Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2017

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker

The publisher’s blurb for this novel goes like this:

Told in short, cinematic bursts, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is gloriously pulpy. Ajo Kawir, a lower-class Javanese teenage boy excited about sex, likes to spy on fellow villagers in flagrante, but one night he ends up witnessing the savage rape of a beautiful crazy woman. Deeply traumatised, he becomes impotent, turns to fighting as a way to vent his frustrations.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash shows Eka Kurniawan in a gritty, comic, pungent mode that fans of Quentin Tarantino will appreciate. But even with its liberal peppering of fights, high-speed car chases, and ladies heaving with desire, the novel continues to explore Kurniawan’s familiar themes of female agency in a violent and corrupt male world.

Clearly, I was out of my comfort zone.  I had to Google Quentin Tarantino because the only thing I knew about him was that he made the sort of films that don’t interest me.  And for those of my readers who are equally disinterested in Hollywood film, this is what I found:

Quentin Jerome Tarantino (b.1963) is an American film director, writer, and actor. His films are characterized by nonlinear storylines, satirical subject matter, an aestheticization of violence, extended scenes of dialogue, ensemble casts consisting of established and lesser-known performers, references to popular culture, soundtracks primarily containing songs and score pieces from the 1960s to the 1980s, and features of neo-noir film. He is widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. (Wikipedia, viewed 12/10/17, lightly edited to get rid of links).

I looked up neo-noir too, and found that it involves the blurring of the lines between good and bad and right and wrong, and a motif of revenge, paranoia, and alienation, among other borrowed ‘sensibilities‘.

Uh huh…

But contrary to expectations, I enjoyed Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash.  While it’s not in the same league as Beauty is a Wound which was nominated for the Man Booker International (see my review) it turned out to be good entertainment and thought-provoking as well.   It’s disconcerting at first to be confronted by such a politically-incorrect view of masculinity: its male characters are preoccupied with sex; they talk about women in a foul way; they value women solely by their appearance; and they see violence as the way to solve problems because you prove that you are a man by fighting.

However, Kurniawan inverts these tropes in unexpected ways.  His central character Ajo Kawir is an ironic twist on masculinity because he’s made impotent by watching male violence against a woman.  And while as an adolescent he tries some grimly humorous ways to restore things to their proper working order, by adulthood he is resigned to his situation and not troubled by it, referring to it as a sleeping bird.  His best friend, whose equipment does work, chooses not to use it out of loyalty to his friend.  For these two, being a man does not mean ‘getting it up’ or treating women with contempt as the other men do.

But these unexpected versions of masculinity – exemplifying sensitivity, empathy, acceptance and loyalty – are not weak.  Ajo Kawir is a feared fighter with a reputation for dealing with thugs, but often chooses not to fight and is respected for it.  His girlfriend Iteung is not a stereotype of femininity either: she takes herself off to martial arts classes and becomes a tough fighter who can not only defend herself but also wreak vengeance for the way she’s been treated.

The narrative romps along, yes, in cinematic bursts, reaching its climax in a dramatic truck chase that was only too realistic.  On my first trip to Indonesia in the early 1990s, we went by taxi to see Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple in central Java.  En route, on a two-lane ‘highway’ with no speed limit, we encountered three trucks facing us, side-by-side.  Only one of them was on the opposite side of the road, the other two were on our side, and we missed them by inches.  I don’t doubt that this sort of thing still happens in the more remote parts of the country…

The abuse of power and the violence on the roads and in the villages is, Kurniawan seems to be saying, deeply embedded in a society that was militarised for so long.  Soldiers who now have nothing to do provide the financial backing for illegal gambling on fights – and they do what they have to do to hush things up when a fight gets out of hand and someone is badly hurt.  And when the justice system fails, characters take matters into their own hands, or rather, pay someone else to deal with it.  Kurniawan also shows us that their view of what justice means can be just as warped as their solutions are.  There is a shocking scene where a businessman wants to hire a thug to dispose of a troublesome woman who is campaigning for better wages – he is so casual about this, it’s horrific.  Yet surprisingly, there is redemption of a sort, for a corrupt businessman.  It’s a not a pessimistic novel.

The unusual title comes from an Indonesian art form: the painting of trucks.  (See some here).

The kid liked looking at the pictures painted on the trucks and the words that went with them – most were a little bawdy and made him smile, and some had religious messages, but out of all the ones he’d seen, he liked the picture and the writing on the truck he was driving best of all.

