Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 16, 2015

Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker

Beauty is a WoundBeauty is a Wound is the first novel available in English by the rising star of Indonesian writing, Eka Kurniawan.  He is said to be the next Pramoedya, no doubt because this scathing satire is a critique of Indonesia’s past, but I find the scabrous wit in this novel more provocative than Pramoedya’s more moderate tone in The Girl from the Coast, the only Pramoedya I’ve read, see my review).  Beauty is a Wound is very nearly 500 pages long, but it romps along with wilful disregard for the niceties of taste and decorum.  Perhaps that’s only as it should be, as one comes to grips with aspects of Indonesian history that most often lie buried beneath a veneer of restraint and good manners.

Beauty is a Wound Indonesian cover Wanting to check a couple of words and phrases that seemed rather incongruous in translation, I stumbled on an Indonesian edition at Google books, and discovered this striking cover, which I prefer to the rather bland cover (by John Gall) of the Text edition that I was reading.  The cover of Cantik Itu Luka conveys more of the idea that if you scratch beneath the surface of contemporary Indonesian life there is a violent past that lurks unresolved – ready to pounce and cause mayhem.

However, in an interview for Text (the publisher), Ewa Kurniawan says that the book is first and foremost a ghost story, with Indonesia’s troubled history as the background:

Your novel weaves its way through Indonesia’s history, from the days of Dutch colonialism to the modern age of independence. Was this an attempt to reinterpret your nation’s story for a new generation of readers?

To be honest, that wasn’t my intention with the novel. Pramoedya and some other Indonesian writers did a great job with this in their historical novels. My first intention was to write a ghost story, and you can still read Beauty Is a Wound in that way. It’s the story of a ghost’s vengeance, and I had to provide the background for the ghost’s revenge. That’s how the novel became what it is now. I don’t mind if people read the novel as a metaphor for Indonesia’s troubled history, but first and foremost it’s a ghost story.

As you will know if you have visited Indonesia, belief in the supernatural is part of the culture.  The ghosts that haunt Kurniawan’s story are more than the eeriness of a site with a traumatic history, such as Port Arthur.  In Beauty is a Wound there are walking, talking ghosts, supernatural manifestations, and a vengeful evil spirit at work!  The book grabs attention right from the opening lines:

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.  It all started with a noise coming from an old gravesite with an unmarked tombstone covered in knee-high grass, but everybody knew it was Dewi Ayu’s grave.  She had passed away at fifty-two, rose again after being dead for twenty-one years, and from that point forward nobody knew exactly how to calculate her age. (p.1)

Dewi’s reincarnation is not the only striking feature of her characterisation.  (Um, #puzzled frown, does it count as  reincarnation if you come back as yourself?)  Dewi, making the best of things after having been taken as a so-called ‘comfort woman’ during the Japanese Occupation, and used again by Dutch soldiers in the ensuing war of independence, reinvents herself as a local version of a courtesan.  She has a strong, assertive personality, is loved by all the men who can afford to buy her in Halimunda, and of course, is disliked by their jealous wives.

This narrative of a strong woman bouncing back from the trauma of a war crime is not one that we are used to.  If we know anything at all about the Japanese use of south-east Asian women to service their soldiers, it’s through the images of brave, dignified old women demanding a long overdue apology and compensation from the dismissive Japanese government which still refuses to be accountable for ruining their lives.  From the outset, readers of Beauty is a Wound need to get used to a form of characterisation which is distinctively different.

It is not just that there is a great deal of violence against women, not just that Kurniawan seems to relish describing men who are possessed by lust whenever they see naked women and sometimes very young girls, and not just that his female characters get over rape and sexual assault with equanimity, one of them even marrying her rapist.  Very few readers will fail to react against this portrayal of women unless they are used to the way women are depicted in fantasy and horror comics.  In Beauty is a Wound the novel draws on this objectification of women in a bawdy picaresque fashion reminiscent to Western readers of The Canterbury Tales and there isn’t much of what we usually recognise as character development.  Characters are not reflective, they are reactive.  If for the purposes of plot they need to behave differently, then they do so, without any apparent awareness or rationale.  They act in response to the actions of others rather than in a way that is coherent with the norms of human behaviour that we are used to in contemporary fiction.

