AUGUST 16, 2017
AJO KAWIR CANNOT get an erection. He tries everything he can think of to fix the problem, including rubbing chopped up chili pepper on his genitals. Like the rest of his attempted treatments, it does nothing but cause him pain and humiliation. His “bird” — what the protagonist of Eka Kurniawan’s new novel, Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, calls his penis — does not want to wake up.
This dysfunction isn’t due to old age or a health problem. As young boys in Indonesia, Ajo Kawir and his friend Gecko often spied on people in the town through windows or peepholes while they were having sex. One night, Ajo Kawir recounts, Gecko brought him to spy on a widow named Scarlet Blush, but what they witnessed was not the consensual sex they were used to voyeuristically observing, but a rape committed by two police officers holding Blush at gunpoint. The boys, startled and disturbed by this development, blew their cover. Though Gecko escaped, Ajo Kawir was caught watching. The officers attempt to force Ajo Kawir to rape Blush too, but it didn’t go as they hoped:
Ajo Kawir didn’t move. The two policemen were annoyed and almost took his pecker in their own hands to force it into the woman, but then, looking down at Ajo Kawir’s crotch, they fell silent. They never would have predicted it, but the boy’s penis was curled up as small as it could get, shriveled and practically collapsed in on itself. After staring for a moment, the two policemen burst out laughing, slapping the table.
“You useless kid! Even a dog would get horny seeing a woman like this.”
His impotence, then, originates as a force that insulates him from participation in the patriarchal violence against women woven into the fabric of society. The limitations of its protection are immediately clear; it does not insulate Blush in any substantive way. She is found dead not long after the assault.
In Kurniawan’s Indonesia, rape is a pervasive and inextricable piece of larger regimes of brutality enacted on, and often by, people oppressed and marginalized by colonial, economic, and military forces. Beauty Is a Wound, Kurniawan’s English-language debut, charts Indonesian history from the late-period of Dutch colonial rule, the Japanese Occupation, and into independence through the eyes of Dewi Ayu, who worked most of her life as a prostitute, and later is forced to work in a brothel where soldiers in the area pay to rape her. In Man Tiger, which was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, a violent and unpredictable patriarch of a poor family frequently rapes his wife.
In this sense, Kurniawan’s novels demonstrate a similar ideology to The Handmaid’s Tale; while Margaret Atwood excavates a dystopic future, Kurniawan does the same to Indonesia’s past and present. The misogynistic structures and worldviews that pervade society inevitably manifest in destructive ways, and when they can, the women persevere, though it couldn’t and shouldn’t be expected of them. In Vengeance Is Mine, Iteung, Ajo Kawir’s love interest, embodies this resilience. After a teacher sexually assaults her, she enrolls in a self-defense course, though this comes with its own series of obstacles. Before she can, she has to ask her father for permission, and once she gets it, she faces skepticism from people at the academy. When asked why she wants to learn how to fight, she says, “I want to be able to protect this,” gesturing toward her vagina. Once trained, she finds her assailant and attacks him, repurposing the tools of her oppressor against him. It is rebellion and acquiescence wrapped together: she attempts to fight the structures that harm her on their terms, playing by their rules because she has no other choice. Revolution is not on the table, and the forces of power are too simultaneously entrenched and disparate to have anything concrete to revolt against. It is a portrait of a sociocultural totalitarianism that limits possibility by eroding choice. Iteung can protect herself with equally forceful violence, but she can’t liberate herself or anyone else from it. She is not safe, just invulnerable.
In her criticism of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale for The New York Review of Books, Francine Prose positions herself against those who consider the work a “feminist classic”:
Watching the show, however, I began to think that it was neither a useful warning about the patriarchy’s hostile plan for women, nor a proactive attempt to thwart those dark intentions. Gradually, it occurred to me that I was instead watching a seven-hour-long orgy of violence against women — promoted and marketed as high-minded, politically astute popular entertainment.
Though Prose conceptualizes viewership as a passive experience in a way that may underestimate the show’s audience, her critique applies aptly to Vengeance Is Mine. In both Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger, the effort to dehumanize women comes from a visible source, a group or organization that makes public its aim to control women. But Vengeance Is Mine deals only in the individual, giving us nowhere tangible to place the blame. It’s still emotionally satisfying to see those who deserve it get their comeuppance, but it puts Iteung in the position of fighting only against corroded actors in a corroded society instead of for a less-corroded society altogether. Advancing the idea that the crimes and violence of the powerful is difficult to fight against because of its invisibility is, in itself, a political argument, though it’s not particularly well fleshed out in the book. Without a clear group or institution against which she’s fighting, it becomes violence for violence’s sake alone.
