Cinta Tak Ada Mati (or, Undying Love in English) is not a short-story collection where Eka Kurniawan tries to be romantic. As we know of him, lovey-dovey narrative is never his way, and love stories, even if he ever made one, have never any intention other than to display people’s characters, actions and reactions which then lead to, or exist in, something bigger and mostly shocking. Consisting of thirteen of his old pieces, this book takes the reader to a journey of history, politics, religion, women empowerment, horror, sex, and, to my surprise, martial arts world (or what we usually call jianghu in Chinese).
It should have been clear that Kurniawan has always stood for women, what with his implied “protests” in Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is A Wound) and Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash). And here, in the first short story on the list he once again stages a protest and this time against the underrated role of a domestic woman in history. Yes, a domestic woman. What can such a woman do in the middle of the fights against colonialism? What can she do to help free her country of the profit-driven tyranny? Most people must have difficulties imagining her able to do anything. But Diah Ayu can do something.
In Kutukan Dapur (Kitchen Curse), Diah Ayu uses secrets of local ingredients and seasoning to poison her Dutch superiors and successfully kill them all. And, as she also teaches her fellow local cooks, she manages to get rid of not only one or two, but so many Dutch people unrightfully invading her motherland. It’s a massive killing and success, but does the history appreciate that? No, obviously. Not a single word told about her fight, not a single truth said about her person. Instead, people make and spread false rumors about her which only give her a bad name. Why? Is it because she is a woman? Or is it because she is fighting from the depth of her kitchen which is deemed too domestic to put into the masculine historical record?
As if it’s not enough yet, Kurniawan’s second piece Lesung Pipit (Dimples) also forces readers to put themselves in women’s shoes. Our unlucky protagonist here is a very beautiful girl whom her father sacrifices as an offering to a powerful shaman in order to save his own life after being beaten by a poisonous snake. Lesung Pipit (the titular name of the girl) is understandably unwilling. Who would want to marry a smelly shaman who has already had wives everywhere? So she sees no other way to fight for her freedom but to sacrifice her own body, inviting four unknown men to have a one-night stand with her. By the wedding night the wicked shaman knows it, inevitably, and divorces her at once.
Now if we talk about repression, we cannot help but have a tyrannical regime crosses our minds. This kind of regime is obviously, and undoubtedly, driven by fear: fear of losing its power, fear of having to face justice for the heavy-handed methods it uses to retain order, fear of challenges and upheavals. But what people in power fear most is that someone knows about their brutal actions and spread the word. And this is the basic idea of Mata Gelap (Dark Eyes). A man has been a witness to a mass killing of one million people in the midst of political upheavals, and the authority is frightened of the idea that he might have visually recorded the entire bloodshed. And so seven people are sent to him and demand that he removes both of his eyes. Not blind them, but remove them, and making him eat them to boot. Unfortunately for the authority, his being unable to see leads to his sharper hearing, and of course it is afraid that the man who is now called the Dark Eyes might hear some dangerous political rumors and demand him to cut his ears, too.
It is not enough, however, for a regime with such a paranoia. Next, the seven men order him to cut his nose, for there is a possibility that he smells something fishy and scandalous. And seeing that the Dark Eyes can still talk and tell (mostly funny) stories, they come again and cut his tongue. After that, it’s like they can’t get enough of their brutality: they cut his penis (for the sole reason that he can still make love to his wife) and all of his limbs so he cannot move at all. Lastly, they behead him and disembowel him. These horrendous actions might seem exaggerated, but it looks like Kurniawan wants to warn us readers that a regime that is so afraid of losing its grip on power can and will do much worse things than what he has described.
As always intriguing as the themes of brutal regimes and women’s problems might be, religion is perhaps what gets our attention more. It is undeniably so in a society where people wield their belief to show, and affirm, their superiority over “the others”. But Eka Kurniawan here doesn’t tell readers about how people in our society do that, for Surau (Mosque) is rather talking about rituals. Muslims who say their prayers five times a day might wonder, or complain, why they should do so but keep doing it anyway. This compulsory ritual has been an integral part of a muslim’s life everywhere, but what if some do not feel the need, or the urge, to do that? This seemingly simple yet profound short story tickles us readers to ask ourselves: when we do religiously compulsory rituals such as praying five times a day, are we truly sincere in doing it, or is it only for a show? And if we’re not whole-heartedly doing it for the sake of God, why bother?
The most interesting piece in Cinta Tak Ada Mati, however, is Ajal Sang Bayangan (The Death of the Shadow), where we can finally see Kurniawan gather all of his writing skills to pen something wuxia. Wuxia stories are not unfamiliar to Indonesian audience, and we have our own version of them. Seeing Kurniawan himself is a fan of the genre, it is only naturally exciting to see how he would craft his own jianghu adventure. It is not disappointing, fortunately, and surprisingly a bit philosophical in its idea.
Ajal Sang Bayangan tells the story of a pair of martial arts brothers who have been ordered by their master, Ajisaka, not to leave Majeti and to guard the treasure kept there until the master says the otherwise. But both disciples, Dora and Sembada, cannot sit still and do what they should. They are restless, thinking always that they are merely each other’s shadow and keeping a desire to banish it. So they abandon their duty and set to have a fight. But it is doomed from the start, looking at how alike they are in everything, just like, as it is already narrated, each other’s shadow.
Though stories like Penjaga Malam (Night Watch) and Jimat Sero give the feeling that Kurniawan doesn’t really fit into horror writing, Persekot and Caronang have quite shocking premises and twists, and are horribly satisfying at the end. Meanwhile, the titular piece, Cinta Tak Ada Mati, offers the reader another way of looking at undying love: how frustrating and exhausting it can be.
All in all, Cinta Tak Ada Mati displays not only thought-provoking themes and how unusually the ideas are crafted into narratives, but it also shows Eka Kurniawan’s talent and unquestionable ability in doing so. His prose is undeniably beguiling and his style is so beautiful without necessarily being dramatic. All of his short stories here are an embodiment of completeness in writing, and he seems very capable of that. No wonder he is one of our best writers today.