fiction, review

Cinta Tak Ada Mati

48956873901_70691273c6Cinta 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.

Rating: 4.5/5

fiction, review

Kumpulan Budak Setan

39891352403_a67d0e2216Kumpulan Budak Setan is some kind of a tribute to Indonesian horror fiction writer Abdullah Harahap. The three renowned contributing authors—Eka Kurniawan, Intan Paramaditha and Ugoran Prasad—have recreated and re-represented Harahap’s famous narrative in their own styles and with their own ideas. First published in 2010, the anthology delivers a total of twelve short stories bearing each writer’s typical character of storytelling.

Eka Kurniawan is the first to deliver his horror stories, starting with a mystery-wanna-be tale Penjaga Malam. The idea is actually there and pretty convincing, about four men on duty guarding their village in the middle of the night and later finding each of themselves vanishing without trace. The problem is, it seems to try so hard to emanate darkness and fright but fails halfway. It’s a mystery yet somehow unable to even say that it is mysterious. Strangely, or luckily, Riwayat Kesendirian, Kurniawan’s third contribution here, has more of that mysterious vibe to it. It may not have the best or the most unusual idea—a man being haunted by the ghost of a woman he had ever helped in the past—but it is definitely better written that it will surely make the reader’s hair stand on end. The last one of his part, Jimat Sero, relies much on our traditional superstition that we can entirely rely on a particular jimat to get luck. Unfortunately, this must be paid in return with something so dear to us.

Intan Paramaditha is the second to present her tales. As we know, she is apt to write stories centering on women and gender, so it is no wonder that all four of her contributions talk about women and their issues. The first horror story she tells us is about a dangdut singer. Generally speaking, (female) dangdut singers do not have a very good reputation, especially those entertaining the lower class. They are both loved and hated, admired and despised. But most of the time they are the scapegoat for men’s improper desire, for they are not only singing, they are dancing—in an erotic way, usually. So Salimah, a dangdut singer in the piece entitled Goyang Penasaran, has to find herself gotten rid of from her home village for making a man unable to control his desire while she is singing on stage. That’s not the real problem here, however. As she comes back years later, she knows how and whom she must take her revenge on—the one respectable, yet hypocritical, man who set his male gaze on her years before and let his lust show but still had the audacity to claim himself to be a religious man and condemn her profession.

“Tak ada iblis lebih ngeri dari yang menyaru sebagai nabi.”

(No evil more sinister than those wearing the mask of a prophet.)

And that’s not it. The last of Paramaditha’s contributions, Si Manis dan Lelaki Ketujuh, is even more sinister in every aspect. What’s so outrageous here, if we want to say so, is not the idea of having a man as a sex slave, but having a man as a sex slave to a super rich woman with a badly disfigured face and a penchant for sadomasochism. It challanges the beauty standard, reverses the power play, and questions the sexual, normal norm. And interestingly, Paramaditha doesn’t focus on how the ugly woman thinks or feels about their relationship (though she can be said to be the female/reverse version of any common male lead character of this type), but she displays—describes—ever so blatantly the man’s feelings and how they develop through the sequence of their sexual encounters. The man realizes that he’s been addicted and cannot let himself go off of the entanglement, that he’s sort of tempted to accept the woman’s offer to leave his wife and have an adventure together, living the life of folk tales and unimaginable stories.

Among the three contributing writers, Ugoran Prasad might prove to be the one with the most standout pieces of all. No, he doesn’t write about bloodshed, bloodshot ghosts with chilling diction to frighten readers. His stories are more profound than that. Two of them even ring with gender issues, or something like that. Hantu Nancy, where he talks about the aftermath of the murder of a beauty salon owner, subtly shows how a beauty standard can be as dangerous as the murder itself. Meanwhile, in Hidung Iblis, Prasad seems to want to employ a different angle to deliver a story on sexuality.

