Book of the month: Eka Kurniawan

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This was a recommendation from friend and fellow writer, Trilby Kent. She mentioned a few weeks ago that she had just discovered Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan and highly recommended his work.

Kent isn’t the only person to have been wowed by Kurniawan. His latest novel to be translated into English, Man Tiger, recently received a glowing review in the UK Guardian, which described it as a Javanese subversion of the crime fiction genre. Furthermore, when I clicked open my e-copy, I was confronted by another endorsement in the form of an effusive introduction by celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, who died earlier this month. Despite describing the English translation of the title as ‘slightly awkward’, he was adamant that Kurniawan was Indonesia’s ‘most original living writer of novels and short stories’.

I turned to page one with a sinking heart. Could any novel really live up to such a fanfare?

I’m pleased to report that Man Tiger does so with ease. Opening with the savage murder of an ageing villager by the young man, Margio, who has been dating his daughter, this novel pours forth a stream of delights. As we follow the unfolding of the narrative, watching Kurniawan peel back layer after layer of grudges, half-remembered incidents and surprising events, we meet many characters so vivid and robust that they seem at times to lean from the pages and hoick us bodily into their concerns. There is the major who is convinced that the piece of ground he has been honoured with in the heroes’ cemetery is simply an invitation to die quickly and the elderly woman who would rather poison herself by eating the soil of her land than allow her avaricious children to get their hands on her wealth.

The references to crime fiction that several English-language reviewers have made are understandable, but potentially a little misleading. While the intricate and deftly tuned plot runs like clockwork throughout, keeping us guessing until the last page – not about who did what (we know that in the first sentence), but about why things happened the way they did – this book is so much more than a mere twist on a familiar genre. It brings in huge amounts of other things: myth, oral storytelling techniques and a brand of the fantastic that many will no doubt describe as ‘magical realism’, but which is quite unlike anything else I have read in that category.

The writing reflects the novel’s hybrid nature, shifting between registers with breathtaking dexterity. Moments of brutal matter-of-factness – gritty as anything you’ll find in the pages of Larsson or Nesbø – give way to bathos, flights of lyricism and a beauty that is almost painful.

Indeed, though there are one or two oddities in the text (some of which may of course reflect the original), translator Labodalih Sembiring deserves praise for his part in this extraordinary book. Gems such as ‘the night tumbled upon them, buoying the stars and hanging up a severed moon’, and ‘he gave up on cutting hair, and instead trimmed away at his own soul, snip by snip’ make the text glitter. This is particularly worth noting when you reflect that, as Anderson explains in his introduction, Kurniawan’s work presents great challenges for translators because it ‘includes contemporary coinages as well as many obscure words, still used in remote villages, but absent in present-day urban-centred dictionaries’.

There’s so much more to say. I wanted to tell you about Kurniawan’s extraordinary eye for detail, which brings the novel’s lush settings close enough to touch. I’d love to have written at length about his uncanny understanding of why we do what we do, and the way he portrays human ugliness, vulnerability and tenderness in all their fullness. I’ve got a whole list here of moments that had me chuckling and insights that made me nod in recognition.

But instead of turning this blog post into a dissertation, let me suggest this: give yourself a treat and buy this book or request it from your library. Then you can discover all this and much more for yourself. I can’t think of a better way to start 2016 than in the company of such thrilling writing. Happy New Year.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Bahasa Indonesia by Labodalih Sembiring (Verso, 2015)

Picture by Yos C. Wiranata on flickr.com

Indonesia: talking about revolution

The further I get into this project to read the world, the more I appreciate the challenge facing translators working with books written in societies very different from my own. Not only must they endeavour to create engaging and faithful reflections of the original texts, but they must often also find a way of explaining objects, customs and even whole belief systems that may have no counterpart in their target audience’s culture without turning the narratives into anthropological essays.

Some, like May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, the translators of Ibrahim Al-Koni’s The Bleeding of the Stone, choose to tackle this with a brief notes section at the back, to which readers can defer for help decoding terms they may not have come across before. In other cases, as with Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, cultural and linguistic differences lead to a substantial reworking of the translated text, with controversial results.

Few books, however, can have required more fancy philological footwork than YB Mangunwijaya’s Durga/Umayi. Not only does this novel satirise most of the major political events in Indonesia from the 1930s to the late 1980s, but it also draws on the region’s shadow-play tradition, weaving a number of Indonesia’s myths into the text. On top of this, as translator Ward Keeler explains in the introduction, Mangunwijaya has helped himself to all the different dialects of Indonesian spoken in the country, creating his own ‘zany style that is without precedent in Indonesian or Javanese literature’. Phew.

The basic premise — thank goodness — is relatively simple. Central character, Iin, a young woman opposed to the ‘cooking-cleaning-cuddling view’ of her sex, finds herself with a front-row seat at most of Indonesia’s key historical events, from before the time of independence from the Dutch, through the Japanese occupation of the 1940s and the horrific communist massacres of the 1960s and beyond.

Mirroring the events shaping her nation, Iin morphs from a young idealist into a hardened globe-trotter, cutting cynical deals that will never benefit the people she used to care for most and changing her dress, manner and even her face and body to fit each new scenario. Like the beautiful goddess Durga of the title — who finds herself transformed into the monstrous Umayi when she refuses to have sex with her husband Lord Guru in public — Iin loses her identity in her effort to assert herself.

As with all great satirists, Mangunwijaya has an eye for the ridiculous and a talent for plunging pride into bathos. So we hear of ‘the Nippon Armed Forces who were undefeated but then were’ and the lament of the peasant farmers: ‘Oh God, when is this freedom era going to end, begging your pardon’. Again, like the best satire, this merciless stripping back of pretension and propaganda proceeds from deep, humane anger at the injustices heaped upon normal people, which bubbles up through the text, aerating and stirring the narrative.

For all its brilliance, however, this novel does come with a health warning. Delightful though Mangunwijaya’s ‘verbal high jinks’ can be, they demand a lot. Sentences spiral off across page after page, leaving the reader trailing behind them, struggling to keep hold of subjects and objects, nevermind the overall sense. At times, searching in vain for a main clause, I found myself wondering if I had any idea what was going on at all, as though the language was forcing me to share the bewilderment of the Indonesians as regime change after regime change sweeps their land.

This is not a book to curl up with. It’s a book to concentrate on and frown at and read bits of several times over. The effort it is worth it though: this is easily one of the most inventive, urgent and passionate texts I’ve read. It’s also a testament to what skilled translators, the neglected heroes of the world literature scene, can achieve. Hats off to you, Ward Keeler.

Durga/Umayi by YB Mangunwijaya (translated from the Indonesian by Ward Keeler). Publisher (this edition): University of Washington Press (2004)