The Indonesian writer’s short story collection tells tales of hope and disappointment from Reformasi, the period following the ouster of the country’s dictator Suharto.
By Noah Flora, JANUARY 7, 2020 in thenation.com
Indonesia holds a prominent place in the cultural imagination of the West. The nearly 20,000-island archipelago is a prime backpacking and vacation destination for wayward millennials, especially from the United States and Europe. The island of Bali, in particular, has become a mecca for bloggers, gap year travelers, and digital nomads. As a result, Indonesia is the subject of cringe-worthy clichés about exploration and (self-) discovery—holdovers from a colonizer’s paradigm of thinking updated for the 21st century in the form of Instagram captions and hashtags.
The problem of Indonesia’s tourism economy is one subject among many that Eka Kurniawan broaches in Kitchen Curse, a brief but explosive collection of recently translated short stories. In “No Crazies in This Town,” the narrator sets the scene of a city on the southern coast of Java, where time is split into “low” and “high” season for tourists. The police officers there have developed a heinous scheme: During the high season, they coerce the city’s mentally disabled and homeless—the narrator calls them “crazies”—into economic bondage for back-alley sex shows that cater to the tourists.
The story’s slow unraveling of the horrors sewn into the social fabric of this tiny beach town exemplifies the critical impulse driving much of Kurniawan’s storytelling in this collection. In a city where fortunes wax and wane sharply depending on the tourist economy, we are made to consider the extent to which the officers’ decisions are the result of moral failings or deeper, more systemic ones brought about by the colonial dynamics of tourism. Who is really to blame here? Although there is the suggestion that there are always broader mechanisms of power exerting an influence behind individual human actions, political power in Kurniawan’s writing is often de-familiarized in surreal, horrifying, and occasionally hilarious ways. In Kitchen Curse, the act of storytelling becomes a way of reimagining the means through which the political finds expression.
A 2016 Man Booker International Prize nominee, Kurniawan began his life as a writer at a pivotal moment, when the political scene in Indonesia was just opening up to exciting possibilities. Many of the stories in Kitchen Curse were originally published in 2000—a year after Kurniawan graduated with a philosophy degree from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and just two years after Indonesia’s long-standing dictator, President Suharto, was ousted amid economic collapse and civil unrest. As such, Kitchen Curse represents some of Kurniawan’s earliest forays into fiction, born out of the promise of liberation for Indonesia—a promise, nevertheless, that was in many ways unfulfilled.
The story that most obviously illustrates the feeling of disappointment at liberation undelivered is the one that introduces the collection, “Graffiti in the Toilet,” translated by the political scientist Benedict Anderson. In “Graffiti,” which first appeared in translation in the Cornell University journal Indonesia in 2008, the narrator flypapers the reader to the wall of a university bathroom stall, while a transient cast of characters, who are all fortuitously equipped with felt-tip markers, lipstick, and full bladders, unzip their pants to participate, one by one, in a collective ritual of desecration and defecation.
The toilet is unmarked until a twentysomething kid, dressed in punk attire, comes in to pee. Upon flushing, and after a moment of introspection, he writes a proclamation on the wall: “Asshole! Reformasi is a total flop! Comrade! Let’s complete the democratic revolution!” Later, a reactionary responds to the punk, scribbling: “Blabbermouth! Provocateur! The revolution was already dead.… Let’s hunt up a wild girl and find the revolution in bed!” And then a woman angrily responds to that: “Feudalist, bourgeois, reactionary moron! Blabbermouth full of bullshit! Get ready for the revolution!” And the cycle continues, an alternating chain of provocations, clapbacks, and trolling commentary from the bathroom’s subsequent patrons.
The story is laden with images that capture the atmosphere of Reformasi, the momentous turn-of-the-century transition into Indonesia’s post-Suharto political order. The setting of the university, as well as the shit-stirring punk who touts revolution on the bathroom wall, are both significant political symbols: In building the massive student movement that grew large enough eventually to help force Suharto’s resignation, punks, who became a cultural mainstay in the mid-1990s, famously played a role in fostering leftist sensibilities among Indonesia’s youth. The president was notorious for his brutal crackdown on student activists, and the death of 500 student protesters at the hands of the army in 1998 was a culminating event that sparked the popular consensus that Suharto’s time was up.
In “Peter Pan,” Kurniawan’s elegy to Indonesia’s fallen youth, the narrator describes a student activist with “an extraordinary talent for gathering people together, for organizing and radicalizing them—especially through his poetry.” There is an almost painfully endearing innocence to this kid’s radical enterprising: He is an avid book thief who amasses a personal library of 3,000 books, which he then sells in order to raise money, he says, for a “guerilla war.” He also peddles flowers in the street to support the printing of his revolutionary pamphlets and flyers.
He becomes such a successful agitator that his name reaches the upper echelons of the government. One night, three men drag him from his lover’s house and carry him away with a black bag over his head. He’s never seen again. “He became a mythical figure among us,” the narrator says. “Meanwhile, even though he was overthrown two years ago, the dictator keeps smiling.… and most infuriating of all he still rules even though he no longer occupies the presidential office.” Still, as the murdered activist’s lover says, “It will be forever impossible to keep us from reading our novels and comic books.”