In this last piece of the book, Sujatmoko, the main male character, appears to point out that all men with “normal” genitals (and thus normal sexual desire) are evils prowling innocent women. Trying to “protect” his wife from those evils, he is then intent on a killing spree. Readers might think he’s just doing it for having his manly pride hurt and merely to vent his anger on other, “normal” men. They might also think that he’s such an arrogant prick seeing a wife as a property hence the need for protection. And he might really be. But what’s so intriguing, and probably important, is the fact that his wife is not what he thinks she is. She’s beyond that. She doesn’t need protection, because “danger” is something she actually ventures into, something that she likes.

On the outside, Kumpulan Budak Setan appears to be a collection of horror stories. But while that might be true, there is something more to it than merely tales of ghosts, murders, or even love and sexual slavery. Deeper, it might be a series of elaborations of how we, humans, are actually the slaves of evils (just as the book title literally translates)—we rely so much on them, we do what they say, and we are even addicted to them and the sly tricks they play on us. We apparently cannot live without evils beside us. Maybe it’s just the human nature. So it can be pretty understandable that the writing styles employed by those three contributors do not exude horrific vibe or fright or anything that will make the reader so much as believe what they give us are horror stories. They are probably not at all.

Though a little bit disappointing in some aspects (i.e. the lack of fright some readers might seek for), Kumpulan Budak Setan is basically not a bad anthology. The writings are profoundly good, the ideas are not cliché, and the characters are all deeply dug up. It is some sort of proof that the three contributors—Kurniawan, Paramaditha and Prasad—are truly great writers we have today. If only it could be a little bit more frightening, that would be better.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas

34135013895_b46a7651dc_oKita hidup di tengah budaya patriarki di mana sering kali perempuan dipandang sebagai obyek seks semata sehingga kekerasan maupun pelecehan seksual terhadap wanita (diam-diam) dianggap wajar saja. Dan jika memang karya sastra merupakan refleksi dari kehidupan nyata, maka sepertinya itulah yang hendak disampaikan Eka Kurniawan dalam novelnya Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas. Dengan mengambil latar belakang masyarakat kelas menengah ke bawah yang gemar kekerasan, buku ini seolah ingin menunjukkan bahwa hal yang dianggap “wajar” ini sesungguhnya justru tidaklah wajar.

Kisah dimulai ketika Ajo Kawir dan sahabatnya, Si Tokek, masih berusia awal belasan tahun. Suatu malam, tanpa sengaja mereka melihat Rona Merah, seorang perempuan gila di kampung mereka, diperkosa dua orang polisi. Akibat rasa terguncang saat menyaksikan peristiwa ini, kemaluan Ajo Kawir, atau yang ia panggil si Burung, jadi tidak bisa ngaceng alias berdiri. Ajo Kawir berusaha keras membangunkan si Burung dari “tidurnya”, mulai dengan cara yang paling menggelikan sampai yang paling menyedihkan. Tapi si Burung tetap tak mau bangun, tidur nyenyak bak seekor beruang kutub yang terlelap di musim dingin dan memimpikan hujan salju. Masalah bertambah runyam bagi Ajo Kawir ketika ia berjumpa dan jatuh cinta pada Iteung, gadis cantik dari sebuah perguruan silat, karena bagaimana mungkin ia dapat membahagiakan seorang gadis dengan kemaluan yang tidak bisa ngaceng? Tahun demi tahun Ajo Kawir lewati dengan menanggung penderitaan ini, sementara satu-satunya cara untuk menuntaskannya adalah dengan menghabisi kedua polisi yang telah memerkosa Rona Merah.

