Note: Spoiler’s ahead
Like a Quentin Tarantino film, Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan’s Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is textured with violence – almost celebrating it – and punctuated with dabs of dark humour, sex and street philosophy that make for entertaining and engaging reading. Indeed, the slim 209-page novel is so frenetic with frequent twists and turns that it qualifies for the cliché of being “unputdownable”.
But Kurniawan’s work is much more than just a page turner. Like his earlier novel Man Tiger, long listed for the Man Booker in 2016 and hailed by critics for the affinity his writing shows towards Gabriel García Marquez and Fyodor Dostoevsky, his latest offering also rises above the run-of-the-mill thriller to be read and forgotten.
This is because at its core, the novel examines the complex human predicament when confronted with a crisis so intensely personal that it cannot be revealed to the world for fear that it might evoke derision rather than sympathy. Kurniawan’s protagonist, Ajo Kawir, is your typical Javanese teenager brimming with sexual fantasies, who watched porn films with his friend Gecko, catcalled girls whenever they loitered around town and devoured martial arts comics. The friends also picked fights and indulged in acts of voyeurism, peeping through bedroom windows and spying on couples having sex.
But Ajo’s nondescript existence is interrupted and cruelly transformed when he is taken by his friend to spy on Scarlet Blush, a widow who lost her husband to gang violence. But what they witness is not her stripping off her clothes; it is a rape at gunpoint by two police officers who exploit the fact that the widow lives all by herself. To make matters worse, the boys are caught snooping. While Gecko escapes, Ajo is caught and forced to have sex with the woman’s brutalised body.
That is when his mind and body freeze, his penis goes limp and the policemen who had asked him to perform for their amusement find the boy cannot cooperate. They dismiss him with disdain: “You useless kid! Even a dog would get horny seeing a woman like this.”
It is a life-changing experience for Ajo. Much like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a giant insect, Ajo discovers to his horror that in that one mind-chilling evening, he has lost use of his sexual organ and male identity. But unlike Kafka’s protagonist, who succumbs to his fate and is at the end swept away by a domestic worker, Ajo is a survivor who not only accepts his fate but years later sees his genital as a “sleeping bird” – a guru who helps him maintain his calm and to whom he can turn for spiritual advice and guidance.
Several years later, when Gecko enquires of his friend as to what “the bird” has to say, a conversation follows which reveals Ajo’s state of mind and acceptance of his fate:
“He is choosing the way of tranquility. Like a Sufi. Like a Grandmaster. This bird is taking the path of silence and solitude. He sleeps soundly and peacefully, and I have learned from him.”
“And what exactly have you learned from this bird?”
“To live in silence and solitude—without violence, without hate. I’ve really taken its message to heart.”
Gecko was determined not to laugh. When they parted, Gecko thought, if the Bird was following a path of silence and solitude, the path of a Grandmaster, maybe it wouldn’t be long before the Bird would learn to read the holy book and start giving sermons. Imagining that, he laughed silently to himself.
But before he embraces the path of peace, Kurniawan makes his desperate protagonist try every known and unknown remedy to wake up his sleeping bird. This includes rubbing red pepper on his genitals, getting bees to sting the bird, visiting a prostitute and consulting witch doctors.
When everything fails, a frustrated Ajo indulges in bouts of violence which seem to serve as a substitute for sex. Not just that. Almost as if to wreak vengeance for what caused his bird to sleep like a “polar bear hibernating through a long frigid winter”, the teenager targets men who wield influence and power and exploit women. He even tries in vain to locate the two policemen who raped Blush. There is a morality thread in some of the acts of retribution, veritably justifying the crimes.
Violence even serves as a forerunner to his falling in love with Iteung, a young woman trained in martial arts who served as a bodyguard to a wealthy landlord who sexually exploits a woman tenant. When Ajo goes to teach the evil man a lesson, he ends up fighting Iteung. She wins, but he does not feel any shame at being defeated.
Instead, he relives the bittersweet moments when she rained punches on him and they fought like wild cats:
His legs still felt unsteady, but the girl gave him another push and once again he was sent reeling backward into the grass—grass which had dirt underneath it. He felt like he could no longer move at all. He was finished. He didn’t regret it. He was happy. He was happy to feel the girl’s punches all over his body. He was happy to feel her so close to him.
Though Ajo likes the girl, he feels shy of marrying her. But Iteung is persistent, despite knowing that their wedding would never be consummated. However, after a blissful start, the love story takes a dramatic turn when Iteung declares that she is pregnant. Ajo knows that he is not the father and in a fit of rage leaves his home and wife, seeking solace in executing a contract killing which eventually lands him in prison.
The second half of the book is a trucker’s tale. After serving his sentence, Ajo is a free man. He forgets his past, invests in a truck and hopes to find “serenity on the road”. A “peace that would come from the wheels turning, the landscape running by on his left and right, the song of the wind. A peace rising from the whirr of the engine and the tires rolling across the asphalt.” But that peace is shattered when a woman, Jelita, comes onto the scene.
Ajo and his sidekick, Gaptooth Mono, discover her in the trailer of their truck. Jelita is a lost soul who, unknown to them, had hitched a ride. She had run away from her home and her husband, and is headed nowhere. Ajo takes pity on her and agrees to give her a free ride on his vehicle.
He finds Jelita “hideous”, though she slowly begins to stir passions in him. He even has disturbing wet dreams, which finally stir Ajo’s bird from its long slumber. He is not certain how her presence cures him, although in retrospect he wonders whether she resembled Blush in a strange way.
Cured, Aju is a happy man. He can’t wait to go back home to his wife and her daughter, now 11 years old. However, Ajo’s homecoming ends in an anti-climax. Iteung is arrested for the murder of the two policemen who raped the widow Blush. She believed that bringing them to justice would awaken her husband’s sleeping bird.
That final twist serves as a finale to a plot that shifts gears without warning, where dream sequences seem real and events are explained much after they occur. But beyond all that, Vengeance is a poignant tale of human lives disrupted by circumstances and the pain of growing up in a society in which mindless violence exists. It is ironic that it may sometimes seem to serve a higher moral purpose.
Kurniawan writes with an urgency and flair that holds the reader in a vice-like grip. The translation by Annie Tucker has been widely recognised for retaining the Indonesian flavour, although some purists point out that the title ought to have been Like Revenge, Longing Must be Paid in Full – to match the original text.
Ajith Pillai is a senior journalist, and author of Off the Record: Untold Stories from a Reporter’s Diary and Junkland Journeys.