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“Indonesia’s most unexpected meteorite” — Benedict Anderson on Eka Kurniawan

Duncan Thomas15 December 2015

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Among many of Benedict Anderson's distinguishing qualities as a scholar and writer was his desire to engage with new writing across disciplinary boundaries and genres. Without such wide-ranging erudition, a book like Imagined Communities would have been impossible. 

In this New Left Review piece in 2013 he questioned why “over the 110 years of announcements of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, there has never been an awardee from any country in Southeast Asia—while every other region has had its turn?”

It was through Benedict Anderson that we were introduced to Eka Kurniawan, “Indonesia’s most original living writer of novels and short stories, and its most unexpected meteorite.” Below you can read Anderson's introduction to Kurniawan's outstanding novel Man Tiger, exemplifying his ability to traverse history, politics and world literature in a way few could match. 

The most exhilarating part of literature’s history is that it has no teleology and is not driven by the chariot of Progress. The most original writers seem like unexpected meteorites. Who could predict the arrival of Sophocles, Virgil, Lady Murasaki, Cervantes, Melville, Lu Hsün, Shakespeare, Proust, Gogol, Ibsen, Márquez, or Joyce? They are in one sense the product of their epochs and, in another, of the vernacular languages into which they were born and raised. But uncountable numbers lived at the same time, spoke the same languages and wrote nothing memorable. Class and education cannot explain their arrival. Their familial ancestors and descendants rarely show any substantive literary talents.

Eka Kurniawan is certainly Indonesia’s most original living writer of novels and short stories, and its most unexpected meteorite. He was born on November 28, 1975, the day that the little ex-Portuguese colony East Timor declared its sovereign independence from Lisbon. On December 7, 1975, Pearl Harbour Day, President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger arrived in Indonesia to bless the tyrant Suharto’s launching of a bloody occupation (using American weapons) to annex East Timor. Eka is proud of his birth-date because it marks the beginning of twenty-two years of stubborn resistance by the East Timorese that eventually forced Jakarta to abandon its cruel colonial rule.

For most of his first ten years he was in the care of his mother’s parents in his birthplace, a tiny isolated village (without any road access) on the dangerous coast of the Indian Ocean in the southeast fringe of West Java. The grandparents were literate, but there were no books in their simple home. Little Eka got his early connection to “literature” via two village women and an invisible man. His grandmother loved to narrate the legends, the fairy tales, and the history of their village. An old lady (a distant relative, too), who lived alone, was a much more skilled storyteller. Almost every evening, after prayers at the local mosque, she gathered the village children on the porch of her house and enchanted them with uncountable magical tales. The invisible man was a storyteller on the radio who knew how to create different voices for the characters in his wider-ranging legends of West Java, an area mostly populated by the Sundanese (Central and East Java were dominated by the Javanese).

In 1984, the little boy was sent to join his parents and continue his primary schooling in Pangandaran, a small market town right on the border between Central and West Java, where a mixed population used mutually understandable vernacular Javanese and Sundanese. The town had no bookshop or municipal library. But Eka’s father, who worked as a tailor and a creator of T-shirts for the occasional tourists, was in his way a proto-literary man. He had two contrasting sidelines. As leader of prayers he taught little Muslim boys to memorize parts of the Koran, even if they did not understand the Arabic. He also served as a part-time teacher of English at a local school, and from its skimpy library he would come home with books for his children. In his youth he had studied at a teacher’s college, but never finished. Perhaps this was why in the evening he would compose sermons for the nearby mosque and write religious articles for various Muslim magazines (which, Eka says, he never read!). More important than all the above was Eka’s early discovery of what were then called “gardens of books,” one at the bus station and another behind the little seaside tourist hotel. In the gardens, vendors sold or rented out Indonesian horror and action comics, as well as the badly translated Nick Carter detective series and the romances of Barbara Cartland. Periodically, bicycling vendors would also stop at the family home to sell or rent out the same kind of reading matter. All this stimulated the eleven-year-old Eka to start writing poems, short stories and even sketches of novels.

