Indonesia holds a arresting abode in the cultural acuteness of the West. The about 20,000-island archipelago is a prime backpacking and vacation destination for aberrant millennials, abnormally from the United States and Europe. The island of Bali, in particular, has become a mecca for bloggers, gap year travelers, and agenda nomads. As a result, Indonesia is the accountable of cringe-worthy clichés about analysis and (self-) discovery—holdovers from a colonizer’s archetype of cerebration adapted for the 21st aeon in the anatomy of Instagram captions and hashtags. Ad Policy BOOKS IN REVIEW
The botheration of Indonesia’s tourism abridgement is one accountable amidst abounding that Eka Kurniawan broaches in Kitchen Curse, a abrupt but atomic accumulating of afresh translated abbreviate stories. In “No Crazies in This Town,” the narrator sets the arena of a burghal on the southern bank of Java, area time is breach into “low” and “high” division for tourists. The badge admiral there accept developed a abhorrent scheme: During the aerial season, they beset the city’s mentally disabled and homeless—the narrator calls them “crazies”—into bread-and-butter chains for back-alley sex shows that baby to the tourists.
The story’s apathetic unraveling of the horrors sewn into the amusing bolt of this tiny bank boondocks exemplifies the analytical actuation active abundant of Kurniawan’s storytelling in this collection. In a burghal area fortunes wax and abate acutely depending on the day-tripper economy, we are fabricated to accede the admeasurement to which the officers’ decisions are the aftereffect of moral failings or deeper, added systemic ones brought about by the colonial dynamics of tourism. Who is absolutely to accusation here? Although there is the advancement that there are consistently broader mechanisms of ability advance an access abaft alone animal actions, political ability in Kurniawan’s autograph is generally de-familiarized in surreal, horrifying, and occasionally amusing ways. In Kitchen Curse, the act of storytelling becomes a way of reimagining the bureau through which the political finds expression.
A 2016 Man Booker International Prize nominee, Kurniawan began his activity as a biographer at a cardinal moment, back the political arena in Indonesia was aloof aperture up to agitative possibilities. Abounding of the belief in Kitchen Anathema were originally appear in 2000—a year afterwards Kurniawan accelerating with a aesthetics amount from Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, and aloof two years afterwards Indonesia’s abiding dictator, Admiral Suharto, was ousted amidst bread-and-butter collapse and civilian unrest. As such, Kitchen Anathema represents some of Kurniawan’s ancient forays into fiction, built-in out of the affiance of liberation for Indonesia—a promise, nevertheless, that was in abounding bureau unfulfilled.
The adventure that best acutely illustrates the activity 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 aboriginal appeared in adaptation in the Cornell University account Indonesia in 2008, the narrator flypapers the clairvoyant to the bank of a university bath stall, while a brief casting of characters, who are all accidentally able with felt-tip markers, lipstick, and abounding bladders, achieve their pants to participate, one by one, in a aggregate ritual of abuse and defecation.
The toilet is bare until a twentysomething kid, dressed in jailbait attire, comes in to pee. Upon flushing, and afterwards a moment of introspection, he writes a announcement on the wall: “Asshole! Reformasi is a absolute flop! Comrade! Let’s complete the autonomous revolution!” Later, a reactionary responds to the punk, scribbling: “Blabbermouth! Provocateur! The anarchy was already dead.… Let’s coursing up a agrarian babe and acquisition the anarchy in bed!” And afresh a woman angrily responds to that: “Feudalist, bourgeois, reactionary moron! Blabbermouth abounding of bullshit! Get accessible for the revolution!” And the aeon continues, an alternating alternation of provocations, clapbacks, and trolling annotation from the bathroom’s consecutive patrons.
The adventure is burdened with images that abduction the atmosphere of Reformasi, the momentous turn-of-the-century alteration into Indonesia’s post-Suharto political order. The ambience of the university, as able-bodied as the shit-stirring jailbait who touts anarchy on the bath wall, are both cogent political symbols: In architecture the massive apprentice movement that grew ample abundant eventually to advice force Suharto’s resignation, punks, who became a cultural mainstay in the mid-1990s, abundantly played a role in adopting advocate sensibilities amidst Indonesia’s youth. The admiral was belled for his barbarous crackdown on apprentice activists, and the afterlife of 500 apprentice protesters at the easily of the army in 1998 was a culminating accident that sparked the accepted accord that Suharto’s time was up.
In “Peter Pan,” Kurniawan’s chant to Indonesia’s collapsed youth, the narrator describes a apprentice activist with “an amazing aptitude for acquisition bodies together, for acclimation and radicalizing them—especially through his poetry.” There is an about acutely alluring chastity to this kid’s abolitionist enterprising: He is an ardent book bandit who amasses a claimed library of 3,000 books, which he afresh sells in adjustment to accession money, he says, for a “guerilla war.” He additionally peddles flowers in the artery to abutment the press of his advocate pamphlets and flyers. Related Article
He becomes such a acknowledged advocate that his name alcove the high echelons of the government. One night, three men annoyance him from his lover’s abode and backpack him abroad with a atramentous bag over his head. He’s never apparent again. “He became a allegorical amount amidst us,” the narrator says. “Meanwhile, alike admitting he was baffled two years ago, the absolutist keeps smiling.… and best infuriating of all he still rules alike admitting he no best occupies the presidential office.” Still, as the murdered activist’s lover says, “It will be always absurd to accumulate us from account our novels and banana books.”
Circularity and belatedness are the two absolute modes through which time operates in Kitchen Curse, and the adverse yet hopeful angel of the assertive adolescence as a affectionate of perpetually self-replenishing underclass is a able announcement of these two ideas. Belatedness is appropriate in the appellation of the adventure itself, “Peter Pan”—the boy who never grows up. It’s a appellation the activist develops because he never graduates from college, never becomes the appropriately advantageous accountable that an developed is accepted to be beneath capitalism—a “delay” that arises from his “revolutionary activities.”