Tidak seperti Cantik Itu Luka maupun Lelaki Harimau yang sangat mengandalkan realisme magis dalam menyampaikan ide ceritanya, novel Eka Kurniawan kali ini lebih berpegang pada realisme. Namun realisme yang maskulin. Maskulin dan sovinis. Hampir di sepanjang jalan cerita terdapat adegan-adegan brutal di mana adu jotos (dan membunuh dengan tangan kosong) adalah cara yang biasa digunakan untuk menyelesaikan masalah. Akan tetapi, yang paling menonjol di sini adalah kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan. Hal yang menimpa Ajo Kawir, yang menjadi sorotan dalam novel ini, berawal dari aksi pemerkosaan yang dilakukan oleh dua orang polisi biadab terhadap seorang perempuan gila. Dari sini dapat dilihat bahwa dua orang lelaki, yang berfisik dan bermental lebih kuat dari si perempuan gila, dengan demikian memiliki kuasa lebih, dapat memaksakan kehendak mereka secara semena-mena terhadap wanita yang lebih lemah. Hal nahas serupa juga dialami Iteung di masa kecilnya, ketika ia masih seorang gadis polos dan dilecehkan oleh guru sekaligus wali kelasnya sendiri. Tapi tentu saja tidak ada tempat untuk mengadu. Si perempuan gila hanya diam saja sampai ia mati seusai diperkosa, begitu pula dengan Iteung yang memilih jalannya sendiri untuk menyudahi pelecehan yang dialaminya. Karena, pada umumnya, yang berkuasalah yang akan selalu menang dan yang lemah (baik secara fisik, mental, maupun kedudukan) akan selalu kalah. Maka mengadu kepada siapa pun hanya akan menjadi jalan keluar yang sia-sia.

“Kau pikir perempuan barang, bisa dibeli di Pasar Tanah Abang?”

Namun dengan narasi yang teramat maskulin dan sovinis inilah Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas justru mengolok-olok seksisme dan kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan yang dianggap lazim di masyarakat. Si Burung yang tidur lelap bisa dibilang merupakan kiasan dari sesuatu yang tidak wajar, berlawanan dengan tindak pemerkosaan (sebagai penyebabnya) yang diam-diam dan sering kali dipandang wajar dan sambil lalu. Dan seperti yang disiratkan oleh kisahnya sendiri, ketidakwajaran yang diderita Ajo Kawir hanya akan sembuh jika kewajaran yang dilakukan oleh kedua polisi biadab tersebut dihapuskan secara nyata, bagaimana pun caranya. Tampaknya, bagi Eka Kurniawan, memandang wajar seksisme dan kekerasan seksual terhadap perempuan adalah hal yang konyol dan patut ditertawakan, maka dari itu ia melawan gagasan ini dengan kiasan burung (kemaluan lelaki) yang tertidur. Eka juga melakukan perlawanan dengan menciptakan tokoh Iteung yang kuat baik secara fisik maupun mental, yang mampu melawan lelaki dengan tangannya dan memilih jalannya sendiri dan melakukan apa pun yang dikehendakinya.

Sebagaimana sudah menjadi tipikal Eka Kurniawan, novel Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas penuh dengan satire dan bernuansa komedi gelap (black humor). Tetapi memang gaya penulisan seperti ini sangat cocok untuk menyampaikan olok-olok yang diinginkan penulis. Namun novel ini juga tak melulu berisi sindiran terhadap budaya patriarki dan masalah sosial, Eka juga mewarnainya dengan guyonan-guyonan segar terutama melalui burung Ajo Kawir yang ia ajak bicara dan mintai pendapat setiap kali ia dihadapkan pada masalah yang rumit. Dan yang paling menarik dari novel ini adalah plotnya yang terlihat seperti tak beraturan, tak memiliki batasan antara masa lalu dan masa kini, pun antara kenyataan dan khayalan. Uniknya, jalan ceritanya mengalir dengan sangat baik sehingga tetap dapat diikuti tanpa kesulitan.

Secara keseluruhan, Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas bukan hanya sebuah karya yang sepertinya diciptakan memang sengaja untuk mengkritik, tetapi juga merupakan hasil olahan narasi yang ciamik dan bukti dari kelihaian sang penulis dalam bercerita.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Man Tiger

English edition's cover
English edition’s cover

Man Tiger (or Lelaki Harimau in its original title) is Eka Kurniawan’s second novel and his second work to be translated into English. Longlisted for 2016 Man Booker International Prize, it concerns the life of the lower class and disintegration of family values caused by complexities in human beings. Here, as in Beauty Is A Wound (Cantik Itu Luka), Kurniawan leans on magical realism—a fact proven by his use of a white tigress resided in the body of a young man—to help embellish his realistic narrative. Unlike his previous book, though, Man Tiger is less complicated and less attention-gripping, to my thinking. It’s rather simple, in its prose style if not in its idea.

