Eka Kurniawan's Darkly Comic Tale of Boyhood

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, by the Indonesian author of Beauty Is a Wound, is a surreal, poignant account of a teen attempting to become a man.

Silhouettes of boys lifting weights
Beawiharta / Reuters

The novel Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash opens simply, by stating its premise: The teenager Ajo Kawir has a bit of a hardware problem. His bird, as he puts it, “won’t stand up.” His friend Gecko knows what’s going on; it’s why he never invites Ajo Kawir to watch porn together or to “loiter in front of the post office and catcall the girls passing by.” Gecko’s father does, too; it’s why he takes his son’s friend to see a sex worker, and why he says things like, “Only guys who can’t get hard can fight with no fear of death.”

From the get-go in this story, the ups and downs of burgeoning teenage identity tangle with the warmhearted, if sometimes misguided, efforts of family and friends to solve deeply personal issues. Also from the get-go, the lens turns both inward, to Ajo Kawir’s thoughts, and outward, to a world too often preoccupied with the virility of its men. This latter focus makes sense, given that Vengeance is the work of Eka Kurniawan, the talented Indonesian author who was longlisted for the Man Booker International prize in 2016 and whose previous novels, Beauty Is a Wound and Man Tiger, have examined the deeply embedded effects of societal sexism.

With his new protagonist, Kurniawan wryly homes in on the young man’s insecurities and fixations. Ajo Kawir initially bemoans his fate. He tries all manner of wake-up remedies, from rubbing chili pepper on his penis to letting it get stung by bees. He begins to talk to it, cajoling and scolding by turns. Simultaneously, he is blossoming into a brawler ready to take on anyone with his fists, or a knife: “Even when cornered, he was the kind of fighter who’d let his opponent break his arm if it gave him the opportunity to break the other guy’s leg.” That inclination ends up getting the 19-year-old tasked with killing a gangster named Tiger.

The semi-comic, pulp-y framing lures readers into what becomes a poignant exploration of an adolescent mind lurching toward maturity. Because if the reactions to Ajo Kawir’s predicament are fairly sweet, the reason for it—seemingly, the horrific rape of a vulnerable woman by local police officers that the teen witnesses—is anything but. Ajo Kawir’s terror and guilt at watching, and at first feeling aroused by, tremendous sexual violence are matched in intensity only by his resulting anger toward influential men who see women as disposable. (His growing ability to exact physical revenge complicates the power dynamic as well.)

There’s no mistaking the moral stakes Kurniawan sets up, from the complicity of the bystander to the surrounding community’s internalization of individual violence. If the fable-esque set-up seems a bit heavy-handed, Kurniawan avoids that pitfall by wrapping his tale in warmth and candor. He captures the tender rationale of teens in the swell of adolescent transformation, showing (through the character of Gecko, who gladly loans his father to his friend) how intuitively empathetic young people can be toward each other. Ajo Kawir himself is a complicated mix of soul and physicality: He doubts his ability to satisfy a woman, even as he comes to a strange sort of peace with his body. He’s by turns forlorn, frustrated, and wise—and slowly his life unfurls in fascinating, rich ways.

Kurniawan’s unhurried, magical-realist style, which the author last used in Man Tiger—to tell the story of a man who has a female white tiger dwelling inside him—is a snug fit for the world of Vengeance. The early chapters are particularly electric, full of the sort of specialness that’s only possible through the whole assumption of kids’ perspectives, with their internal logic and low-to-the-ground vantage. And while characters aren’t fleshed out descriptively, they aren’t stick figures either. The sparseness means the occasional detail lands brightly: Readers learn in passing that Ajo Kawir devoured martial arts comics while growing up, as, apparently, did his crush Iteung, a fellow fighter he notices mimicking the language of the comics.

Vengeance is interesting formally, too: Its brief, cinematic scenes, not always chronologically ordered, build like stacked, occasionally off-kilter blocks, a visual Jenga. Kurniawan confidently drops in details without explaining them, sets readers down in medias res, and presents dream sequences as though they’re real, always shifting gears with ease. It’s to his credit (and to Annie Tucker’s simple but vibrant translation) that his experiments don’t create reader whiplash.

Such flash imagery helps bring to life the many, many fights Ajo Kawir lands in. If fists go up frequently in Vengeance, they also, it’s worth noting, belong to both enemies and lovers. A physical confrontation with Iteung leaves Ajo Kawir feeling “shattered to pieces,” while his foes get some poetic treatment as well. “Then a punch struck him squarely on the jaw,” Ajo Kawir dreams, of dueling with Tiger. “He felt himself flying, floating, and then landing on the surface of the water.”

Vengeance isn’t trying to show the fights’ beauty for beauty’s sake, but to illustrate how a boy might find them beautiful—freeing, wild, their own form of political identity and coalesced power, a way to not have control and be okay with that. That tension is, of course, part of the author’s broader point, tracing back to the rape Ajo Kawir witnesses: His yen for violence both proves and indicts the long reach of unchecked brutality. There is, Kurniawan suggests, a wisp of a line between selfish cruelty and righteous violence, between voyeurism and action, between a passionate embrace and a death grip.

In Man Tiger, Kurniawan masterfully played with time to tell a complicated family story from multiple sides. The point of that novel, as with Vengeance, is to show the insidious, trickle-down effects of men who wreak havoc with little consideration for those around them. Both works illustrate these knots of community, where propriety and rage and survival coexist, with a surprising amount of compassion—and illuminate the pain and learning of the next generation with tremendous grace.