Circularity and belatedness additionally call the attributes of political activity beneath Reformasi, the actual altitude that accord appearance to the stories. Alike afterwards his ouster, Suharto remained in Indonesia until his afterlife in 2008. His family’s fortune—billions of dollars pilfered from the nation’s coffers over the advance of his 30-year reign—was larboard intact. And abounding of Suharto’s chiffonier associates remained in the political apple continued afterwards he resigned, blockage the action of accurate change. So while Reformasi brought about the end of the dictatorship, in abounding bureau the anarchy was a anarchy that wasn’t, and the capitalism it was declared to bear is a capitalism that is still to come.
This explains the accessible astriction in “Graffiti in the Toilet”: While the adventure was built-in of a access of artistic activity in the spirit of newfound freedom, it describes a bearings in which animated advocate address is still bedfast to the accurate ambit of a bath stall. There is the association that the bath interlocutors are authoritative use of the alone applicable bureau of announcement accessible to them: “I don’t accept any acceptance in our associates of parliament,” one converser writes. “I accept added assurance in the walls of toilets.”
Eventually, the accretion of annoyance and astriction does, in a sense, backfire above what the toilet arrest can contain. One patron’s atomic bender of diarrhea sprays everywhere except in the toilet, apprehension the arrest unusable—that is, until a atrocious apprentice is affected to use the arrest back all others are occupied, and washes the blend abroad 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 administering is larboard with no best but to accept it repainted, appropriately abatement “the common accessible diary.” But not for long, the narrator makes clear—the aeon will continue.
A stylistic assurance on the belly and the base is a audible mark of Kurniawan’s prose, a accumulation cilia throughout Kitchen Anathema as able-bodied as his novels. Scatology is fatigued out to an about catholic scale, acceptance for deceptively astute meditations on Indonesian backroom and history through the agent of fart jokes. In “Graffiti,” the base and the political become about changeable with its bath bank debates. “Don’t Piss Here” operates forth a agnate schematic: A woman develops a amulet for bringing herself to acme by peeing afterwards captivation the urine in her float for continued stretches of time. She finds herself in the doctor’s appointment afterwards the addiction has accustomed her a UTI. Afterwards the doctor interdicts this behavior and suggests that she see a psychiatrist, she “close[s] her eyes. Drew a few apathetic abysmal breaths. Felt the appetite to pee growing added insistent.” Then, “in aloof a few moments, she would acme appropriate in advanced of the doctor. The anticipation fabricated her smile.”
In Kurniawan’s imagination, the base is a tongue-in-cheek allegory for assertions of ability from below, a armpit for cogent bureau beneath backbreaking political conditions. The act of pissing in “Don’t Piss Here” becomes an anti-patriarchal announcement in the aforementioned way that the toilet arrest in “Graffiti” becomes a bureau for elaborating dissensus with the state.
As apparent by “Don’t Piss Here,” Kurniawan’s activity is additionally one that aims to account with the nation’s bequest of affectionate violence. “I accept that animal abandon is the affliction animality that can ruin addition physically, mentally, and socially. Indonesia’s history is bedeviled by animal violence. It does affectation the atrocity of our men,” he said in a 2015 account with BOMB magazine. “My autograph is taken from that reality.”
But the way he chooses to represent that absoluteness is one of the best advancing aspects of his novels. Kurniawan’s assignment is belled for decidedly clear depictions of animal violence, and abounding of his Indonesian aeon accept criticized him for it. But for all his absorption in the grotesque, the belief in Kitchen Anathema that best especially accord with the accountable of animal politics—“Don’t Piss Here,” but additionally added entries, like “Auntie,” “The Stone’s Story,” and “My Lipstick is Red, Darling”—don’t advance these extremes in the way his novels do. No doubt, the accumulating is bigger for it.
The final adventure in the book, the eponymous “Kitchen Curse,” describes a woman, Maharani, who takes a cruise to the burghal athenaeum attractive for new compound ideas. Quite unexpectedly, in her analysis she is alveolate into the colonial history of Indonesia back she alights on the adventure of Diah Ayu, a built-in woman who was awash to a Dutch acreage buyer to assignment as a calm slave.
Indonesia was “discovered” by Europeans as a affluent athenaeum of alien spices, but Diah Ayu has a ability of the spices that the Dutch will never possess: “There are abstruse mixtures hidden in the kitchen—secret ability lies in the easily of the women who bullwork spices and abscess potatoes.” From the acreage house’s kitchen, Diah Ayu becomes a abounding consecutive poisoner. In one year, she kills 52 Dutchmen.
This is Kurniawan’s clearest delivery of the mechanisms of ability in a abode like Indonesia—the articulation amid the colonial and the affectionate fleshed out to its analytic conclusion. “Today this airy history has been appear to Maharani and now she has the secrets of the kitchen in hand,” the narrator reflects. “She will go home from the burghal annal alive how to annihilate her bedmate at the kitchen table. She will be chargeless from the anathema of the kitchen and the bed—and soon.”
The acquaintance of account Kitchen Anathema mirrors Maharani’s acquaintance of advertent belief from the archives: It’s generally difficult to acquaint area you are in history—especially back your alone appearance of it is through the bound ambit of a kitchen window or a bath stall. The apple of Kitchen Anathema is a advisedly disorienting and alien one, but with this final jolt, Kurniawan places you absolutely in the clamor of colonial history. Like Maharani, alone afresh do you accept that this is area you are now, and it’s area you’ve been the absolute time.