THE AUTHOR'S KOREAN BOW
ASK READERS from around the globe to name their favorite contemporary Japanese novelists and they’ll likely answer Haruki Murakami or Kenzaburo Oe. Ask them to name even one Indonesian author and they’re bound to get stumped.
Eka Kurniawan’s steadily growing international popularity, however, is poised to change this.
Born of Sundanese descent in Tasikmalaya, West Java, in 1975, Eka has been described as “the brightest meteorite” in contemporary Indonesian literature. His bibliography includes three novels, several short stories and a number of non-fiction pieces.
Eka has also been included on Publishers Weekly’s list of “Writers to Watch” and been positively compared to Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Twain.
“After half a century,” wrote renowned Indonesia scholar Benedict Anderson, “Pramoedya Ananta Toer has found a successor.” “His ability to combine history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor and romance is very unique,” noted Anna Soler-Pont, founder and director of the Pontas Agency, which handles the world rights for Eka’s works.
The writer has found resonance with with readers across the world. Now, he’s poised for a breakthrough in South Korea, a country with no previous significant appreciation of Indonesian letters.
Sohyun Park of South Korean publishing house Maybooks is currently translating two of Eka’s novels, Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty Is a Wound) and Lelaki Harimau (Tiger Man), both of which are slated for release in 2017.
For Park, Kurniawan’s works have been captivating from the get-go.
“When I started to read Cantik Itu Luka, I was thrilled by the very first sentence, ‘ Sore hari di akhir pekan bulan Maret, Dewi Ayu bangkit dari kuburan setelah dua puluh satu tahun kematian.’ [One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from the grave after 21 years of death.]
This kind of setting and imagination never happens in South Korean literature, where the sphere is always too confined in ‘realism’,” Park said.
“Eka’s works incredibly represent Indonesia’s history as a family chronicle. I wish South Korea had this kind of novel about its own past. At the same time [Eka’s novels] are also very contemporary, so I thought they could be really great references for South Korean readers,” she said.
Eka’s introduction to South Korean readers will mark a big step forward for Indonesian literature in that country.
“Even Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s works have not properly translated,” Park says. “This is the very first chance to seriously introduce Indonesian literature, which has been totally ignored so far, to Korean readers.”
Eka says that the lack of international interest in Indonesian literature is part of a general problem. “Let’s face it: there are almost no Vietnamese, Malay, Iranian, Korean, etc., representations in world literature nowadays,” he said in an email interview.
“The world is dominated by the English language. At the same time, only three percent [of ] books published in English every year are translations. It’s not a good figure for world literature.”
Eka also thinks that Indonesian literature might need a change of focus.
“Localism is a good thing, and unique, but can be misdirected into provincialism. If our literature cares only about ourselves, why should the world have to take a look at ours?” he said.
“Great literature is always about a dialog – person to person, society to society. A culture with other cultures. We have to open our arms to other literary traditions, and the world will open their arms.”