Book Review: Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is a standout title, but falls flat

There’s something very appealing about translated fiction these days.  Whether it’s because more amazing novels from other languages are being translated than ever before, or whether the quality of those translations is better than it is ever has been is something an expert would need to weigh in on.  I can only comment on my reading experience as an avid reader.

My latest translated read was Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Man Booker Longlisted Indonesian writer, Eka Kurniawan, which appealed to me for two reasons.  Number one was that title.  Long, cutesy sounding titles have been all the rage lately, and while it would be incorrect to classify anything with the word ‘vengeance’ in it as adorable, there was something about this one that just stood out.  Number two was that it had been published by Text Publishing, a little publishing house in Melbourne who specialise in stellar international fiction (think Elena Ferrante and Agota Kristof) as well as being the publishers behind some of Australia’s most exciting fiction.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is the story of Ajo Kawir, described as ‘a lower-class Javanese teenage boy who is excited about sex, and likes to spy on fellow villagers.’  After he and his friend Gecko accidentally witness the rape of a local madwoman by two police officers, Ajo Kawir is rendered impotent.  The rest of the book deals with the repercussions of this fact on the adolescent and adult Ajo, from his inability to stay with his first love, to his thirst for violence.  Told in short bursts, the novel moves back and forth through a string of interconnected moments.  Its blurb describes the style as Tarantino-esque.  But for this reader, it was somewhat confusing.

As I read through this novel, I was never one hundred per cent sure where we were in the chronology of the book, nor the geography.  Sometimes the scenes moved in a linear fashion, but then they would suddenly move a long way forward or back.  Our glimpses of some characters were so fleeting that I would have to back track to remind myself who they were and how they fit into the story when they reappeared.  And if I am going to read an entire novel where the protagonist’s motivation is centred in a large part around the ‘little sleeping bird’ that lives in his shorts, even if it is only 200 pages long, I am going to need to know what’s going on.

For another reader, perhaps this book would have worked better.  Kurniawan can certainly write, and the idea of exploring ‘themes of female agency in a violent, corrupt and masculine world’ appeals to me very much.  But those themes were mired in confusion, and I found myself frustrated and unable to concentrate the further into the book I got.  I did not know Ajo Kawir well at all by page 135.  I could not bring myself to feel sorry for him, or worry about what was going to happen.  And so, a little over half way into the book, I abandoned it.

If you like books about trucks racing each other as they drive dangerously along their routes, street brawls, assassination plots, and people who fall in love whilst pummelling each other, you’d probably enjoy this.  It’s fairly literary, fairly obtuse, and a little bit like Tarantino’s lesser known stuff at a stretch.  But as for me?  My TBR is so big I’m scared it’s going to topple over and crush me to death, so I moved on to something else.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash is available now through Text Publishing.