Writing works of fiction gives authors the power to construct a world, a kind of world blurring in a state of in between. The in between world is a hyper reality, mixing history and fantasy worlds. Eka Kurniawan’s literary works are fruitful with those in between worlds, this can be observed in his famous works, Beauty Is A Wound, Man Tiger and Seperti Dendam Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas.
These novels are tales of worlds within their characters and how those characters strive to survive. Surviving and enduring are constantly the central themes in Eka Kurniawan’s novels. He highlights the hardship undergone by multi facets of characters. Poverty, sexual violence, abuse, alienation are some of the misfortunes of those characters.
Eka Kurniawan has a distinct style of storytelling, incorporating intricate web of plots, narrations and events in his novels. His stories are often tales of encounters between characters, and chain reactions that progress into dilemmatic decisions made by the oblivious characters.
But, even in the utmost tragic situations, Eka Kurniawan’s characters often confront those tragedies with a sense of humor. A dark one, convoluted with a sense of surrendering and bitterness. We can observe these satirical humors in his characters, such as in words utter by Ajo Kawir, Dewi Ayu and Margio.
Reading these novels, with it's unlikely heroes, readers would be left pondering with certain philosophical questions, what is reality and what is fantasy? What it good and evil? What is suffering and happiness?
The main character of Beauty Is Wound, Dewi Ayu is a good example on how Eka Kurniawan’s protagonist tries to pursuit the answers to those questions. Dewi Ayu the absurd hero, bearing her sorrowful days being cursed by the vengeful spirit of Ma Gedik.
She survives her childhood life as a prostitute during the violent years of the Japanese occupation, she spends her days being brutally raped by Japanese soldiers. After the independence, she comes into a realization that being a prostitute is the only thing she knows best.
“She has never truly confessed that she became a prostitute because of her own volition, on the contrary, she always said that she became a prostitute because of history.”
The strength of Dewi Ayu as a hero is shown through her determinacy to surpass her misfortunes. She turns over her life from being a child forced into prostitution, transformed into the iconic, powerful and rich prostitute of Halimunda--her hometown.
Through the character of Dewi Ayu, it is palpable the traces of Pramoedya Ananta Toer influencing Eka Kurniawan’s body of work. We are reminded of the strong character of Nyai Ontosoroh, who is unapologetic about her independence and her status as a self sufficient Nyai.
It is somehow mesmerizing, knowing a character as interesting as Dewi Ayu, whom Eka Kurniawan dramatizes as a brave young lady who wrestles with a wild crocodile during her time of imprisonment in Bloedenkamp. One cannot help but to be captivated by this character.
Apart from Eka Kurniawan’s powerful characterizations, another interesting trait of his works is his depiction of the supernatural. How the spirit of Dewi Ayu suddenly comes back to life after being dead and buried for 21 years. Equally interesting, is his Man Tiger novel, and how Eka Kurniawan builds an enchanting relationship between Margio and his white tiger lover.
He writes beautifully how the main character Margio encounters the mysterious white tiger, “He reached out his hands toward her neck, embraced her and felt her warm fur onto his body. Just like an embrace of a girl in a cold morning and naked on her bed, the most intimate caress after an all night long of love making.”
The imaginary world of Eka Kurniawan’s novels are rich with myths, Halimunda for instance, is a place where its mountains and oceans are entwined with exotic myths. In the myth of Rengganis, it tells the story of a beautiful maiden who marries a dog to escape the curse of her own immaculate beauty.
The silent hills of Ma Gedik and Ma Iyang, represent a tragic love story that ends in those lovers taking their leaps into the abyss. In the tale of Margio and his white tiger, Eka Kurniawan describes the transition of Margio an ordinary boy, into a ferocious being possessed with the blood thirst white tiger.
Nietzsche, the philosopher once said, “We love nature the less humanly it behaves, and art when it is the artist’s escape from man.” In his literary works, Eka Kurniawan shows the perpetual tension of man trying to set free their animality.
In “Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas” Eka Kurniawan challenges our conception about revenge and the pursuit of justice. Ajo Kawir--the main character, is driven to execute retribution against the two police officers who have raped Rona Merah. Ajo Kawir’s remorse for not being able to help Rona Merah has made him an impotent. His only passion in life is to punish those two assailants.
If we pierced into Eka Kurniawan’s stories closely, we would become enamored by how the characters lives are propelled by the force of vengeance. Ajo Kawir’s revenge towards Si Perokok Keretek and Si Pemilik Luka, Ma Gedik towards Dewi Ayu, Margio towards Anwar Sadat and Shodanco towards Kamerad Kliwon. Perhaps, Eka Kurniawan wants us to see those characters in their most vulnerable and honest form. Helplessly driven to avenge.