The story opens with news of Margio, a young man of 20 years old, committing a murder. The victim is Anwar Sadat, a figure of the village well-known for his promiscuous behavior. But since the first time the reader has been dimly convinced that it’s not the reason Margio sinks his teeth into and rips at the middle-aged man’s jugular to his death. The loose morals of his art-loving neighbor is barely Margio’s concern. He even often helps him at home, doing odd jobs for extra cash just as youngsters usually do. So it’s very obvious that there is no reason at all for him to suddenly kill Anwar Sadat. But he’s done it. Not less shocking, and appalling, is the way he does the killing. It’s not the way any human murderer will choose to end their victim’s life. His reminds everyone of the way a beast, here particularly a tiger, attacks its prey and finishes it off. It especially bewilders Major Sadrah, who has for some time seen Margio carrying an old, rusty samurai sword everywhere, to see the young man eventually puts aside his newly-found Japanese weapon and goes the wild way. So the mystery now revolves around two questions: Why the biting? And why Anwar Sadat, not his father, the one he hates most?

One look at the first pages, which elaborately describe the land and neighborhood of a village that will be the setting of the whole story, and the reader will quickly get that this would be about the lower-class people. The way Kurniawan tells of how the land is found and later how the neighborhood is built on it is not far from harsh criticism focusing on the problems those people often have to deal with: the poor living conditions, the dispute over land ownership, the low incomes, fighting against the wicked capitalists. As the story moves forward, the descriptions are narrowing to the poor conditions of Margio’s family, and this is the point where Kurniawan gets really sharp. Margio’s family is the true embodiment of poverty, of a reality where so many villagers with big dreams coming to big cities only to find themselves trapped in high unemployment and finally have to content themselves with low-income, unskilled jobs. Even worse, they are almost homeless, in a sense, building temporary houses on a disputed land just to have a roof over their heads. And once you live in poverty, there will definitely be a possibility of domestic violence. It’s like something you cannot run away from. And from domestic violence springs another problem: norms deviation and disintegration of family values. People with conventional thoughts will expect faithfulness and familial togetherness. But life is complex and humans are even more so. There is not a certain answer for what’s right and what’s wrong when it has come to this.

Man Tiger is not as extraordinary as Beauty Is A Wound, in my opinion, although it has rather neater narrative. Kurniawan cleverly makes the plot layered in a string of subplots to reveal the mysteries one by one, intending perhaps to present the whole story as some kind of whydunit fiction. It’s so seamless, the way he arranges it all, and very shrewd, too. So shrewd it is that he manages to keep the answer of the why till the end of the story. Admittedly, the element of surprise really works here. It is not, however, a grand creation in its entirety. Perhaps it’s because the premise is somewhat unexceptional: domestic violence spurred by the shattered dreams of prosperity. Or perhaps, it is the development of the premise that prevents it from becoming something more than this. It is pretty boring, too, at the opening, a bit stretching too long for an explanation of everything but the background of Margio’s family, which Kurniawan puts later after the half of the book. And that is not all. If there is one thing which is as bothering, it is the holes I found in some parts. One or two holes at least, and one of them is where Major Sadrah seems to recall seeing Margio carrying a samurai sword some time before the young man kills Anwar Sadat, but then there is no further explanation about the weapon. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or if Kurniawan really forgets about it after all.

Despite it all, Man Tiger is still the work of Eka Kurniawan that I know, with its explicit sex scenes and dark, subtle humor. It’s quite disappointing on the one hand, but also relieving on the other. So it’s pretty hard to decide whether this work is good or not. But it’s definitely not as good as Kurniawan’s first novel.
Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Cantik Itu Luka

2015 Indonesian edition’s cover

Beauty is a wound, beauty is a curse. That’s pretty much the after-reading impression of Cantik Itu Luka, Eka Kurniawan’s beautifully-crafted, painfully-punchy feminist novel. Or is it more appropriate, though, to call it a fictional summary of the modern history of Indonesia? Either way, Kurniawan has truly managed to weave strands of events of the past, in a humorously sinister way, and philosophical views on women’s beauty into a magical story about a family that is doomed from the start.

