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Eka Kurniawan Talks 'Cantik Itu Luka' and His Favorite Books About Indonesia


SEPTEMBER 07, 2018

Jakarta. Eka Kurniawan’s critically acclaimed "Cantik Itu Luka," or "Beauty Is a Wound," was first published in 2002, but it took off internationally only after it was released by the prestigious publisher New Directions in the US – home of Roberto Bolaño, César Aira and Jorge Luis Borges among others – in 2015. The novel was one of The New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2015 and has now been translated to more than 30 languages. Eka is now hailed as the natural successor to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, for a long time since the early 1980s the only Indonesian author of international renown.

Pramoedya’s four-novel epic "Buru Quartet" is considered by many critics and readers to be the finest historical work about Indonesia. Can the same be said about Cantik Itu Luka? Did Eka intend the sprawling novel to also be an epic about Indonesia?

"Not specifically, because I think Indonesia is too vast and complicated. I only tried to see the country from a limited point of view…. I want to expose the [story's] historical context, not just the history of Indonesia but also world history. There are a lot of ways to view history," he told the Jakarta Globe in an interview near his home in Ciputat, Tangerang, on Monday (04/09).

Cantik Itu Luka's main protagonist is the mestizo Dewi Ayu, a half-Dutch, half-Indonesian beauty from a well-off family who was forced to become a prostitute during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in the Second World War. The plot of the novel follows Dewi Ayu's increasingly horrific (and fantastic) ordeal, from becoming a mother to four daughters to coming back to life after being dead for 21 years.

The book's timeline also covers Indonesia's 1965 anti-communist pogrom and tells disturbing tales of many atrocities, from rape, bestiality to murder.

Eka said there have been different responses to the book from local and foreign readers. Indonesians normally take the "Indonesian-ness" of the book for granted because they already know the country’s history by heart.

"Foreign readers are attracted to the book because [usually] it's the first time they find out about Indonesian history. And those who already know a little bit about Indonesia would use the book to compare notes," Eka said.

The 15th anniversary edition cover for Eka Kurniawan's 'Cantik Itu Luka,' released last year. (Photo courtesy of Gramedia.com)

Critique of Pram

Some readers see Cantik Itu Luka as Eka's riposte to Pramoedya's Buru Quartet. The timeline in Pramoedya’s epic ends before the Japanese occupation, while Cantik Itu Luka starts with the tail-end of the Dutch colonial period then continues to the Japanese occupation and beyond.

"You can say that I tried to imagine a sequel to the nationalist movement described in the Quartet. Of course, the style and point of view are different, and that can be seen as a response," said Eka, whose first published book was actually "Pramoedya Ananta Toer dan Sastra Realisme Sosialis" ("Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Social Realism Literature"), an analysis of his predecessor's work released in 1999 just after he graduated with a degree in philosophy from Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University.

Is Eka’s Dewi Ayu an antithesis or a critique of Pram’s main female protagonist in Buru Quartet, the legendary Nyai Ontosoroh?

"When I wrote Dewi Ayu, I wasn't really thinking of Nyai Ontosoroh. They’re two very different characters. Nyai Ontosoroh is a local pribumi woman from a lower class background while Dewi Ayu is half-Dutch and comes from a wealthy land-owning family – the exact opposite of Ontosoroh. Nyai Ontosoroh wants to elevate herself, while Dewi Ayu continually disgraces herself," Eka said.

Eka did not write Dewi Ayu as a prostitute or a mestizo when he first started the novel. Those details came up later.

"Writing the first chapter [of Cantik Itu Luka] was like writing a horror novel. What I was thinking of, I don’t know if I did this consciously or not, were all those [1980s B-movie horror startlet] Suzanna films where she would rise from the grave," said Eka, whose love of horror stories stemmed from reading Abdullah Harahap’s horror dime novels when he was a teenager.

Playing With Influences

Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet hasn't been the only point of comparison for Cantik Itu Luka. The novel has also been likened to the works of the great Colombian Boom writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Eka said he did read a lot of Pramoedya and Marquez while he was writing Cantik Itu Luka because he had initially set himself up to write a historical novel based on close examination of Indonesia's social and political landscapes.

"Pram was the closest writer I could think of that I thought, yes, maybe I can write like him. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to include many aspects of Indonesian culture, the elements that people have called 'magical,' in the novel. I learned [those] from the Latin American writers because I saw similarities between their countries and Indonesia. They were colonized for a long time, suffered under brutal military regimes and the people also believed in myths," Eka said.

He also voraciously read books by other authors to study their techniques.

"I also looked for inspirations on the technical side, such as how to make a gripping introduction. I learned [that] from [Franz] Kafka, I think he’s great at writing opening paragraphs," Eka said.

Magical Realism or Realism?

Cantik Itu Luka is often labelled as "magical realism" by literary critics, but does the author himself think the label is appropriate?

Eka said Europeans like imposing the "magical realism" label on Latin American literature, although the "magical" elements, just like in Indonesia, are actually part of the authors' day-to-day reality.

