'Meteorite' in contemporary Indonesian literature
By Yuliasri Perdani
06 September 2015

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN): Thirteen years after breaking into the national literary firmament with his debut novel Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound), writer Eka Kurniawan sets out to take readers on a quixotic journey through his translated works.

Thirteen years after breaking into the national literary firmament with his debut novel "Cantik Itu Luka" (Beauty is a Wound), writer Eka Kurniawan sets out to take readers on a quixotic journey through his translated works.

His debut novel has already been translated into Japanese and Malay, and an English version will see its North American debut this month.

In the same month, English and French translations of his second novel, "Lelaki Harimau" (Tiger Man), will be released. Korean versions of both novels are in the pipeline, and are scheduled to hit bookstores in 2017.

Eka is featured on Publishers Weekly’s list of Writers to Watch: Fall 2015, the magazine noting that his novels take on dark episodes in Indonesia’s history while playfully touching on the country’s traditional folklore and myths.

In the upcoming months, he will take part in writers’ festivals in Melbourne and Brisbane in Australia. He will also attend the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October, while at the same time, the Indonesian Committee will present his books at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Many have spotted the palpable influence of Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez, Mark Twain and, most significantly, Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his works.

“Some compare me to Pram [Pramoedya] and García Márquez. The book is about to be published in the US, and some have also mentioned [Nikolai] Gogol and Herman Melville. To be honest, I have been influenced by all of them. I have read their works since I was in college,” he told The Jakarta Post in an interview.

Renowned Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson praised Eka in an influential article, saying that “It is nice that after half a century, Pramoedya Ananta Toer has found a successor.”

Having extensively read Pramoedya’s works, Eka, in a critical view, believes that Cantik Itu Luka serves more as an “antithesis” to the works of the late legendary man of letters.

Opening the novel is an astounding scene about a prostitute named Dewi Ayu, who rises from her grave after being dead for two decades to pay a visit to her fourth, ugly daughter named Cantik (Beautiful).

The novel centres on a family saga that moves alongside the country’s history — from Dutch rule and the Japanese occupation to the 1965 mass killings.

“To suggest that the writer of Cantik Itu Luka is trying to emulate Pram seems quite absurd to me. I can say with utmost confidence that Pram would never write about a dead man climbing out of his grave,” the 39-year-old writer said. “Were he still alive and able to read my novel, he would have some harsh words to say about it.”

Born in 1975, Eka spent most of his childhood in the coastal area of Pangandaran in West Java before leaving to study at a high school in nearby Tasikmalaya. However, struggling in the competitive environment, he left the school in his second semester.

“I decided to go backpacking and travelling for almost three months. My friends, parents and grandmother were all looking for me. By the time I got back, I had been expelled from the school.”

When he returned back to Pangandaran, his father signed him up at an unpopular private school, where most of the students were expellees from other schools. 

“I felt at ease there. There were no rules, no obsession with being the best or the smartest.”

Given the school’s reputation, many in his neighbourhood were surprised upon learning that Eka had been accepted at the respected Gadjah Mada University’s School of Philosophy in Yogyakarta.

In 1999, he finished his studies with a thesis on Pramoedya Ananta Toer dan Sastra Realisme Sosialis (Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Socialist Realist Literature), which was later published as a book, and went to work as a journalist at Pantau magazine for about a year.

He cut his journalistic career short after receiving a grant to complete and publish Cantik Itu Luka from the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy.

The story of Dewi Ayu and her ugly baby came into being when Eka’s mother told him about an expecting mother who had prayed to have a son as handsome as Arjuna, a character from the Hindu creation myth.

“When the baby is born, he indeed looks like Arjuna, but Arjuna as a wayang puppet, not handsome but ugly.”

"Cantik Itu Luka" is a combination of family tragedy, satire, legend, references to the country’s nightmarish past and depictions of physical and sexual violence. Eka interweaves these themes with a delicate and deft narrative.

The critically acclaimed novel landed him a reputation as “the finest writer to emerge since Pramoedya” and “the brightest meteorite” in contemporary Indonesian literature.

The road to getting the book published, though, was long and stony for Eka.  

Before receiving the grant to publish the book from the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy, Eka had offered "Cantik Itu Luka" to four publishers, but to no avail. 

“A major publisher included a note [with the rejection letter], saying ‘the novel is too literary’. I have no idea whether that’s a compliment or something else,” he recalled, laughing.

The first review of "Cantik Itu Luka" called it “a failure”, a jibe Eka clearly remembers all too clearly. However, positive reviews then began to flood in. “It was luck. I got some positive responses, good sales and a year later Gramedia republished it.”

"Cantik Itu Luka" made it onto the 2013 Finnegan’s List, an annual list of under-translated or forgotten works based on recommendations from 10 writers appointed by the European Society of Authors.

Eka’s second novel "Lelaki Harimau", meanwhile, opens with a murder in a rural village. A young boar hunter, Margio, comes forward, believing that a ghostly tiger living inside his body is responsible for the murder.

The inspiration behind the story was an incident in Eka’s hometown Pangandaran, where locals mobbed the police station in an effort to reach a murder suspect in custody. Police let the suspect escape through the back door, but the mob caught and killed him.  

“I intended to make a narrative journalistic work, but I couldn’t be bothered going back and forth collecting details from the field. So I wrote it as fiction.”

His third novel, "Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas" (Love and Revenge), is a study of masculinity through protagonist Ajo Kawir, who suffers impotence after witnessing a rape committed by two policemen.

Eka is currently working on another novel, which has been under construction for 10 years.

“'Seperti Dendam' was my side project when I was writing this forthcoming novel. Now that 'Seperti Dendam' is finished, I can focus on this one,” he said.

A fan of children’s books, the husband of writer Ratih Kumala wishes to write a book that can be read by his young daughter, Kidung Kinanti.  

“I love 'The Little Prince' simply because it is a good book, and 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories'. Both children and grown-ups can enjoy them,” he said.

Writing for children is a long-term plan, though. “I reckon writing children’s stories is much harder.”

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