Witnessing and recognizing extreme violence has value, but Vengeance Is Mine struggles with countenancing some violent acts while condemning others. Many of the book’s most compelling scenes are its most vicious. Kurniawan revels in the spectacle of it, and with good reason — he’s got a gift for describing physical action, and the book is exciting when he does. Near the end of the novel, two rival truckers, Gaptooth Mono and The Beetle, fight to settle a trivial dispute in front of a large audience, and the visceral force is palpable:
Gaptooth Mono’s leg bent backward. Now everyone heard the kid let out a bloodcurdling scream, swaying back and forth until he collapsed in the dirt. The Beetle didn’t pay that scream any mind and leapt on top of him, his fists pummeling the kid’s face.
The drama of the fight is stretched out in multiple vignettes over 10 pages, with scenes from Gaptooth Mono’s life dispersed between. Kurniawan does not tend to write rape scenes in the same drawn-out, detailed way, confining them to a handful of vignettes, if not one. The aesthetic differences that separate one type of violence from the other, though, don’t mitigate the fact that the violences grow from the same seeds.
What makes this discrepancy more curious is that Kurniawan deftly handles the ways that sex and violence intertwine in the construction of masculinity. Ajo Kawir’s violent impulses are tied directly to his impotence. He cannot have sex, therefore he must fight. This is immediately clear from the opening line of the novel: “Only guys who can’t get hard fight with no fear of death.” When he’s not trying absurd things to solve his virility problem, he is looking for someone to punch in the face. On these quests, he often finds what he’s looking for. In the most important instance, he sets out to threaten an abusive landlord, seeking revenge on behalf of a tenant, and ends up fighting Iteung, who stands in his way. Though she rather handily defeats him, he feels no shame or disappointment; instead, “He was happy to feel the girl’s punches all over his body. He was happy to feel her so close to him.” Fighting, in this case, is a replacement for courtship and intimacy. Kurniawan manages to make it seem endearing despite the depressing reality. Eventually, the two get married, though finding a partner is radically outside of what Ajo Kawir expected for himself. Earlier in the book, he attempted to foreclose all discussion of the possibility:
Ajo Kawir had already told [Gecko] many times that there was no way that he could ever fall in love with a woman — it wasn’t that he wasn’t interested in women, but he felt he had nothing to offer them. A man who cannot take a woman to bed, he would say in a tone so wise, so jaded, and so sorry for himself, is like a rusty blade that can’t be used to cut anything.
Finding love in spite of his impotence does not alleviate the problem, but compounds it. Instead of lamenting his inability to get an erection as a matter of pride, he now laments how it impacts Iteung. Predictably, and despite the fact that he and Iteung have an active physical relationship (Ajo Kawir gets very good at fingering her), this leads Ajo Kawir to more, worse violence.
Despite Vengeance Is Mine’s consistent bloodshed, it’s a very funny book. The humor is dry; Kurniawan is a master at twisting a sentence just right, and many of the book’s funniest moments are products of single, specific word choices, often orbiting the subject of Ajo Kawir’s penis. Once, it’s described as “looking exactly like a lump of ginger root.” Hyperbole also plays an essential role: “Ajo Kawir and Gecko were different, and the difference was like life and death: the difference between someone who has a dick that can stand up and someone who doesn’t.” Even at its most morbid, the humor — dick jokes, no less — adds necessary lightness to the book; a version of Vengeance Is Mine that’s less funny would be overcome with bleakness. The humor also serves as a reminder that, fundamentally, this is a book about a guy who can’t get it up.
As Kurniawan demonstrates, impotence is a serious issue with serious consequences, but there is a thin line between making jokes about Ajo Kawir’s penis and making jokes at his expense. The goal is to do the former but not the latter, thereby avoiding trivializing the book’s central issue, but it doesn’t quite work. A consequence of focusing on the physicality of penis is that it continually reduces its symbolic or metaphoric weight. This, at times, becomes hard to square with much of the aforementioned events from Vengeance Is Mine. The sum of its parts feels slighter than those of Beauty Is a Wound or Man Tiger. Kurniawan can’t help but be funny, but in Vengeance Is Mine, the premise itself often feels like a joke, and though it becomes imbued with mounting emotional weight as the book moves forward, it ultimately manifests as exactly what it says it is from the beginning.
Still, Kurniawan’s prose, aided by Annie Tucker’s translation, is tight and vivid, his characters complete. He is as adept as ever at moving between the fictional past and present, employing vignettes that allow for more frequent shifts. Perhaps to its detriment, it is often fun to read, and despite its relative brevity, it is a deeply ambitious book, which makes it equally thrilling and unsatisfying. Vengeance Is Mine has many brilliant moments. But up against the achievements of his first two translated novels, this one feels a little, well, flaccid.