‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan

kurniawan

2002, (released in translation 2015),498 P.  Translator: Annie Tucker

Publisher’s site: https://www.textpublishing.com.au/books/beauty-is-a-wound

Well, the opening sentence gives you a pretty good sense of how this book is going to go:

One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rolse from her grave after being dead for twenty one years.

I have not been the only reader to recognize the resonances with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude,  and just as when I read that book for the first of what turned out to be many, many times, I just didn’t want to leave this magical world.  I didn’t understand what was going on, but I just loved it.

Dewi Aya was descended from Dutch Indonesian stock. That side of her heritage was not particularly important to her, and when the colonists left after WWII, she stayed on working as a prostitute, by choice this time, after being forced into prostitution by the occupying Japanese soldiers. She gave birth to four daughters, all with different and unknown fathers: Alamanda, Adinda, Maya Dewi and Beauty.  The first three daughters were beautiful, but their beauty entangled them into strained and strange relationships with powerful men.  When Dewi Aya fell pregnant for the final time, she wished for an ugly child, and her wish was fulfilled.  This, then, is the story of these four daughters and the men who love them, within the small fictional village of Halimunda. At the same time, it is a bawdy and funny satirical critique of colonialism and repression.

There is a fairy tale quality to this book, where women marry dogs, men can meditate themselves into atoms, and the dead live on as both ghosts and physical presences.  One story unfolds into another, and there is an Arabian Nights quality that runs throughout.  In interviews the author, Eka Kurniawan has noted the influence of Indonesian puppet-play and folk tales, and it’s detectable in its ‘once upon a time’ quality,  and the picaresque good-and-evil dilemmas and retributions that play through the lives of the main characters.

At the same time, there’s a very clear historical narrative that underpins the story as the Dutch, Japanese, Communists and anti-Communists pass through. The massacre of the communists drenches the middle part of the book, and there is mention of the Indonesian military involvement in East Timor.  There are few dates, and I’m certain that the historical commentary and allusions to actual characters would be far more meaningful to someone with a good understanding of Indonesian history (and to my shame, that’s not me).  In fact, that was one of the strongest feelings that I came away with: my embarrassment that I had never read an Indonesian book before, or known of an Indonesian author in this huge, populous country to our north. Apparently the translator received a PEN grant for the translation, and it highlighted for me that translation is so important in stretching our literary imaginations.  It’s a good translation too, with a light lyricism and humour that seemed part of the work itself.

I had to quell my uneasiness that I was missing the metaphors and allusions that would be woven into this book for its Indonesian audience. Even in my ignorance, I was drawn into the stories of each of the daughters, delighted in the unpredictability of a magical world, and felt satisfied by the the ending which came full circle and drew it all together.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from : Yarra Plenty Regional Library

 

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3 responses to “‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan

  1. It’s a fascinating book, I agree.
    I know what you mean about missing-the-allusions-anxiety. I’m reading a book about a Hindu community in Canada, and I feel the same way. It doesn’t detract from the experience of reading the book (and I have learned so much about Hindu religion and culture!) but it does make me want to read their foundational myths…

  2. Years ago I read and enjoyed Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet. I remember gaining some sense of Indonesian history from the Quartet as it centres on a Javanese nobleman and journalist fighting against the Dutch colonial rulers and set between 1890-1920.
    Reading your review has prompted me to read Kurniawan’s book and then re-read the Buru Quartet. Be interesting to see how it reads today!

    • I hadn’t heard of that book either. It’s concerning that Indonesia is so close to us and yet we (well, I) know so little about it.

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