T F Rhoden, 14 September 2019 in asianreviewofbooks.com
Asentient rock tricked into a familial murder, a toilet wall reimaged as a stage for revolution, and a lowly maid’s spicy Indonesian dish reworked for terror are just some of the mischievous and engrossing tales recounted in Eka Kurniawan’s Kitchen Curse. Translated from the original Indonesian by Annie Tucker, Ben Anderson and others, the collection includes sixteen stories with themes that run from the dark to the mordantly funny.
Some are overtly political and caustic to past and current regimes in Indonesia. Others are mythical and magical. All of them are bold and—as the first collection of short stories by Kurniawan to be translated into English—serve as a memorable introduction to contemporary Indonesian surrealism and Kurniawan’s savage wit.
Of the stories that have a magical twist, “Caronang” is the most haunting. A Javanese farmer finds a dog that walks upright and said to be of ancient origin, having gone extinct on the island long ago. This “Lupus erectus” proves to be more intelligent than a normal canine. The caronang creature befriends the toddler of the family, learns how to fill in coloring books, and even bathes itself, “shampooing its whole body, though with a clumsiness that tickled us.” Soon the caronang is sharing the bed of their child, almost as if the creature were a sibling of the little tike. Sometimes, the two squabble as siblings do, but they seem to get along well enough.
Despite the excitement of having adopted such an odd creature into the household, the family’s poverty proves to be a constant source of anxiety; and the farmer frets and shoot his rifle into the air, thinking the bullets “might make the clouds melt and pour rain into the hot sky”—though unaware that the caronang had been watching him from the window. Later, the farmer admits:
Everything was going well until one horrifying morning when it got out the hunting rifle, loaded it, and pulled the trigger. When it had learned how to use the gun, we hadn’t a clue. But not only did it know how to use a gun, it knew what a gun was for.
The caronang takes his sibling rivalry with the farmer’s child to a horrifying conclusion and the farmer is sent to prison for murder, as it doesn’t seem to make sense to tell the village police what really transpired. As he sits in prison, contemplating revenge, the farmer learns from his wife that his childhood friend has killed the creature for him and slaughtered any more he could find in the jungle, selling them all to a dog-kebab restaurant. The farmer reflects:
It was better that way. In any case, it was very dangerous to let them go on living—they might have grown smarter.
Of the stories that lampoon Indonesian politics, “Graffiti in the Toilet” and “Kitchen Curse”—from which the anthology takes its title—are riveting, as well as comical. Particularly in the former tale, a newly repainted bathroom stall at the university is vandalized with frank political commentary, which should otherwise be found in the opinion sections of newspapers if they were truly independent. One student finds the graffiti diatribe unsettling and pens his displeasure next to his peers. Consequently, the next graffito to respond is unforgiving:
‘Blabbermouth, I don’t have any faith in our members of parliament. I have more trust in the walls of toilets.’ The second went, ‘Asshole, I agree!’ All the remaining one hundred and thirteen graffiti simply said, ‘Me too.’
Eka Kurniawan was the first Indonesian writer to be nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for his novel Man Tiger. This anthology gathers otherwise disparate and original short stories found across different Indonesian literary venues and corrals them into one publication in English. Scintillating and often darkly humorous, Kitchen Curse by Eka Kurniawan is masterful take on the vicissitudes of life for contemporary Indonesians.