O by Eka Kurniawan

oMy review is published in The Jakarta Post on July 21, 2016. The link is here: http://www.thejakartapost.com/life/2016/07/21/review-o-a-dangerous-tale-on-the-law-of-the-jungle.html

And Eka Kurniawan has hightlighted my quote from my review in The Jakarta Post in his site: http://ekakurniawan.com/books/o

Here is the whole article:

Charles Darwin defined The Law of the Jungle as “the principle that those who are strong and apply ruthless self-interest will be most successful”. The jungle is a place full of competition and individuals fighting for their survival where species defend their spot in the food chain and participate in the race of evolution.

But The Law of the Jungle which Rudyard Kipling introduced in The Jungle Book is completely different. Kipling’s laws were a set of codes that animals must follow to coexist. Instead of individualism and competition, in Kipling’s version of the law species survived by fulfilling their natural obligations and inter-species social cooperation.

Kipling wrote a poem on The Law of the Jungle that read: “Now this is the Law of the Jungle, as old and as true as the sky. And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack”.

And the question remains: Whose view of the natural world is right?

Animal-human relations in literature are fairly common. From modern stories about a person’s experience with their pet to the classics White Fang, The Call of the Wild and Tarzan. Eka Kurniawan, who just won the inaugural World Readers Award 2016 for Beauty is A Wound, has followed suit in his recently launched book, O.

Kurniawan has worked his way up the literary ladder in recent years. Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) was on the long list for the Man Booker Award 2016 and has been translated into English, French and Korean (the latter will be released next year). Aside from Man Tiger and O, Kurniawan’s first famous book was Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is A Wound).

O is the name of a female monkey who begins the story living side by side with other animals in a small suburban area in Rawa Kalong (Kalong Swamp). At the beginning, O is like any other ordinary monkey; she loves to spend her life peacefully foraging away and going on dates with her eccentric boyfriend, Entang Kosasih. Many monkeys find her strange for falling in love with Entang Kosasih, who desires to become a human being. One day, he just disappears.

O loves Entang Kosasih and initially does not understand the situation, but is then inspired to try to find a way to be human too. She joins the Topeng Monyet (Dancing Monkey) Show, a cruel show in which she is forced to wear masks and do tricks to earn money for her captor, Betalumur. She is forced to wear a dress, hold a basket and an umbrella, and walk with her back in an upright position. Despite the abuse, O has no intention of escaping from Betalumur. She believes that through suffering and hardship, someday she will understand how to become a human being.

Rini Juwita, another charater in this novel, is a woman struggling with a failing marriage. In her frustration, she runs away with a stray dog, Kirik. Prior to being adopted by Rini off the street, Kirik was being raised to be sold as dog meat, and his siblings had already been sold for their tender and juicy flesh. His mother retaliated by killing their owner before running away with her only surviving pup. They lived on the street for a few days before his mother was killed in hit a hit-and-run, leaving him alone.

The death of his mother triggered another set of events that eventually led to Kirik being hunted for his life. Kirik meets O and plays the devil’s advocate. “Believe me, you’ll never be human. I have never heard of such a thing before,” that is the advice Kirik offers O in an attempt to return her to her senses.

Eka tells a story of animals and humans living in slum areas where they have to put their trust in themselves. The world is a big and lonely place, full of mean and dangerous creatures. Kirik’s pronunciation, “Life is a matter of eat or be eaten,” is the soul of this story. When the weak have to die, they will die. After death, they will turn into something completely new. This is a story about the evolution from ape to man.

O and Kipling’s The Jungle Book are similar in many ways, although their ideologies are contradictory. Kipling’s little boy, named Mowgli, did not want anything to do with humans, while O wants to be human. Kipling holds the belief that the important aspect of evolution is the good of the group, rather than the good of the individual. While Eka favors the idea of an individual’s struggle to survive. He defends, in every sense, an updated version of the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Not everyone believes in Darwinism and many religious people are still skeptical. Studies have shown that in some places in the world, more than half the population does not accept Darwin’s theory, although 160 years have passed since the publication of On the Origin of Species. As Kirik says to justify his belief: “I have never seen a monkey turn into a human being.”

O is a stunning novel that challenges those who still question natural selection. With remarkable skill, Eka tells a story about animals and human beings arguing about the existence of God, religion and our fate. O has emerged at the right time to raise readers’ consciousness about the level of ignorance in society.

With elegance and wit, Eka takes on a “dangerous idea” by using Darwin’s notion as the basis of his fiction, since many people still disbelieve it. O is a fusion of Darwinism and anti-Kipling ideology.


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