book argument is that beauty and pain are linked – sometimes they seesaw, sometimes they blend – and I was left with a sense split between interest and squeamishness. I may feel differently from the author about where the interest is.
But if you’d like to read something highly unusual from start to finish, you could do much worse than choosing one of Kurniawan’s novels. This latest is more interesting than most that don’t try to push your buttons, and smarter than most that try to do exactly that. Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is very good despite its problems. CR
Text, 216pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Eka Kurniawan, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash". Subscribe here.