Circularity and belatedness are the two definitive modes through which time operates in Kitchen Curse, and the tragic yet hopeful image of the unruly youth as a kind of perpetually self-replenishing underclass is a powerful expression of these two ideas. Belatedness is suggested in the title of the story itself, “Peter Pan”—the boy who never grows up. It’s a nickname the activist develops because he never graduates from college, never becomes the properly productive subject that an adult is expected to be under capitalism—a “delay” that arises from his “revolutionary activities.”
Circularity and belatedness also describe the nature of political life under Reformasi, the material conditions that give shape to the stories. Even after his ouster, Suharto remained in Indonesia until his death in 2008. His family’s fortune—billions of dollars pilfered from the nation’s coffers over the course of his 30-year reign—was left intact. And many of Suharto’s cabinet members remained in the political sphere long after he resigned, stalling the process of true change. So while Reformasi brought about the end of the dictatorship, in many ways the revolution was a revolution that wasn’t, and the democracy it was supposed to deliver is a democracy that is still to come.
This explains the operative tension in “Graffiti in the Toilet”: While the story was born of a burst of creative energy in the spirit of newfound freedom, it describes a situation in which impassioned revolutionary discourse is still confined to the literal perimeter of a bathroom stall. There is the implication that the restroom interlocutors are making use of the only viable means of expression available to them: “I don’t have any faith in our members of parliament,” one converser writes. “I have more trust in the walls of toilets.”
Eventually, the buildup of frustration and tension does, in a sense, explode beyond what the toilet stall can contain. One patron’s explosive bout of diarrhea sprays everywhere except in the toilet, rendering the stall unusable—that is, until a desperate student is forced to use the stall when all others are occupied, and washes the mess away with his own piss. According to the narrator, this constitutes “an act of heroism.” Eventually, the toilet becomes so riddled with graffiti that the university administration is left with no choice but to have it repainted, thus erasing “the communal public diary.” But not for long, the narrator makes clear—the cycle will continue.
Astylistic reliance on the visceral and the scatological is a distinct mark of Kurniawan’s prose, a unifying thread throughout Kitchen Curse as well as his novels. Scatology is drawn out to an almost cosmic scale, allowing for deceptively acute meditations on Indonesian politics and history through the vehicle of fart jokes. In “Graffiti,” the scatological and the political become almost interchangeable with its bathroom wall debates. “Don’t Piss Here” operates along a similar schematic: A woman develops a fetish for bringing herself to orgasm by peeing after holding the urine in her bladder for long stretches of time. She finds herself in the doctor’s office after the habit has given her a UTI. After the doctor interdicts this behavior and suggests that she see a psychiatrist, she “close[s] her eyes. Drew a few slow deep breaths. Felt the urge to pee growing more insistent.” Then, “in just a few moments, she would climax right in front of the doctor. The thought made her smile.”
In Kurniawan’s imagination, the scatological is a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for assertions of power from below, a site for expressing agency under oppressive political conditions. The act of pissing in “Don’t Piss Here” becomes an anti-patriarchal expression in the same way that the toilet stall in “Graffiti” becomes a means for elaborating dissensus with the state.
As evidenced by “Don’t Piss Here,” Kurniawan’s project is also one that aims to reckon with the nation’s legacy of patriarchal violence. “I believe that sexual violence is the worst cruelty that can ruin someone physically, mentally, and socially. Indonesia’s history is dominated by sexual violence. It does display the brutality of our men,” he said in a 2015 interview with BOMB magazine. “My writing is taken from that reality.”
But the way he chooses to represent that reality is one of the most contentious aspects of his novels. Kurniawan’s work is notorious for particularly graphic depictions of sexual violence, and many of his Indonesian contemporaries have criticized him for it. But for all his interest in the grotesque, the stories in Kitchen Curse that most expressly deal with the subject of sexual politics—“Don’t Piss Here,” but also other entries, like “Auntie,” “The Stone’s Story,” and “My Lipstick is Red, Darling”—don’t broach these extremes in the way his novels do. No doubt, the collection is better for it.
The final story in the book, the eponymous “Kitchen Curse,” describes a woman, Maharani, who takes a trip to the city archives looking for new recipe ideas. Quite unexpectedly, in her research she is vaulted into the colonial history of Indonesia when she alights on the story of Diah Ayu, a native woman who was sold to a Dutch plantation owner to work as a domestic slave.
Indonesia was “discovered” by Europeans as a rich repository of exotic spices, but Diah Ayu has a knowledge of the spices that the Dutch will never possess: “There are secret mixtures hidden in the kitchen—secret power lies in the hands of the women who grind spices and boil potatoes.” From the plantation house’s kitchen, Diah Ayu becomes a prolific serial poisoner. In one year, she kills 52 Dutchmen.
This is Kurniawan’s clearest articulation of the mechanisms of power in a place like Indonesia—the link between the colonial and the patriarchal fleshed out to its logical conclusion. “Today this invisible history has been revealed to Maharani and now she has the secrets of the kitchen in hand,” the narrator reflects. “She will go home from the city archive knowing how to kill her husband at the kitchen table. She will be free from the curse of the kitchen and the bed—and soon.”
The experience of reading Kitchen Curse mirrors Maharani’s experience of discovering stories from the archives: It’s often difficult to tell where you are in history—especially when your only view of it is through the limited scope of a kitchen window or a bathroom stall. The world of Kitchen Curse is a deliberately disorienting and unfamiliar one, but with this final jolt, Kurniawan places you squarely in the maelstrom of colonial history. Like Maharani, only then do you understand that this is where you are now, and it’s where you’ve been the entire time.
Noah Florais a freelance writer based in New York.