‘Beauty is a Wound’, by Eka Kurniawan: A Memorable Epic that Tells the Story of a Wounded Country
An incredible amount of fairy-tale elements, grotesque, satire, violence…and beauty – as a sign of disgrace, as a wound that can never be healed – are all part of the rich and intense novel, ‘Beauty is a Wound’, by Eka Kurniawan, a great promise of Indonesian literature. His second novel translated in English, ‘Man Tiger’, has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.
In ‘Beauty is a Wound’, the references to ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez and to the so-called magical realism become already evident in the opening of the book:
“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. A shepherd boy, awakened from his nap under a frangipani tree, peed in his shorts and screamed, and his four sheep ran off haphazardly in between stones and wooden grave markers as if a tiger had been thrown into their midst…”
Dewi Ayu, the main protagonist, comes back from the grave after 21 years and, with her, we travel back and forth in time. Dewi Ayu is a determined half-Dutch half-Indonesian woman, destined to become a prostitute and be violated by men, like all her stunning daughters, excluding Beauty. Beauty is Dewi Ayu’s last hideous and ugly daughter, born twelve days before Dewi Ayu’s death, and cursed by her mother while still in the womb so that she would be ugly, because “There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.” Despite that, once Dewi Ayu comes back from the dead, she will find out that Beauty has a mysterious lover, even if
“She was a hideous girl with nostrils that looked like and electrical outlet, with skin like jet-black soot. She was a frightening girl who made people feel nauseous and puke all over, faint from terror, piss in their pants, and run away as if possessed, but didn’t make people fall in love.”
Dewi Ayu lives in an imaginary ‘Indonesian Macondo’, Halimunda, and experiences Indonesia’s tormented past of colonialism and conflicts, from the final years of the Dutch occupation, to the Japanese invasion, post-war revolution, Suharto’s dictatorship and his subsequent fall. It is when Indonesia is under Japanese rule that the woman becomes a prostitute. Even before understanding that her amazing beauty is an asset, and that she will have to sell her body, Dewi Ayu appears to be a very pragmatic woman – immediately from the moment she is forced into the whorehouse:
‘Their annoyance only grew when they returned to the house and found their friend Dewi Ayu sitting in a rocking chair humming softly, still eating her apples. She looked in their direction, and smiled to see their faces holding back rage.
“You look funny,” she said, “like rag dolls.”
They stood surrounding her, but Dewi Ayu stayed silent, until one of them finally said:
“Don’t you feel like something strange is going on?” she asked. “Aren’t you worried about anything?”
“Worry comes from ignorance,” said Dewi Ayu.
“You think you know what is going to happen to us?” asked Ola.
“Yes,” she said, “We are going to become prostitutes.”
They all knew it, but only Dewi Ayu was brave enough to say it.’
Dewi Ayu will continue with her profession even after the war, becoming a sort of entrepreneur of herself, deciding to only sleep with one man a night, despite the fact that every fellow in town would gladly queue outside her door.
Notwithstanding the many humoristic parts, the dominating theme is the lust for revenge and the violation of Dewi Ayu and her even more beautiful daughters (all born from a different father) by bloodthirsty and ruthless men. In this novel, women are vividly depicted and they are the strongest force, but they cannot battle the brutality of men – mostly violent thugs imprisoned by sexual desire – not even when wearing an iron underwear. Furthermore, Dewi Ayu’s family, including her grandchildren, is continuously going through all sorts of misfortunes. Dewi Ayu is aware that her dynasty has been targeted by the evil spirit of a local fisherman, as revenge towards her Dutch grandfather for an injustice he committed long time before. And there seems to be no escape:
‘For almost her entire adult life she had been thinking about this, thinking about how to save her daughters and guard their happiness, keep them free from the resentful curse of the evil ghost who would be her companion and her adversary for the rest of her life and beyond.’
Therefore, her coming back to life is to avenge this curse.
The doomed family can be seen as a metaphor of Indonesia, a country despoiled – to begin with – by the greed of Dutch colonialism. Afterwards, political conflicts and bloodshed continue to plague the city of Halimunda over the course of the years and under different rulers and, even after the massacre of communists and leftists, the town “…Was now filled with corpses sprawled out in the irrigation channels…”
Besides the realistic depictions, supernatural forces and restless spirits animate the book and haunt its protagonists, showing Kurniawan’s predilection for Indonesian pulp fiction and the gothic romance novels. The author also drew his inspiration from the Indonesian puppet theatre, the ‘wayang’ and the serious messages it conveys, albeit in an amusing way. In an interview at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival in 2015, Kurniawan said that “In wayang the theme is always serious. The scale of the stories – the Mahabharata the Ramayana – is always epic. There is a moral message to the work but the puppeteer always tells the story with humour, with joy. This really influenced me, and I tried to adopt this technique in writing my novel. I wanted to tell a story that is dark, that is epic, that raises lots of ethical questions, but tell it in a way that is light, and full of humour.”
Despite these colourful and gory depictions, and the insistence on portraying violence and brutality, the winning forces of the novel are resilience and grit, embodied by the women of the story. The male characters spend their incredible lives planning to plot, kill and foment the revolution in a continuous fight between Good and Evil, exactly like in the Ramayana epic tales. But, deep down, they also chase romantic love, without obtaining it because – despite possessing the women they so much desire – love cannot be easily won or taken for granted.
Kurniawan never loses the thread when inside the labyrinth of his complicated epic, despite all its continuous twists and backstories. He gives us, instead, reading material rich in decadence but also grace and beauty. It’s has been surely a challenge to blend realism, fantastic elements, folklore and violence within an array of well written intertwining episodes and still keep everything in place, still hold on to the strong characters and their development. The reader follows the protagonists’ lives with curiosity, eager to read what else could happen to them after all the impossible has already happened, and aware to be witnessing the making of modern Indonesia.
It is refreshing to witness how, finally, international voice is given to emerging Indonesian authors, and how a writer like Kurniawan managed to blossom after Suharto’s fall. Not knowing Bahasa Indonesia, I’m grateful to Annie Tucker, the novel’s translator, who approached the author after reading the book in the original language during her PhD thesis, confident to have found a treasure to be shared.
I have been enthralled by ‘Beauty is a Wound’, as it opened up a world unknown to me in the same way in which Gabriel García Márquez did with his masterpiece ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. Both novels have been for me the revelation of a new ‘dimension’ that I could finally approach, enjoy and learn from for its literary and cultural value.