VENGEANCE IS MINE, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH, BY KURNIAWAN, TRANSLATED BY ANNIE TUCKER
Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a story of rage and desire. Like the high-speed trucks its characters race through the night, Eka Kurniawan’s newest book revs and throttles through brief passages propelled by the lusty energy of teenager Ajo Kawir and his best friend Gecko. Over the course of the novel, the two friends evolve from adolescent boys enchanted by the women of their Javanese village to young men, bruised and tired from fighting but ready to keep throwing punches. For these characters, fighting is a path to honor, retribution, and love—a way to prove they’re worthy of the girls they’ve been watching and wanting for years.
And yet, Vengeance is more than the male gaze. Asks Ajo Kawir towards the end of the novel, “You think women are just things, that you can buy at the Tanah Abang market?” Kurniawan’s answer is a resounding, finely drawn no. His female characters respond to an unfair society—one in which they are objectified, assaulted, violated, often by the very authority figures who are supposed to protect them—with madness and palpable rage. The most explicit example is young schoolgirl Iteung, who begins lessons at a martial arts academy after being sexually assaulted by a teacher. By the end of the book, Iteung has learned to fight back—she is not only mother and wife, but experienced killer, headed to jail for two vigilante murders. We leave her and her husband Ajo Kawir in the same place he and Gecko began: happy to have each other in a complicated, unforgiving world.