Beauty Is a Wound
So sorrowful, so savage, so freaking weird is Beauty Is a Wound that I found myself backtracking paragraphs, just to ensure I’d correctly understood their lunatic import. Eventually I accepted the fact that here was a work of the kind that Westerners invariably read through 1D glasses. This point should be made at once, prior to any effort at explication or praise, because a degree of cultural misprision is baked into the process. As far as I can tell, this is a fine and terrible book by a gifted writer: but really, I’m only shining a flashlight around
a darkened room.
Beauty Is a Wound’s West Javanese author was fortuitously born on the day when East Timor declared its independence in 1975. Kurniawan studied philosophy in Yogyakarta and published his first book, a study of the fiction of Indonesia’s postwar literary giant Pramoedya Ananta Toer, in 1999. The translation of his debut novel (first published in Indonesian in 2002) by American Annie Tucker rarely jars on the ear – and surely it must have been a labour of love, given the content and extent of the undertaking – but nonetheless it is a hugely ambitious attempt to render into terms explicable to non-native readers the experience of Indonesia’s passage from colonial subject to independent nation, in the guise of a family saga and a ghost story.
Kurniawan’s novel is long, densely textured, complex in time scheme and epic in scope. It is also so funny and offhand about awful events that it sometimes feels as though the novel’s moral mechanism has snapped. Yet the author’s intelligence breathes through the lines of the page, and he is equally capable of delicacy as decadence. Those who recall the preposterous brio of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude’s opening lines, their amalgam of fairytale and journalistic record, hard data and the manifestly bizarre, will recognise kinship here:
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, as you may imagine, is no ordinary woman. And as the narrative proceeds you gain a sense of just how remarkable she is. The broad historical background of Dewi’s life and death (and life!) sticks close to actual record: childhood under Dutch colonialism, with its colour bars and seigneurialism, and an entry into young adulthood under Japanese rule during World War II. During that conflict the beautiful half-Dutch Dewi ends up a comfort woman, housed in a prettily furnished brothel where each night she is repeatedly raped while her fellow prostitutes scream through the walls.
What is so shocking about this account is Dewi’s fatalism. She manages the situation as deftly as she is able, parlaying her powerful sexual allure into something closer to concubinage. Dewi ends the war with a black sense of humour, hard-earned entrepreneurial flair, and a high reputation among the menfolk of the town. She only sleeps with one man a night thereafter, despite queues of lust-struck males.
What becomes clear is that Dewi is more than one woman; she is the nation of Indonesia, raped first by the Dutch, then the Japanese, before entering into an uncertain and fractious independence. Indeed Dewi’s eldest daughter, Alamanda, a beauty even more astonishing than her mother, combines all those racial tints in her physical make-up. It isn’t long before two suitors appear: Shodancho, 20 years Alamanda’s senior – a literally invulnerable former guerilla fighter who led his island’s people to independence from the Dutch – and Comrade Kliwon, a young man in every way her ideal match. When circumstances conspire to keep the young lovers apart, Kliwon becomes a fierce communist and opponent of the wealthy, ethically compromised old man.
Kurniawan’s great achievement is to hold in ideal tension various competing registers. There is a strong folkloric undercurrent – the Mahabharata is mentioned as often as aspects of the modern world – and yet its most fantastical elements (a woman reanimating after two decades in the grave, a pregnancy altered by a curse into a belly filled with nothing but air) are rubbed against a scabrously funny and ostensibly realist account of daily life on Halimunda: a place, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Márquez’s town of Macondo, which exists halfway between geopolitical reality and myth.
As the postwar era darkens, so does the novel. The ghosts of the tortured, the raped, the impoverished begin to crowd out the living. Comrade Kliwon ends up exiled to Buru, the island known in reality as “Suharto’s Gulag”, and Shodancho heads off at one point to quell the nascent uprising on the island of East Timor. Such absences do not upset the course of the novel, however: this has always been a story about women, and the most finely drawn characters are female. They possess in spades what aphorist and philosopher Emil Cioran once called “the terrible power of the oppressed”.
As the novel’s title suggests, it is their beauty that wounds them. When the still-glamorous matriarch Dewi Ayu curses her fourth daughter in the womb, it is because she is determined that she will produce no more hostages to masculine fortune. That child, hideously ugly, is named Beauty (all the novel’s cruel irony is contained in that choice). And it is her experience that will bind up the distant past of her nation with its future. It is a desperately awful history in Kurniawan’s telling. But it is one that he cannot resist engaging with. The final wonder of Beauty Is a Wound is how much pure liveliness and joy there is mixed up with the pain, as if the verdancy of the author’s imagination was racing to cover a million corpses with fresh green tendrils. AF
Text, 384pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Eka Kurniawan, Beauty Is a Wound". Subscribe here.