On Eka Kurniawan

Man Tiger: A Novel BY Eka Kurniawan. edited by Labodalih Sembiring, Benedict Anderson. Verso. Paperback, 192 pages. $18.
Beauty Is a Wound BY Eka Kurniawan. New Directions. Paperback, 384 pages. $19.
The cover of Man Tiger: A Novel The cover of Beauty Is a Wound

This autumn has brought two novels by Eka Kurniawan—a young Indonesian writer, born in 1975—to English-speaking readers. It’s a lucky and too-rare debut for an international writer: having two books appear from different translators and publishers lends an instant diversity to our initial encounter with his work. For many US readers, Kurniawan’s novels may provide their first experience of Indonesian literature. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is perhaps the best-known Indonesian writer here; in an introduction to Man Tiger, Benedict Anderson discusses Kurniawan’s own book on Pramoedya and his complicated relationship to the elder author’s socialist realism. When so little of a country’s literature has made its way to us in translation, it’s tempting to read what does appear as “news from elsewhere,” source material to help us understand Indonesia’s history and politics. Yet that would be an injustice to the ambition and seduction of Kurniawan’s novels, the reckoning they enact both with his country’s violent twentieth century and with the form of the contemporary novel. American literature has been missing Kurniawan, without even being aware, until now, of our loss—a situation that Annie Tucker’s dauntless translation, in particular, has helped to remedy.

Early on in Kurniawan’s first novel, Beauty Is a Wound, someone asks Dewi Ayu—the most esteemed prostitute in the city of Halimunda—why she lives alone, when she has three daughters. “They left,” she replies, “as soon as they learned how to unbutton a man’s fly.” You could say that the whole of Kurniawan’s intricate, frenetic epic unfolds from the deadpan sizzle of this line. Throughout the novel, we cling to Dewi Ayu’s dark humor as the tragedies of sixty years of Indonesian history devastatingly play out: Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, guerrilla warfare, dictatorship, and anti-communist violence. In these pages, history is even more inconceivable—and further beyond our control—than we have suspected.

Death is everywhere, but is estranged from itself: I should mention that Dewi Ayu has already, on the book’s first page, risen from the grave. Beauty Is a Wound offers the hyperbole and symbolic force of folktale: the plot is driven by the vengeful actions of a ghost, and the novel’s world is peopled by men who can’t be killed, princesses who marry dogs, a child named Beauty who is unspeakably ugly; there are incestuous acts, violent family feuds, and swift but striking details, such as pigs who turn into people on being slaughtered. From this fantastical tangle emerges a vivid, wrenching sense of history as lived by everyday people, the diverse inhabitants of the (fictional) city of Halimunda.

As anti-communist violence sweeps through Halimunda and wider Indonesia—the novel’s version of the massacres of 1965–1966, in which more than five hundred thousand were killed—the perspective shifts from that of the communist leader Comrade Kliwon, with whom we’ve spent many pages (he refuses to flee from the army until his morning paper has arrived), to a new tale, of the gravedigger Kamino, who has fallen in love with a young woman keeping vigil by her father’s grave. And so the gruesome violence of the purge is a backdrop to this sudden, sweet love story, narrated from the perspective of the man who now has more work than he can manage—to bury all those bodies, his friends, neighbors, and fellow townspeople. Throughout the novel, this ceaseless multiplicity of perspectives offers a moving portrayal of community, and the different forms of violence that plague it: the ravages of colonialism and occupation; daily petty oppression under thugs and military leaders; the exploitation of women; the persecution of outsiders. Kurniawan’s nimble style, his improvisatory glee, allows him this scope: the satirical tumbling into the absurd, suddenly yielding to sentiment, to sly commentary, to pathos, to magic, to brief lush imagery, and ever onward. The prose is fast, bold, and vivid:“Communist ghosts were out to get him all the time,” we’re told of the man who had led the massacres. He would “think that he was making love to his wife but it turned out that he was fucking the toilet hole. The water in his bathtub would turn into a sticky pool of blood, and upon investigation he’d discover that all of the water in the house, even the water in the teapot and the thermos, had also suddenly thickened into dark red blood.”

Thanks to Tucker, this breadth is reflected at the sentence level as well. At one point, a man whose beloved has been enlisted as a concubine for a prominent Dutch colonist becomes “a strange person, if not even an enemy of the people, because time after time there would be a ruckus in a neighbor’s stable and he would be caught raping a cow, or even a chicken, until its intestines came spilling out.” The description is horrific but not unfunny, especially when we’re told that sometimes he would “catch a sheep and work it in the middle of a field”—Tucker’s work it dares us to laugh, despite our discomfort and the incident’s escalating consequences.

Kurniawan’s second novel, Man Tiger, is also complex in structure—its chapters both involuting and expanding, and rigged with trap doors you keep falling through into some unexpected plane. Shorter and more streamlined than Beauty Is a Wound, the book moves backward in time from its compelling first pages (a choice that perhaps allows it less suspense and requires more exposition). The novel opens with a violent attack: for seemingly no reason, Margio, a young man in this unnamed village, has killed his neighbor Anwar Sadat, ripping his throat open with his teeth. Margio, we learn, has a tiger dwelling inside him, a female tiger “white as a swan, vicious as an ajak” (ajak is a type of wild dog) whom he inherited from his grandfather. The novel tells the story of his family: his cruel father, his mother’s suffering, and, within Margio, the mounting fury of the tiger. Man Tiger is less ambitious and more contained than Kurniawan’s gloriously unruly debut (and the translation, by Labodalih Sembiring, seems flatter and more halting than Tucker’s).

There is something deeply affecting about Kurniawan’s portrayal of the women in his novels, whom he lets us see at first through others’ oft-dismissive eyes—the prostitute; the timid, abused wife and mother—but who then assume their place at the story’s center, commanding the fullest empathy. In translation, Kurniawan’s mode of politically incisive fabulism may place him in the company of such writers as George Saunders and Kate Bernheimer—the latter, especially, shares his focus on the violence of women’s lives, as refracted through the lens of fairytale.

Like other great fabulists, Kurniawan has ducked the conventions of E. M. Forster’s classic distinction between “round” and “flat” characters, avoiding the focus on individual psychology that has dominated the tradition of the novel in English. With his keen sense of voice and perspective, combined with a freedom from realism and bold use of exaggeration, he is able to portray collective as well as individual experience, to make both at once the subject of his fiction. In interviews, Kurniawan has discussed how the form and tone of Beauty Is a Wound was influenced by the all-night shadow-puppet performances known as wayang. To read it is to be reminded that while the novel may be a solitary form—born of one experience of solitude, and offering another—the folktale is always communal. The audience gathers round, and the story must bind them there together, tell them who they are to one another. What good fortune that English-speaking readers may now find ourselves enchanted, confronted, and perhaps transformed by Kurniawan’s work.

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (FC2, 2013); her book-length essay Watchfires is forthcoming in 2016. She coedits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press and is a book-review editor with the Kenyon Review.