He must have been a top pupil in Pangandaran’s high school, since he was accepted, at the age of around seventeen, to Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta, the capital of the Republic of Indonesia during the revolutionary war against the Dutch colonialists from 1945 to 1949. The only opening for him was in the Faculty of Philosophy, even though he was not much interested in its courses. But to his amazement he found in the faculty’s chaotic library Growth of the Soil, an English translation of one of the Norwegian Nobel Prize–winner Knut Hamsun’s masterpieces. Addicted to haunting nearby flea-markets for used books, he later found Knut Hamsun’s even more famous novel Hunger. Interestingly enough, in Gadjah Mada’s general library there was a section devoted to American studies, donated by the American Embassy, which to his surprise made room for English translations of the novels of García Márquez and Cervantes, Borges’s short stories, and the books of some great Russians—Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov (maybe because the USSR had disappeared by that time). As one might predict, American studies also featured Faulkner, Hemingway, Welty, Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison, and, perhaps in a gesture to the UK, Salman Rushdie.

Eka records that he then read very little Indonesian literature. It is likely there were two reasons for this peculiarity. The first was that as a provincial “hick,” he experienced culture-shock in the big city of Jogjakarta and in Gadjah Mada, which drew students from all over the vast Indonesian archipelago: so many religious affiliations, ethnicities, languages, customs, ambitions. In the library for American studies, he could leave behind the shock and fly to a global treasury, and very few young Indonesians knew English well enough to soar above him. The second was the philistine Suharto dictatorship (1966–98), which began with the massacre of hundreds of thousands of so-called Communists, constructed a gulag of political prisoners across the archipelago, and banned the circulation of any books regarded as leftist and subversive. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s grand novelist, composer of stunning short stories and memorable critical essays, spent fourteen years on the remote island prison of Buru without trial. After his release, all his works remained forbidden—Suharto’s ban is today still formally in force, though in practice it is a dead letter.

In the 1990s, Gadjah Mada was still an old-fashioned liberal university, not yet commercialized, Americanized, or ratingized. Students could stay students for years without being evicted, and theses at different levels were not tightly linked to the fortresses of the disciplines. Eka remained a student till 1998, while his earliest short stories began to be published in “Sunday newspapers” in Jakarta.

Nonetheless, in 1997, Eka decided to write his “philosophical” thesis on Pramoedya. Why did he make this choice? In 1996, the newspapers began to alert the reading public to the appearance of the PRD (People’s Democratic Party) a semi-underground Marxist party, which attracted activist university students eager to work for Suharto’s downfall. Eka recalls being in close touch with the PRD students in his faculty, though he was not interested in joining any party or political organization. One of the tasks of the Jogjakarta PRD was stealthily to circulate Pramoedya’s gigantic Buru Tetralogy, composed in the gulag, on the origins and development of nationalism and socialism in Indonesia during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Eka got copies from a PRD friend and was enormously impressed and excited. In July 1997 the great Asian Financial Crash began in Thailand and moved on to Indonesia that September. In a few weeks, the rupiah sank from 2,500 per American dollar to 17,000. Many banks and businesses went bankrupt, unemployment vastly increased, and the economy was nearly in ruins. There followed a series of mass demonstrations, some organized by the PRD, demanding the end of the dictatorship. Eka told me that he joined all their demonstrations in Jogjakarta—his first political experience. The regime tried to defend itself with brutal crackdowns, during which many prominent activists were kidnapped, tortured, and often disappeared. “I presented my draft thesis on Pramoedya to my intimidated faculty teachers in early 1998, and of course it was rejected. But soon after the May riots in Jakarta that forced Suharto to resign, and his regime to collapse, I presented my draft once again, and this time it was easily accepted—of course!” Eventually, some good PRD friends found an activist publisher willing to publish his thesis under the title Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the Literature of Socialist Realism.

Much later, when Eka wrote a short reply to a question about which Indonesian writers impressed him the most, he said he had a melancholy three. The first was Amir Hamzah, Indonesia’s finest poet and a pro-independence aristocrat in Northern Sumatra, executed during the Revolution of 1945–49 by gangsters masquerading as revolutionaries. Second came Pramoedya, and third Widji Tukul, a brave new kind of radical Javanese poet, who was disappeared, probably by the seasoned killers commanded by Lt. General Prabowo, once Suharto’s son-in-law, with maniacal ambitions to become the country’s president. (Fortunately, he was defeated in the national election of 2014 by Djoko Widodo, the much-loved young governor of Jakarta, and the first presidential candidate unsullied by the brutal and corrupt Suharto regime.)

In Indonesia, as everywhere else in our world, serious studies of authors and their works are typically left to drudges in departments of history and literary criticism, thanks to the usual egotism of creative writers or the cliques to which they are attached. Young Eka is a rare exception to this rule. His book is affectionately admiring of Pramoedya’s political courage and innovations in Indonesian letters, but he argued that socialist realism was a passé literary form. Unfortunately, his analysis was almost entirely based on the Buru Tetralogy.

