There’s a novel that I have been encountering again and again on Amazon – Beauty is a Wound by Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan (Website, Facebook). An article on The Economist from July 2017 calls him “Indonesia’s finest novelist”. For his use of magic realism and surrealism, he is frequently compared to Gabriel García Márquez, Salman Rushdie, Günter Grass and Haruki Murakami.
Kurniawan was born in 1975 in a small town called Tasikmalaya, at a distance of seven hours from Jakarta, and has said in an interview that he began writing around age 11 or 12 because there weren’t many books around. He wanted to read but was unable to find suitable material. So he would just write up his own stories. When he moved to a bigger city, and finally had access to proper libraries, he began reading literature from all over the world. Having studied philosophy at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, he decided to seriously become a writer when he found a highly acclaimed novel called Hunger (1890) by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859–1952).
Beauty is a Wound was first published in Indonesian in 2002 as Cantik Itu Luka when Kurniawan was only 27. It has been only recently translated into English by Los Angeles-based Annie Tucker. Pushkin Press, its UK publisher, describes the book as “a colour-drenched epic, filled with vivid sex and violence”. The novel is a sweeping concoction of several genres: history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humour and romance.
The story opens in the Dutch East Indies with an explosive sentence: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years”. Dewi Ayu is a beautiful Indo (part-South-East-Asian, part-European) prostitute, and the plot revolves around her and her four daughters.
The world we are shown is dark and dangerous—a place where madness, incest, bestiality, murder, rape are everyday realities. This dysfunction of the human mind and body exists within (or, it could be said, is representative of) the larger canvas of political tension and turmoil that begins with the Dutch and continues with the Japanese, the Communists, the newer rulers. The publisher states on the book’s political significance:
Kurniawan’s gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation’s troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million Communists, followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.
Though the novel was unsettling, I found it thoroughly entertaining. Kurniawan delivers surprises at every turn. His boisterous language is almost theatrical. The mise en scène is palpable—consisting of coconut and cocoa bean plantations, owls, lizards, mosquitoes and frogs. I also loved how he lavishly describes the cultural richness of Indonesia, repeatedly making references to different religions and folktales that have shaped the land. Notes on Islamic rituals are mixed with those on the virgin birth of Christ and the characters of the Mahabharata.
It is worth noting that the story is certainly sympathetic to the unfortunate plight of prostitutes (which is, of course, good)…but as it lacks strong female characters who aren’t reduced to their sexuality, it may seem a tiring and incomplete read for some. Also, because the novel has a exaggerated ironic tone, a certain irreverence persists till the end that may not be appreciated by every reader.
Yet, I felt, the heart of Beauty is a Wound remains pure, aflame with true passion. As we get to the close, we realise that the dysfunction that is unleashed through generations has its origin in thwarted love (as in Wuthering Heights), in one proper and genuine and selfless romance that was made to go horribly wrong, and that has (understandably) come looking for vengeance and destroyed everything and everyone in its path. This love can also be a metaphor, I believe, for the Indonesian nation itself. Unable to find and be itself, actualise itself, realise its potential, have what it really wants, it has suffered in the past, and the struggle continues…
She said it almost nostalgically. Over the years there had been much sadness, but there had been some good times too. “Really every woman is a whore, because even the most proper wife sells herself for a dowry and a shopping allowance…or love, if it exists,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t believe in love, actually it’s the complete opposite, I do all of this with the utmost love. I was born into a Dutch family and was a Catholic until I recited my syahadat and became a Muslim on my wedding day. I was married once and I was once a religious person. Just because I have lost all of that doesn’t mean I have lost love. I feel like I have become a Sufi and a saint. To be a whore you have to love everybody, everything, all of it: penises, fingers, and cow’s hooves.”
Other books by Eka Kurniawan available in English: Man Tiger and Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash. And check out this interesting Q&A with the author conducted at the University of Melbourne.