Introduction to ‘Graffiti In The Toilet’

by Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, “Indonesia” Vol. 86

At the age of only thirty-two, the Sundanese Eka Kurniawan is without any doubt the most original, imaginative, profound, and elegant writer of fiction in Indonesia today. If anyone has a chance of filling the aerie in Indonesian literature left empty with the death of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, it is he. It is no accident that his first book, published in 1999, Pramoedya Ananta Toer dan Sastra Realisme Sosialis, is by far the best work, admiring and critical at the same time, on the master written by an Indonesian. Traces of Pram are visible everywhere in his fiction, yet Eka, born into another culture and in another, gloomier epoch, writes in an inimitable manner, which is immediately recognizable in any paragraph. Over the last six years, he has published two outstanding novels, the enormous if unwieldy Cantik itu … Luka (Beauty is … a Wound) in 2002, and the fiercely dense Lelaki Harimau (Man-Tiger) in 2004. In 2005 he published his first collection of short stories, Cinta Tak Ada Mati (No Death for Love), and, in the same year, a second collection, Gelak Sedih dan Cerita-cerita Lainnya (Sad Laughter and Other Tales), from which the story translated below has been drawn.

He was born on November 28, 1975, in a remote village of southeastern West Java, two hours’ drive south of Tasikmalaya, and close to the Indian or Indonesian Ocean. This village, where he spent his earliest years with his four grandparents, is blazingly recreated as the scene of Cantik itu … Luka. Later, he joined his parents at a rubber plantation near to Tjilatjap. He received his primary education in a public school in the small town of Pangandaran. There, stimulated by the books he borrowed from itinerant bicycle-riding “librarians,” he started to discover his gifts. He wrote comical short stories for his classmates and published his first poems in the children’s magazine Sahabat. When the time came to enter junior high school, he moved to Tasikmalaya and lived with an aunt. He continued to write, now with a typewriter given by his father when he scored the top marks for his class in five subjects. Although he expanded his reading in the school’s library, he eventually got bored and set off on weeks of solitary wandering, first to Jakarta, then back through Tjirebon, Tegal, and Purwokerto. On his return, he found that he had been expelled.

The only school prepared to admit him without forcing him to repeat classes was the special teacher-training senior high school back in Pangandaran. (These high schools were abolished not long after he graduated.) For his final two years, he was always the top student, but also indulged his wanderlust in the Segara Anakan marshes near Nusa Kambangan, the port of Tjilatjap, and the south-coast caves used to store ammunition during the Japanese Occupation; these locations became the settings of some of his subsequent stories.

On graduation, he enrolled as a student in Gadjah Mada University’s Literature Faculty, where he also worked for the student publications Pijar and Balairung. This was the period when Suharto’s New Order was starting to fall apart, and regime violence against students steeply accelerated. When bored with classes, he turned to graphic design, writing comic books and playing in bands. He has said that he decided to become a writer when he found himself stunned by Hunger, Knut Hamsun’s celebrated novel about Norwegian peasant misery.

After completing his MA thesis on Pramoedya, he set to work on his first novel, titled O Andjing (Oh Dog), 140,000 words long, which he completed in 2001 at the age of twenty-six. But he could find no publisher in Djakarta, only a tiny one in Central Java, which promised to print only two hundred copies. Luckily, at the end of that year, he was awarded a six-month fellowship by the Akademi Kebudayaan Yogyakarta, which gave him the time radically to revise O Andjing and turn it into the scarcely less enormous Cantik itu Luka, which, with the support of the AKY, was finally published at the very end of 2002. It stirred a huge controversy in literary circles, which helped the first printing to be sold out very quickly. In 2003, he moved to Djakarta with his wife, the writer Ratih Kumala. There he worked on Lelaki Harimau (mostly written in the food court of the Sarinah department store), which was published in May 2004 and quickly went through two printings. In 2006, Ribeka Ota’s translation of Cantik itu Luka into Japanese came out. In the midst of all this, Eka found the time and the energy to translate Maxim Gorki’s Strike, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons, as well as Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve.

Some of Eka’s readers find many of his writings distinctly morbid, even perverse, in their fascination with murder, violent sex, monsters, the supernatural, and Indonesia’s heart-breaking modern history. They are not mistaken in so feeling. But the judgment misses three things: the sheer, queer elegance of his Indonesian prose, which at its best is superior even to Pramoedya’s; his black sense of humor, quite close to Pram’s as well as Twain’s; and his gift for parody and ear for how his fellow- Indonesians (of different groups and generations) speak.

I decided to translate Coret-coret di Toilet not only because it is one of Eka’s best-known short stories, but because it is very blackly funny. It catches perfectly the atmosphere of student life in Indonesia at the start of the new century, as the brief promise of Reformasi was being extinguished by gangsterism, cynicism, greed, corruption, stupidity, and mediocrity. It also mirrors beautifully the bizarre lingo shared by ex-radicals, sexual opportunists, young inheritors of the debased culture of the New-Order era, and anarchists avant la lettre. Finally, it shows Eka’s gift for startling imagery, sharp and unexpected changes of tone, and his “extra-dry” sympathy for the fellow-members of his late-Suharto generation. It could be said to be Eka’s update of parts of Pram’s Tjerita dari Djakarta, written as the promise of the Revolution was being extinguished, which has the Eka-ish subtitle, Karikatur2 Keadaan dan Manusianja.

The translation of “Corat-coret di Toilet” (Grafitti In The Toilet), read here.

Versi online tulisan ini bisa dilihat di laman Jurnal Indonesia, Cornell University.

3 thoughts on “Introduction to ‘Graffiti In The Toilet’”

  1. “Hamsun’s celebrated novel about Norwegian peasant misery.” Huh? It’s about a homeless, unstable intellectual in a Scandinavian city in the late 19th century. What “peasant”? The book blew me away too, though, in 1982….

  2. agb:
    You are right: Hamsun’s Hunger is not about peasant. I think Anderson misquoted here. It is Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil that known for it’s peasant theme.

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