‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’ by Eka Kurniawan (Review)

Despite the efforts of organisations like the The Lontar Foundation, and the position of guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years back, Indonesian literature as a whole hasn’t really made much of a splash in translation.  However, one writer who has had some success is Eka Kurniawan, probably the best-known contemporary Indonesian writer in the Anglosphere.  His epic magical-realism novel Beauty is a Wound made the longlist of the Best Translated Book Award in 2016, while Man Tiger was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in the same year.  Now he’s back in English with a third novel, and this one’s certainly taking no prisoners.  There’s a touch of the usual magic, and a fair amount of sex, but the overwhelming feeling is one of violence…

*****
Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (translated by Annie Tucker, review copy courtesy of Pushkin Press) is a novel revolving around Ajo Kawir, an aggressive young man with an unusual problem.  After being forced to witness a disturbing scene in his formative years, he becomes impotent, his ‘bird’ unwilling to ever rouse itself, no matter what the stimulus:

Ajo Kawir sat on the edge of his bed, naked.  He was looking down at his crotch, gazing at his pecker which seemed to be resting in an eternal slumber, so lazy.  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.
p.3 (Pushkin Press,2017)

With no means of releasing his pent-up energy other than violence, he roams the streets with his best friend, Gecko, in search of people to pummel, until one day he is asked to do it for money.

However, this life of violence and frustration changes when he comes up against Iteung, a beautiful woman who happens to be guarding his latest target.  After a bruising encounter, the two fall for each other, with Iteung happy to commit herself to Ajo Kawir, despite his sexual issues.  Yet his idle manhood isn’t something that can be set aside so easily, and it isn’t just his lazy bird that is standing in the way of the young man’s happiness.  Vengeance can be a tempting path to take, but as all of those involved will find out, there’s always a price to pay.

I have to admit that when I first saw the blurb for this book, I had more than a few misgivings.  It came across as a cheap pulp thriller, martial arts and seductive women in an exotic locale, but while there are elements of that in Vengeance is Mine… (be warned: there’s a fair amount of sexual activity and a *lot* of violence), Kurniawan’s latest story is far more subtle than that.  It’s an entertaining, page-turning novel that explores the nature of relationships while also examining how violence begets violence, with vengeance quickly spiralling out of control and destroying lives.

At the core of the novel lies the relationship between the two fighters.  The story alternates between Ajo Kawir’s mission to kill the Tiger, a famous gangster, and Iteung’s desperate pursuit of the man she loves, one that frequently ends in stubborn rejection:

“Be my lover.  I miss you so much.  It’s been torture waiting to hear from you.  I want to kiss you, I want you to hold me, I want to make love to you.  Be my lover.”  She was practically begging.  She looked nothing like the girl who had fought against Ajo Kawir, the girl who couldn’t be defeated. (p.52)

While he finally relents after being worn down by her pleas, there are secrets in Iteung’s past that threaten to drive them apart, quite apart from the impending showdown with the Tiger.

The second part of the novel finds an older, more philosophical Ajo Kawir on the road in his new life as a trucker, having decided to move on from his youthful anger.  However, violence is always around the corner, and this time it’s his young sidekick Gaptooth Mono who’s about to discover the price of vengeance.  Another trucker has caught wind of who is driving the truck and wants to provoke him into fighting by picking a scrap with Mono.  However, Ajo Kawir is unphased by the situation; having given up on his frustrations long ago, he has no desire to start fighting again.  In fact, with his anger long forgotten, it might just be time to find Iteung again…

At times, the events of Vengeance is Mine… can seem a little over-the-top, but all of this is possible because of the nature of the society the protagonists live in.  This is a place of random violence and sexual abuse, where women (apart from Iteung…) are sex objects, and both the police and the army are corrupt.  The main characters learn early on in life that the only way to get justice (or vengeance) is to take it yourself.  Cleverly, though, Kurniawan shows the inevitability of fate pursuing you, even if it takes a number of years for it to catch up with the guilty party.  Each time ‘justice’ is served, the next beating, rape or murder is already being lined up.

Vengeance is Mine… is an appealing mix of crudeness and tenderness and a novel that isn’t afraid to appear romantic, soppy even, as Iteung desperately appeals to the passion she knows Ajo Kawir has for her.  It’s also very funny in its own slapstick way, especially with Ajo Kawir’s misguided attempts to wake his sleeping manhood, involving women, bee stings and chili peppers (*please* don’t try this at home…).  Once he realises that his penis has decided to lie down on the job, he stoically accepts the decision, and his bird takes on a different role, as an advisor of sorts:

“Why do you always ask your pecker about everything?” Gaptooth Mono asked once, curious.
“All of human existence is nothing but a dream our genitals are dreaming.  We’re just here to act it out.”
Gecko would have said that was philosophy. (p.162)

That’s a rather different interpretation of following your instincts…

As is the case with his previous novels in English, Vengeance is Mine… keeps the reader’s attention with the use of short sections and clever shifts of focus, often playing with several timelines at once.  The story moves along swiftly enough, but rarely just in one direction, with secrets hinted at before being uncovered at the right time.  Man Tiger worked in a very similar way, but unlike that novel, Vengeance is Mine… keeps the tension going until the very end, urging the reader on (I finished this in a couple of sittings on the same day).  There’s a cinematic feel to the whole affair, and it would probably make a great (pulp?) movie 😉

Overall, it’s an excellent read, both entertaining and intriguing, with far more to the story than first appears.  Readers of Kurniawan’s other books might be expecting a little of the magic (or magical realism) they’re used to, and rest assured that while the novel can be brutal in its approach to reality at times, there’s a little sprinkle of fairy dust towards the end that rounds the story off nicely. You see, vengeance is certainly one path to pursue when you’re unhappy; however, there are other ways to right the wrongs of the past, and they can be far more enjoyable than random violence…

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10 thoughts on “‘Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash’ by Eka Kurniawan (Review)

  1. I haven’t read anything by Kurniawan yet but Beauty is on my shelf beckoning to me.

    I am glad to hear you enjoyed ‘Vengeance’ and/but I thought I might point you towards a review of it on BookTube that was decidedly less enthusiastic, highly entertaining, and masterfully done. If you’re not interested in watching it, no worries of course.

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  2. I loved this book! I was laughing out loud mostly through the entire book. I think it’s about how to deal with violence, sexual violence especially. But that’s only my take on it. Reading the translation you quoted above, I’m glad that it could really transfer the atmosphere in the original text.

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  3. As I’ve liked his previous two novels I’ll certainly read this – even more intrigued after reading your review. I’ve nothing against writers utilising elements of pulp / genre fiction.

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