[…]

Ajo Kawir said he’d brought the truck to an art student in Yogyakarta – they’d been introduced by his friend Gecko, who loved to draw and paint.  And the picture, so different from the ones on all the other trucks, was of a bird, sleeping so soundly it looked almost dead.  But what the kid liked best was the motto above the sleeping bird: ‘Vengeance is Mine: All Others Pay Cash.’

Annie Tucker’s translation of  Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas suggests a transactional view of relationships – that they’re either about vengeance or money.  But the words can also be translated as: Like revenge, yearning must be expiated in full, and what’s more, dendam (revenge) can also allude to passionate love.  So there are all kinds of double meanings in this title, and they’re not all about thuggery.

Author: Eka Kurniawan
Title: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas)
Translated by Annie Tucker
Publisher: Text Publishing 2017, first published in 2014 by Gramedia Pustaka Utama
ISBN: 9781925498226
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash


Responses

  1. I liked the sounds of this one, but eventually decided to pass. BTW I”m hit and miss with QT

    • I thought of you when I was writing this, because you are my go-to expert on noir!

      • Thanks. I tend to veer away from books about teenage boys and sex and while this sounds well done, I’m not sure I’d care for it.

  2. I enjoyed this, probably the second out of the three I’ve read (‘Man Tiger’ wasn’t as successful). If you look at the comments on my review, though, there’s a link to a video review where the reviewer loathes it for its treatment of women. I can’t say I agree with everything he says (and I did like the book), but a couple of his points did make me reflect.

    • Well, in the book’s early pages I loathed its treatment of nearly everything, and then (as I say above) I figured he was inverting all that to make a point (and not just about how popular culture treats women). Readers who don’t ‘get’ that are entitled to dislike it, but reviewers ought to have some understanding of the material they are dealing with. (That is why I made the effort to find out about Tarantino, to understand what Kurniawan was doing).
      PS I watched a millisecond of the review and made an instant judgement that it was going to be opinionated inanity. That made me check the length of it – it was going to take over 9 minutes of my life to confirm whether my instinctive judgement was right or wrong. OTOH I could read your review in under a minute.
      This is why I can’t stand video and podcast reviews; they are time-consuming, and they can’t be scanned to see if they are worth the investment of time.

      • I agree with your opinions on vlogs – not for me ;)

        Most of it was bile spouting, but one interesting point he made was that when women were being violated, their names were used, but when they were enjoying sex, they were more agentless, as if the writer was denying their identity and right to enjoy their bodies. It’s not something I would have picked up on, but it was an interesting take on that aspect of the book.

        • Is he right about that? Iteung isn’t without agency and neither is Jelita. And Nina seems determined to use her body any way she sees fit. All three of them defy convention.

          • I think he means that the text suppresses the women’s names when they’re having consensual sex and uses them when they’re being assaulted, a subtle, unconscious use (or non-) of language. I haven’t checked the text carefully, so I can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of his claim…

            • *chuckle* I think we may agree that it’s not really worth our time…

              • Definitely ;)

  3. I saw this in a bookshop and jumped on it because I enjoyed Beauty is a Wound So Much, but then I read the blurb and the first page and put it back on the shelf again. It sounds as if it may have more redeeming features than I thought.

    • *chuckle* I think you can tell that I didn’t find it the most enticing blurb:)
      But hey, I like it when I find a book that confounds my expectations, and I did enjoy being pushed out of my comfort zone sometimes.
      (Mind you, I won’t be rushing out to watch Pulp Fiction any time soon…)

  4. Not for me, not a fan of action novels, but I enjoyed the truck photos. That said, I should expand my reading horizon beyond the Anglosphere.

    • Go on, be brave! You’d love the truck chase:)

  5. […] read, and I think it’s because of the way Labanyi has organised it around themes.  Next up, (because of my adventures with Tarantino) I’m going to read Film: A Very Short Introduction by Michael […]

  6. I was amused that you had to look up Tarantino on Wikipedia ☺ It sounds like an interesting book; I used to make a point of reading books with horrible or just unlikeable characters.

    • I’m hopeless with film directors. I can barely remember the names of the actors in films, much less who directed them.
      But I am going to redress that by reading my next VSI, about Film!

      • My interest in films waxes and wanes but overall it’s diminishing as I get older. I guess I’m just getting a bit more selective. I hope you enjoy the VSI.

        • I tend to like European film, though I’ve seen some good ones from the Middle East too. I subscribe to a monthly film service, but I often leave the film unwatched for ages before I get round to watching it.

  7. Really going to have to take your word on this because the blurb and ‘humorous ‘ don’t seem to go together. I trust it wasn’t gratuitous?

    • Well, hard to say without really knowing what counts for gratuitous in a Quentin Tarantino film!


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