Wayang (shadow_puppets) scene from 'Irawan's Wedding'

Well, it helps if you’ve seen a wayang kulit performance, because while they’re not exactly stereotypes or caricatures, these characters are more like wayang cut-out puppets, or Punch-and-Judy characters.  They dash from plot moment to plot moment, often in response to great external events, and like wayang characters, many of them owe their characterisation to the ancient Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabarata.  (That is to say, I could recognise some of them, even though I haven’t read either epic, because I used to read Indonesian folk tales derived from these epics, to the children at my school).  And like the dialogue in wayang kulit performances, the dialogue in Beauty is a Wound is bawdy, earthy and often at its most deadpan amusing when something serious is happening, or is portended.

This scene is like a reversal of the ancient fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’, because Beauty is the ironically-named hideously ugly fourth daughter of Dewi…

Just as he had promised, the prince came that weekend, still carrying yet another rose.  He came in through the window and sat at the edge of the bed with Beauty.  Then, taking the initiative, Beauty asked in an unwaveringly timid voice:
‘Where did you get that rose?’
‘From your yard.’
‘Oh, really?’
‘I’m short on cash.’  (p. 487)

Now, bearing in mind that Kurniawan says that it wasn’t his intention to create the novel as a metaphor for Indonesia’s history, it seems to me that readers can interpret his innocent, often helpless but surprisingly cunning female characters being subjected to brutality as metaphors for the defencelessness and resourcefulness of Indonesia under colonialism, and under the Japanese Occupation.   Dewi  Ayu and her daughters Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi  bounce back because as a nation, post-independence Indonesia had no option but to put the past behind it and to move on.  Unlike the British who exited their colonial possessions through negotiation, the Dutch fiercely resisted the loss of their Indonesian colonies, and they left behind none of the infrastructure or governance institutions that were some benefit to India, for example.  Dewi deliberately curses her fourth child so that she is born hideous because to be attractive is to invite exploitation.

However, if we don’t interpret these situations as metaphor, then this is a novel with some rather disturbing characterisation, similar to the monstrosities of folk lore but more overtly sexualised.  Comrade Kliwon, for example, begins his idealistic career as a sort of Robin Hood, but is lucky to escape summary execution in the Communist massacres of the 1960s. He comes back from incarceration on Bulu Island a broken man, but recovers sufficiently to become a small-time capitalist, becomes entranced by the pre-pubescent child Adinda and marries her, but then improbably waits in celibacy until she, aged 16, decides that she is ready.  They eventually have a child also destined for tragedy as all of Dewi’s family are.

The novel is deliberately grotesque, and it transpires, predicated on a powerful desire for revenge.  There is an evil spirit orchestrating the destiny of Dewi’s family, and he is determined to avenge the loss of his beloved by the Dutch.  Through the generations until they are all vanquished, the descendants of Ma Lyang suffer for the crime of the Dutch colonialist who stole her to be his concubine.  I am not sure what to make of this, but then, I am not a great reader of noir or horror.

And the novel counsels us not to sit in judgement.  Maman Gendang (not the evil mastermind, just one of the many grotesques) is one of the least likeable characters, and his crony Romeo warns him that wreaking havoc on innocent people in revenge for what happened to his daughter, risks military intervention.

‘What else do you think can be done by a man who is enraged by his daughter’s murder?’ asked Maman Gendang.  ‘I know those people are completely without sin, but I’m upset.’

He was indeed truly furious at everyone in the city, except for his cronies, but his daughter was also sort of like an excuse.  He had in fact held a grudge against the people for quite a long time, knowing for sure that they all looked down on him and his friends as unemployed goons who passed their time doing nothing but drinking beer and fighting.  He also held a grudge against them for thinking of [his daughter] Rengganis the Beautiful as an idiot, and for having stared at her with lustful and depraved looks.  He had a reason to be angry.