What was not accessible to him at the time were the great collections of Pramoedya’s short stories from the 1950s, which are far from socialist realism and full of magical realism avant la lettre.

In 2000 Eka published his first collection of short stories, cheekily titled Graffiti in the Toilet, and two years later the huge novel Beauty Is a Wound. The pair, utterly different in many ways, immediately made him a literary star in Indonesia. The short-story collection showed his skill as a black humorist and satirist of his own generation (including PRD leaders who soon became power-hungry opportunists), and his technical mastery of the conjunction of the oral tales of his childhood village and the bourgeois culture of the post-Suharto big cities. At the other extreme, Beauty Is a Wound is a quasi-historical novel stretching from the late colonial period, through the Japanese Occupation, the Revolution of 1945–49, the long extremist Islamic rebellion of the 1950s, the rise and bloody downfall of the Indonesian Communist Party, and the early Suharto dictatorship. But the setting is not national or even regional: it is an unnamed little town close to the Indian Ocean. Nothing is documented, and everything is suffused with magic, traditional and newly created legends, and confusing oral histories.

Eka once told me that Beauty Is a Wound was born out of three earlier novels, which he decided to agglomerate, with many difficulties, into a vast single tome. One could imagine that consciously or unconsciously it grew out of his criticism of Pramoedya’s socialist realism, and perhaps even challenges the old man’s well-known tetralogy, translated into many languages.

Then in 2004 came Lelaki Harimau, translated here with the slightly awkward title Man Tiger. As in Beauty Is a Wound, the setting is an unnamed township near the Indian Ocean and its rural environs. But this time the novel is relatively short and is tightly and elegantly constructed. The story largely focuses on the tragedy of two interlinked and tormented families over two generations. The hero Margio is an ordinary half-urban, half-village youngster, who nonetheless is possessed by a supernatural female white tiger, inherited from his much-loved grandfather. In many parts of Indonesia there are ancient tales about magical male tigers who protect good villages or families. But they are external and reside in jungles. Eka borrowed from these old stories, but his tiger is female and is inside Margio and only sometimes under his control. I will not here describe the content of Man Tiger, allowing the reader the privilege of suspense.

Instead, let me make some observations on the most important characteristics of Eka’s evolving style, which makes him quite unlike any other living Indonesian novelist. The first is the sheer beauty of his prose and the vast expanse of his vocabulary, which includes contemporary coinages as well as many obscure words, still used in remote villages, but absent in present-day urban-centered dictionaries. The second is the pervasive voice of the storyteller, which rarely has the characters speak, and when they do it is only for a few sentences. The storyteller is a complete unknown—the reader learns nothing about her or his age, gender, occupation, or location—just as with the oral storytellers of the past. The third is a growing discipline in the use of the supernatural. In Beauty Is a Wound, the magical is everywhere, as it is in the still popular traditional puppet theater based on local versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics. In this theater there is always a zoo of gods and goddesses, aristocratic warriors, devils, kings, giants, clowns, ghosts, princesses, and so on, all of whom are iconographically fixed. For example, princesses and queens are always prodigiously beautiful, while the female clowns are physical grotesques. There are no plain-but-fascinating women. In the earlier of Eka’s two novels, women are always either “too beautiful to believe” or horribly ugly. But in Man Tiger there is only one supernatural being, and space is made for ordinary women whose characters develop as the story proceeds. The fourth development is a better grasp on chronology. In Man Tiger, the chapters are marked by well-planned shifts in time, without being flashbacks. The first pages are almost simultaneous with the last. In Beauty Is a Wound there are a great number of time-shifts but they often seem arbitrary and needlessly confusing. Finally, sex. The earlier novel has plenty of sex, but the scenes are flattened out by too much supernaturalism in the manner of the shadow puppet theater. In Man Tiger the sex is often brutal and deceptive, and the tragic plot hinges on this fact. Eka’s decision to make his supernatural white tigers female, and put them at the side of human males alone, is an innovation that allows for different readings of the novel, which is now three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional in the manner of stories from antiquity. The purport of these comments on Eka’s mature style is to underline his many-sided originality in seamlessly melding the old and the new. No wonder that two of his favorite writers are Gogol and Melville.

- from the Introduction to Man Tiger: A Novel by Eka Kurniawan