The semi-surrealistic tale starts with the resurrection of Dewi Ayu, a native woman of Dutch descent, after twenty-one years of her death. Upon finding out that her youngest daughter Cantik, an unfortunately very ugly girl, is pregnant with a child of nobody knows who, the storyline immediately brings us travelling to the past where the curse begins. Ted Stammler, a landlord in the Dutch colonization era, takes away a poor local woman named Ma Iyang and makes her his mistress. From this affair, Ted begets a bastard whom then he takes as his legal child. But neither his wife nor Ted himself know that his crucial decision will one day cause total chaos when their son and the illegitimate daughter fall in love with each other and bear another bastard that is Dewi Ayu. No time for mourning over the fact, however, because the time flies by and soon comes the period of wars: the German invasion of European countries, the looming of the second World War, and the coming of the Japanese to Indonesia. In the middle of it all, readers will see moments when Dewi Ayu is forced to be a prostitute by the Japanese and has to live that life for years afterward, even after the independence. And as the history keeps shifting from one period to another, even to the time when communism is at its glory, the plot unfolds complicated love stories between Dewi Ayu’s startlingly beautiful illegitimate daughters and the three men who represent the historical events being narrated. But theirs are not the romantic ones we can describe as sweet and tender, for they demand blood, tears, heartache, revenge, hatred and leave those women’s lives as bitter as the history they have to endure.

2015 English edition’s cover

Cantik Itu Luka seems to come up with some ideas, materialized in its subplots and lines of narration. Women’s beauty, for instance, is being described as a power which can conquer and has to be conquered by the power of men, the brutal power of physicality. Alamanda, one of Dewi Ayu’s illegitimate daughters, affirms this paradoxical fact when she points out that before the independence men “use” beautiful women to heal the mental wound they have to suffer in the middle of wars, while after the independence beautiful women “use” their physical quality to play with men. But that’s not all. The narrative can also be considered bearing the writer’s criticism of the history of Indonesia. With his dark humor and satire, Kurniawan mocks the inevitable historical fact that after hundreds of years fighting against the colonizers, namely the Dutch and the Japanese, the fighters of Indonesian independence did not get the win they deserved on the battle field but had to live with the idea that everything was done on the negotiation table instead. He symbolizes it with the Shodancho’s remark:

“Bagaikan pemancing yang menanti dengan penuh kesabaran

diberi kado sekeranjang ikan segar oleh seseorang.”

Kurniawan also talks about the massacre of 1965 here. But instead of glorifying it like any other writers, he chooses to explain why and how communism boomed in the newly liberated, poor Indonesia. He doesn’t take sides, too, in my opinion, for he tells openly about the horrible things communists could do—getting rock-and-roll music lovers into jails and killing the high-profile generals—without any tendentious, judgmental tone on it.

Cantik Itu Luka is a rich novel with a layered narrative and complicated structure, very blunt and explicit in its telling. It is a good thing, but sometimes Kurniawan is just too vulgar and crude, especially in narrating the sex scenes. It feels unpretentious that way, though, daring to give itself a bad name for being so honest in everything, not only in its telling people what the writer has on his mind but also the way he says it. Thank God the humor helps, although more often than not the reader has to endure his stark satire. What’s so powerful and sharp about this book is undoubtedly its characters. Every single person making appearance here is very well portrayed and elaborated, not only through their narrated descriptions of physiques, emotions, and also behaviors and attitudes but through their dialogues, too. Kurniawan has truly done a great job on that, looking at how many characters he creates to people this book with. If I have something to complain, then it is the feeling I got that it’s too “Latin American”, with its magical realism formula. The (Indonesian) grammar is also a problem, with incorrect marks and horrible sentence arrangements. Not that it matters too much, though. Some readers might not even notice them.

Overall, Eka Kurniawan’s Cantik Itu Luka is a fabulous work, despite its few weaknesses. It summerizes our bitter history in a surrealistic, satiric way some people might not be capable of doing, and provokes our thoughts on women’s physical beauty. It triggers our (cynical) laughs, without (actually) trying to be funny. And it gets us thinking, without (really) trying to be serious.

Rating: 4/5