UPDATE (10 August 2018): For a very different take on this novel from the one I offer below, I recommend checking out Annie Tucker’s short essay on Popula. It doesn’t entirely change my views, but it provides some interesting historical and cultural context, and suggests that the protagonist’s impotence could be seen as an attempt at constructing an alternative model of masculinity. Also, Tucker is the novel’s translator, and though maybe that makes her at least a little biased, it’s also true that a novel’s translator is usually its closest and most perceptive reader, so her perspective definitely deserves to be taken seriously.
Who can resist a title like Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash? What lover of silly B-movies, strange literature, and comics could pass what the book’s own jacket cover describes as a “gloriously pulpy tale of bloody fists, broken hearts and duelling Javanese truckers”? How can a 200-page novel about “one of the toughest fighters in the Javanese underworld” who is driven by the “painful secret” that he is impotent be anything but delightful?
Vengeance Is Mine, the latest from Eka Kurniawan, does have a lot going for it. The chapters are all told in short film-like bursts. Kurniawan’s characters live in a brash, colourful world, where graphic but ultimately cartoonish brawling is just a part of everyday life cartoonish (think Popeye, think Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer, think Batman’s “biff!”, “bam!” and “pow!”). And the constant dick jokes, though juvenile, are also, for the most part, pretty funny, and oftememorably surreal–like comparing our hero’s somnolent penis to a hibernating polar bear, or a sage mystic who preaches by example the value of passivity.
However, this book does have one huge problem, which makes it impossible to recommend: it features a lot of rape. Of course, there are ways to handle rape intelligently and sensitively, in any form of art. Unfortunately, Kurniawan’s handling of rape is neither intelligent nor sensitive. In the very first chapter, the reader discovers that the protagonist, Ajo Kawir, is impotent because, as a teenager, he was forced at gunpoint to witness the rape of a mentally ill woman by two men. It’s a long, graphic scene, with a very long build-up. But perhaps the worst thing about it is that the scene’s sole purpose is to give Ajo Kawir his single most defining characteristic, his impotence, which in turn motivates every single thing he does in the rest of the book. The woman who is raped–whose name is Scarlet Blush–conveniently dies shortly afterwards, under mysterious circumstances. In other words: the rape is told from the point of view of the male protagonist rather than the female victim, and its sole purpose is to give the male protagonist motivation, with not even a token nod to how it affected Scarlet Blush’s life.
At the end of the first chapter, then, I considered quitting, but decided to keep going, because, with most works of fiction, I believe you can never really fully know what the creators are trying to say about any given subject until you’ve experienced that work from beginning to end. Who knows, I thought, maybe Kurniawan is trying to trick me into thinking the worst of this novel, but will manage to redeem it somehow. Again, unfortunately, this was not the case. Whenever Scarlet Blush’s rape is brought up again and again by the characters, it’s always discussed as the event that caused Ajo Kawir’s impotence, not as a horrible thing that happened to a vulnerable individual. When characters try to persuade Ajo Kawir (and, later, his wife Iteung) to find the rapists and murder them, it’s purely and explicitly in the hope that it will cure Ajo Kawir’s impotence. And also–there are two more problematic rape scenes! In one, a woman known solely as the Young Widow is assaulted by a man who owns a fish pond. We never hear about this woman again, but, again, her rape is used to motivate the protagonist and move along the plot, as Ajo Kawir decides to beat up the rapist, which results both in him meeting the love of his life, Iteung (who is the rapist’s reluctant bodyguard), and in starting his reputation as a fighter, which leads to his involvement in the world of crime. The other rape scene is part of Iteung’s backstory: turns out she’s a skilled fighter because she was assaulted by her teacher when she was at school. Compared to the other two instances of sexual assault in this book, this is almost progressive: finally, we get the woman’s point of view, and the woman in question takes control of her life and her body. Except! Except it’s revealed that Iteung becomes aroused whenever she thinks of the time her teacher assaulted her, and this ends up ruining her marriage to Ajo Kawir because she needs to be with a man she can have penetrative sex with in order to satisfy the cravings that her disturbed fantasies arouse in her. Again, another damaging trope–the woman who can never escape her traumatic past, no matter how strong and tough she may be.
Oh, and did I mention that there’s also a problematic predatory gay villain?
Readers, don’t read this book. All its better elements are tainted by its skeevy gender politics. If you want good, pulpy fun, read Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane (about dapper gangsters in post-apocalyptic Ireland), or Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (a silly, implausible spy caper featuring Nazi cake and amnesia), or, actually, if you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments!