Eka Kurniawan, an Indonesian writer
© Muhammad Fadli

Eka Kurniawan’s writing can be brutally funny and is definitely not for the faint of heart. It has been described by another leading Indonesian author as “rape heavy”.

Kurniawan’s first book, Beauty is a Wound (published in Indonesia in 2002), opens with its chief protagonist, a dead prostitute, rising from the grave and contracting herself to a local gangster.

The book was described by the New Yorker as a “B-movie sex romp — but shot through with a strangely touching, light-hearted compassion”. It has won Kurniawan international praise and award nominations, the writer himself is unassuming. Even a decade after he had written Man Tiger (2004), his second book, few in Indonesia or elsewhere seemed very interested in his literature and he survived by working as a television and film script writer.

It was only in 2015 that the books were finally published in the US, after Benedict Anderson, a political scientist of Southeast Asia, promoted Kurniawan’s work. It was only this intervention that enabled the author to find a translator and an all-important literary agent. Now, the 40-year-old jokes, he is annoyed that many people only want to read his books “because they were published in the US”.

Over tea at the office of his publisher in a typically crowded part of south Jakarta, Kurniawan explains what motivated him to start writing and it was not the prospect of commercial success. Having graduated with a philosophy degree in 1999, just a year after the fall of Suharto, the long-ruling dictator. He was emboldened by a new atmosphere of freedom.

Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and trainers, carrying a backpack made by surf brand Billabong, Kurniawan could still pass for a student. “As a young writer I felt I could write anything I wanted, almost without risk,” he says. “If no publisher wanted it, I didn’t care. I thought maybe I could just print a few copies for my friends.”

Indonesian titles at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair
Stars of the show: Indonesian titles at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, where the ‘guest of honour’ — a special literary programme — was Indonesia © Alexander Heimann

While studying at Gadjah Mada university in the central Java city of Yogyakarta, he was influenced by the writing of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s pre-eminent modern author, as well as classic works by the likes of Cervantes and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and niche local writers of martial arts and horror stories.

But it was the seminal 1890 book Hunger by Norway’s Knut Hamsun and its tale of a struggling young author that inspired Kurniawan to start writing. “After I finished that novel I wanted to be a writer too,” he says.

Kurniawan’s fascination with dark themes is clear across his work from Beauty is a Wound to Man Tiger, which tells of a murder committed by a man possessed by the spirit of a tiger. His third book, Love and Vengeance, which is due to be published internationally next year, is about “a man who can’t get a hard-on” as Kurniawan puts it. “Writers have to challenge every kind of morality or virtue,” he says.

Despite his recent burst of success, Kurniawan wants to take a break while Love and Vengeance is being translated, a process in which he likes to participate, to ensure the English rendering faithfully conveys his original text.

“I have more time now — I don’t have to work every week as a TV scriptwriter,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t want to force myself to, for example, write a novel every two years. It’s time to relax for a while and maybe travel here or there.”

The international attention, Kurniawan says, has been unexpected and he is still struggling to understand it. Bemused, he asks: “Do outsiders really need to read anything about Indonesia?”

Yua Hua, runner-up, The Seventh Day

Yua Hua
Yua Hua, known for brutal realism and a dark, comedic tone

Yang Fei, The Seventh Day’s hapless protagonist, arrives late to his own funeral only to find he cannot afford a burial plot. Cast from his ancestral home, he is condemned to wander through purgatory. A spectral no man’s land where the dead and the destitute roam, “the land of the unburied” is the surreal backdrop for Yua Hua’s sardonic and often absurdist critique of modern-day China, reports Rose Carr.

Taking place over the course of a week, the story follows Yang Fei — born in a train toilet and killed at 41 in a restaurant fire — as he travels through the afterlife, encountering a cast of equally ill-fated relatives and acquaintances. The tales of the characters satirise the explosive effect of market capitalism on China, replete with greed, corruption and repression. It is dark but funny too.

Yua Hua was born in Hangzhou in 1960. Now one of China’s most politically profane writers, he rose to prominence in the 1980s, turning his hand to fiction after a five-year stint as a dentist. “The inside of the mouth is the place with the ugliest scenes in the world,” he told the New York Times. He has since become known for his brutal realism and dark, comedic tone.

His novel Brothers (2005) is considered one of the most controversial in modern China. To Live (1992) was adapted for the screen by Zhang Yimou and won the Grand Prix at the 1994 Cannes film festival. He is one of the few Chinese novelists who writes regularly for the western press. As a columnist for the New York Times, he has written on topics from the Chinese stock market to air pollution and even censorship.

Yan Lianke, runner-up, The Four Books

Yan Lianke
Yan Lianke, who has long satirised the party and the army © AFP

Set in a prison camp run by The Child, a tyrannical infant and low-level Communist party official, Yan Lianke’s The Four Books tells the story of a group of dissenters as they undergo a draconian process of re-education during the time of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, reports Rose Carr.

In the wall-less compound the intellectuals — known only by their former professions, The Musician, The Scholar, The Author, The Theologian and The Technician — must carry out tasks for The Child before they can be set free.

But when the weather turns, the regime abandons the prisoners and they struggle to survive in the harsh conditions. By touching on the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-61, which led to the deaths of 15m people, an event that is still heavily censored in China — The Four Books is in part a dedication to these forgotten dead.

In dealing with such controversial subjects, however, Lianke has not always managed to stay under the censor’s radar. Both his previous novels, Serve the People! (2008) and Dream of Ding Village (2011), were banned by the state.

The party and the army have long been targets for Lianke’s satirical opprobrium. He joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1978 and graduated from the army’s Art Academy in 1991. In Serve the People! after an exhausting three-day love affair a general’s wife and a young soldier are reduced to smashing figurines of Mao to arouse each other.

The Four Books is his most unbridled critique yet. Its publication in China has been banned outright. “The (not entirely) uninhibited experiment that was The Four Books was made possible because I was not writing for publication,” Lianke wrote in The Nation. In 2016, The Four Books was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

Get alerts on Indonesia when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article