10 may. 2018

Eka Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound: A Review

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (Melbourne, Text, 2015. 498 pages). Translated into English by Annie Tucker.
Eka Kurniawan’s novel was first published in 2002, and it was only thanks to the tenacious effort by the translator, Anne Tucker, that this epic Indonesian saga about a cursed female dynasty finally became available to English-language readers.

The novel occasionally feels more like a series of tales joined by a common thread, which in this case is Dewi Ayu, the fiercely independent woman whose resurrection after twenty-one (yes, 21!) years of her death is narrated in the first chapter. This is a book that has almost everything: love, sex, violence, rape, torture both physical and psychological, incestuous relationships, politics, folklore, religion, magic, ghosts, myths. The list could go on and on.

Dewi Ayu is born just a few years before the Japanese Imperial Army invades colonial Batavia and subjugates the local population while their Dutch masters flee the island of Java. Her story of survival during imprisonment in a camp and forceful prostitution for the Japanese officers is an amazing one, and Kurniawan spares us no detail. Thanks to her Weltanschauung, her cheery yet fatalistic view of life around her, Dewi Ayu triumphs over the war, the Japanese and the despotic patriarchal men in authority once independence is declared for Indonesia.

She gives birth to three daughters, Alamanda, Maya Dewi and Adinda. They are all beauties and they will be, just like their mother, lusted after by various men. Alamanda’s beauty, legendary, creates the profound antagonism between Shodancho, a military officer with a penchant for breeding fierce dogs, and Kliwon, an idealistic youth who ends up becoming the local Communist leader. Shodancho takes up the task of massacring Communists with gusto, only to have his by then wife Alamanda begging for Kliwon’s life. She will promise her love to Shodancho (who had raped her before and during their marriage) if Kliwon is allowed to live.

And he does indeed remain alive. However, he is exiled, tortured, humiliated and degraded beyond what is tolerable on an island called Buru (the very island where Suharto kept thousands of political prisoners during his regime).

Most of the novel is set in a fictional town called Halimunda, surrounded by jungle and mountains to the north and the ocean to the sea. Dewi Ayu, the grandchild of Dutch plantation owners, is initially raised as a privileged mixed-race girl, but the advent of war will put an end to her wealth and her liberty. Given her legendary beauty and no less fabulous love-making skills, she will manage to remain self-reliant and powerful in her own way. She is by far the most powerfully-depicted character, and her life story, together with her three daughters’ life stories, combine to create a richly imaginative and humorous epic. By contrast, male characters seem rather flat in their unwavering adherence to violence or their indecision.

Author Eka Kurniawan at the 2017 Goteborg Book Fair. Photograph: Peter Norrthon.
Annie Tucker’s translation is a true gift to 21st-century literature. Bearing in mind that Beauty is a Wound was first published in 2002, two years before Bolaño’s 2666, we need ask ourselves if it is just mere coincidence that two works by two writers who had never heard about (let alone read) each other have much in common. The world of Kurniawan’s novel is one where the beauty of women is a burden, almost a curse, to them. The violence men direct at them echoes the brutality Bolaño was denouncing in Mexico.

A great work of literature. Highly recommended.

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