06 March 2023

Eka Kurniawan's revolutions


Mga Himutok sa Palikuran at Iba Pang Kuwento (Graffiti in the Toilet and Other Stories) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from Indonesian to Filipino by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III (Savage Mind Publishing House, 2021)


And then the storm of shit begins.

- Roberto Bolaño, By Night in Chile


According to the book's introduction by Carlos M. Piocos III, the selections in Mga Himutok sa Palikuran at Iba Pang Kuwento were taken from Eka Kurniawan's two short story collections in Indonesian where seven out of 11 stories are still untranslated in English. The only collection that appeared in English so far was Kitchen Curse (Verso, 2019), translated by Benedict Anderson, Maggie Tiojakin, Tiffany Tsao, and Annie Tucker. 

Masterful irony was on display in each one, more so in "Alingasaw" (Stench) where the pile of corpses (victims of summary execution) became a normalized scene in the city of Halimunda. This story, told in one breathless sentence, was not only a story from/of Halimunda but the stories of human rights abuses anywhere in the world. While the specifics of the story was Indonesian, Eka's smelly portrait of "stench" universalized the injustice and helplessness during the height of authoritarian, military governments. They are happening now (in real time) in many areas of the world (as we speak). The story critiqued the cycle of impunity that accompanied every unforgivable massacre. Why are people so forgiving and forgetful of the dark past? Is amnesia a kind of gene being transferred from one generation to the next to silence and immunize us from the storm of shit?

In "Ang Kasaysayan ni Baliw" (History of Crazy), we read about the effects of war on a crazy mind. In a few efficient words, we witnessed how a "crazed state" operates to steal the only things left of a person with mental disability. His life, his dignity.

In these and in the titular story, we particularly saw how Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III approached the translation of Eka's words and transcoded to Filipino the latter's idiomatic turns of phrases. From the translation of the title alone, "Himutok" is an expression of frustration, hence "Himutok sa Palikuran" can mean "Frustrations in the Toilet". The translation, like the source material, was full of angst. Rightly so, for Eka's themes required a fist pumping approach and a breathless pace plus a dissenting voice.

We saw how Eka dealt with the topic of colonialism in the Dutch East Indies through unusual and surprising angles. In "Pambobola para kay Marietje" (Pulling Marietje's Leg), Eka privileged the voice of a soldier from Europe (a serial liar) to explain the psyche of frontier mentality, racism, and barbarism behind conquest. In "Sinong Nagpadala sa Akin ng Bulaklak" (Who Brought Me Flowers), the unrequited love story of a cruel administrator of Boven Digoel prison camp, a man who lacked for love ("isang taong kulang sa pag-ibig"), was foil for the political and personal story in the background. The prison administrator got a taste of his own medicine when he learned he can never be with the woman he learned to love (the one who gave him flowers since, according to her, he lacked for love) because of a life-changing decision of his: his order to exile her parents in the prison camp.

Love, of course, was the casualty of big bad regimes. In "Peter Pan", "Ka-Date" (The Date), and "Kuwentuhan Bago ang Romansa" (Discourse Before Lovemaking), the protagonists failed to salvage their love stories. Their futures were stolen from them because the dictator-strongman created the social conditions and hierarchies that upend and defeat normal lives. Love, time, the freedom to love and to live freely: these were all stolen from them by the dictator-strongman. The stories were emblematic of the stolen futures and stolen freedoms that permeate an era that snuffed all desire to live, an era that placed the shackles of regimented life and feudalism to the youth. And yet the characters who lost their life force had to resist to the very end in any way they can.

Consider the paradox: the dark ages of repression breed the most innovative and revolutionary literature. There's nothing like shitty times to inspire the writer to sharpen his pencil or stretch his fingers as he typed away the drafts of his frustrations and bloodless revolts. This was the case for Eka whose stories dealt with the turbulent empire, colony, and (recent) dictatorship. His pages were graffito of execrable disparities between the powerful and powerless in troubled times, and the smelly outcomes of those reeking regimes, when our leaders lacked for love and fucked everything up.

State violence was the story collection's fulcrum: the acts of the scalawag, hoodlum, military police state. The "spirit of revolt", the critical spirit behind the stories, was the inventive unfurling of alternatives to the official histories and narratives of oppression, a resistance against the closure and forgetfulness that follow heinous crimes against humanity. These powerful stories of revolutions were reckonings and excavations of truth and conscience, wherein Eka (and the reader with him) was reclaiming love, freedom, sovereignty, sanity from oppressors.

Corollary: I must read Eka's novels next.

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