"The term itself was born in Europe and initially had nothing to do with Latin American literature, it was a label for [certain kind of] European art. To me, people use labels to define things, and that happens in literature, too. I don’t mind if my book is labelled that way, or if people believe the label or not. But I didn’t write the book using the formula for magical realism…. The label doesn't fit some parts of the novel. But, anyone can say anything," Eka said.

Write, Don't Represent

Eka has now been invited to many prestigious literary festivals around the world – including Jaipur, the largest literary festival in the world, in 2017 – and won many awards for his books.

Just yesterday, it was announced that Eka was one of the recipients of the 2018 Prince Claus Awards for which he will receive a prize money of 25,000 euros.

In Prince Claus Fund's official statement, Eka was praised as "a writer who explores Indonesia’s complex recent history through appealing fiction," for his "profoundly imaginative storytelling" and for "projecting the distinctiveness of Indonesian culture."

The author – who has two other novels translated into English, "Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash" (New Directions) and "Man Tiger" (Verso) – has dabbled in all sorts of writing jobs, from translating to writing scripts for soap operas.

Eka’s advice to writers who want to "go international" is to focus on writing first and foremost, before worrying about getting picked up by foreign publishers.

Since Eka's taste of international success, publishers from Australia, the UK and the US have been more eager to snap up Indonesian authors, including queer poet Norman Erikson Pasaribu (first collection "Sergius Seeks Bacchus" coming up from Tilted Axis in the UK) and novelist and short story writer Intan Paramaditha (short story collection "Apple and Knife" out now on Brow Books in Australia, novel "The Wandering: Choose Your Own Red Shoes Adventure" coming up from Harvill Secker).

Some in the industry is calling this "the Eka Kurniawan effect."

"I choose the simplest way [to work], by focusing on my writing – what perspectives I want to present, the standards I want to achieve. Instead of obsessing about all the steps to get published, I prefer to think about how I can create stories as engrossing as Kafka’s or [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky’s. That makes more sense to me. I read their books and analyze what makes the authors tick. If I read something bad, I push it aside. If it's good, then I can learn from it," Eka said.

Eka also suggested that in literary festivals writers should focus on representing themselves and their own views, and not be too ambitious to represent their country.

"I think regular festival goers realize it’s impossible for an author to represent their nation, though some of them might still try. People can learn about Indonesia through Cantik Itu Luka for example, but the book [tells] just a small part of a very complex Indonesia," Eka said.

Cantik Itu Luka has been included in our list of books about Indonesia that will be the topic of dicussion in the Jakarta Globe Reading Club's "Reading Indonesia" event on Saturday at Maxx Coffee, Lippo Mall Kemang.

We asked Eka to give us his own mini list of must-read books about the country (one of them, Elizabeth Pisani's "Indonesia, Etc.," is also in our list). Let’s check it out.

1. "Gadis Pantai" ("The Girl from the Coast") by Pramoedya Ananta Toer

(Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com)

Compared to Pram’s other novels, Eka thinks the characters in Gadis Pantai are more multidimensional.

"In Buru Quartet, Minke is a prototype of a young nationalist and Nyai Ontosoroh is a local [pribumi] who fights to have a better life. In 'Perburuan' ['The Fugitive'], there is that young hero prototype again…. Gadis Pantai still has that as well, but there are more personal sides to the characters that make them stronger. The central character is more fleshed out," Eka said.

2. "Manusia Indonesia" ("The Indonesian Dilemma") by Mochtar Lubis

(Photo courtesy of Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia)

"It may not be Mochtar’s best work. And there are many things I don’t agree with [in this book], but Mochtar's courage to speak up and diss his fellow Indonesians should be commended. What needs to be criticized is how he drew his conclusions [about the archetypal 'Indonesian'] but a book that invites us to rethink about [what it means to be an] Indonesian is interesting," Eka said.

3. "Java Man: How Two Geologists' Dramatic Discoveries Changed Our Understanding of Human Evolution" by Roger Lewin et al.

(Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

"It’s paleontology, stories about the archeological digs in Sangiran, about the origins of Java not in its present day context but in the prehistorical one. It gave me ideas not just about Indonesia, but also about ancient Nusantara," Eka said.

4. "Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbably Nation" by Elizabeth Pisani

(Photo courtesy of Amazon UK)

The non-fiction book, according to Eka, can be a good intro for foreign readers who want to start learning about Indonesia.

"There are some parts that Indonesians may not agree with. Still, the book can be a good introduction for people to find out what Indonesia is really like," Eka said.

5. "Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese" by Benedict Anderson

(Photo courtesy of Goodreads.com)

Most would probably opt for Anderson’s "Imagined Communities" instead, the Indonesianist's magnum opus that analysis the origins of nationalism, including in Indonesia.

But Eka likes this book's narrower scope on the culture and psychology of the Javanese.

"It talks about the psychology of the Javanese through wayang. It connects the personalities of wayang characters like Bhisma and Nakula to Javanese ethics and Javanese values," Eka said.