‘They believe that we are the garbage of society,’ Maman Gendang summarised.  ‘This is true, but many of us never got enough education to make anything of ourselves, and they closed the doors on us.  What can be done if we finally became robbers, became pickpockets, and only bided our time until we could get revenge on the people who made us jealous?  I was jealous when I saw good families with happy families.  I wanted something like that.  I finally got everything I wanted and now, after I have tasted happiness, someone has stolen that joy from me.  All my old grudges have been ripped open like a half-healed wound.’ (p. 458)

While this is the sort of self-justificatory argument that criminals use all over the world, and one that I reject entirely as an excuse for violence against anyone much less the innocent, it is also a cogent reminder of the endemic problem of poverty in Indonesia, and you can hear the pain of the lost generations that were denied any opportunity to have a meaningful life.

Beauty is a Wound is a very interesting book with a lot of think about.  Bouquets to Text Publishing for bringing it to us, and hopefully there will be many more stories from our southeast Asian neighbours in future!

PS Visit Tony Messenger’s blog for another take on this most intriguing book.

Author: Eka Kewanian
Title: Beauty is a Wound
Publisher: Text Publishing Company, 2015
ISBN: 9781925240238
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability

Fishpond: Beauty is a Wound


Responses

  1. I just bought this book — more out of a sense of patriotic duty than interest in the content. Your review excites me because Beauty is a Wound seems to be a great horror novel (I am a horror fiend!) but I am also worried because I love realistic fiction and realistic characters. These characters don’t sound realistic.

    It’d be interesting to pick up the metaphors and religious context of Beauty is a Wound as an Indonesian, however.

    P.S: I happen to like the Text cover more than the Indonesian cover. But maybe the Indonesian cover fits the book’s content more… I don’t know yet.

    • I meant historical context, not religious.. What was I thinking?

      • Funny you should say that, because religion doesn’t figure much in this novel – and you’d think it would, really. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of it, because it’s so rich in all kinds of issues that I think every review will focus on different things.

  2. Great review, Lisa. Definitely a book I want to get to at some point (a shame I couldn’t get to this session at the MWF, especially as there wasn’t much else in the way of world literature there…). I do wonder how much of the Frankfurt Book Fair/Lontar Foundation momentum will make its way into English over the next few years…

    • Yes, Frankfurt (despite a slow start on the part of the Indonesian government) has had some impact here, I think, but whether they will make an impact in Europe remains to be seen. However, Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts in that book that I just reviewed, Two Futures, make no bones about how important Indonesia is going to become in the world economy so perhaps Europe will have to sit up and take notice. After all, the Indonesian middle class i.e. their market, is already bigger than the entire population of Australia…

  3. Wow. The cover of that Indonesian edition is rather striking – a pity they had to commission a new one for the English translation.
    Looking forward to cracking this one open, Lisa.

    • I have to confess that I don’t quite understand what they’re trying to get at with the new cover. If you follow the designer’s link, it appears that this kind of fractured collage is a signature of his design, but it doesn’t convey anything much about the book IMO.

  4. […] ANZ LitLovers […]

  5. Do you think you now want to read his latest one ?

    • I’m interested to read almost anything from Indonesia, but I’d like to read more by Indonesian women writers before I read another of his. Having said that, I also want to read the Pramoedya trilogy too. So much to choose from!

  6. […] occupier for generations.  More pertinent is the novel of Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound which treats the Japanese Occupation in the course of its sweep across Indonesian history, and so […]

  7. […] See my ANZ LitLovers review […]

  8. […] sometimes found the portrayal of women in Beauty is a Wound disturbing, and Lisa at ANZLitLovers examines this aspect in her thoughtful review. To me, the women in Man Tiger are more sensitively […]

  9. […] Melbourne publishers, Text has published one of their young authors, Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound translated by Annie Tucker.This big, baggy novel has everything, from ghosts and reincarnations to […]

  10. […] not in the same league as Beauty is a Wound which was nominated for the Man Booker International (see my review) it turned out to be good entertainment and thought-provoking as well.   It’s disconcerting […]


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