First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
The epic Indonesian novel Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years…”
Across generations, the beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu, her daughters, and her grandchildren are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, and the often fiercely vengeful undead.
Kurniawan mixes tender lyricism and gleefully grotesque hyperbole to offer entertainment of a rare order as well as a scathing critique of his young nation’s troubled past: the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million “communists,” followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.
Drawing on local sources – folk tales and all-night shadow-puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope – and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive West Javanese voice brings something luscious yet astringent to literature today. Beauty Is a Wound is a prime example of the bravura resilience of art in Indonesia, blossoming after the fall of Suharto.
And just like that, we’re already on the last Friday of January. I can’t recall doing anything relevant this past month except that I was trying to: 1) catch up with my pending book review; and 2) read as many books as I can. There wasn’t much of a life update except perhaps for these two things. I am currently preparing myself mentally as another month end closing approaches. As we march towards the love month, I hope that I can share better life updates (LOL). I just hope everyone is doing fine and is healthy.
Friday also means a First Impression Friday update. My current read is Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound. I first encountered Kurniawan through an online bookseller. The name and his work’s titles made an impression on me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to purchase his works; someone was quicker. My interest was further piqued when I learned that Kurniawan is an Indonesian writer. I knew I had to read his works. I’ve read a couple of works written by Vietnamese, Singaporean, and Thai writers but never did I read an Indonesian literary work.
Even though I just bought it recently, I immediately delved into my first Indonesian novel. Beauty is a Wound is the story of Dewi Ayu and her descendants. Indeed, the synopsis didn’t come up short when it said that the opening line astonishes from the onset. Who would expect a corpse, 21 long years buried, to rise from the dead? For shock factor, it certainly worked. Way to create an impression! This is, after all, a First Impression post.
From its opening lines, the story hit the ground running. Kurniawan tells the story of Dewi Ayu. She is the daughter of a Dutch landowner and his Indonesian concubine. She is said to possess the most beautiful face in the fictional city of Halimunda. She lived a comfortable life until the arrival of the Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. As fate would have it, she became the city’s most respected prostitute post-World War II. What happened to her during the war and how will it change the course of her life?
Beauty is a Wound covers a vast ground. It is a family saga juxtaposed on the colorful contemporary history of Indonesia. Kurniawan is doing a commendable job of laying out the cards in this luminous novel. There is quite a lot of sex, rape, and even incest that can discomfit some readers. There are some scenes of violence as well. But again, history is rarely comfortable. Kurniawan also incorporates elements of magical realism, fantasy, and folklore. Ghosts linger everywhere. Dewi Ayu, herself, is the conception of a myth. Despite its grand schemes, I am enjoying this eclectic mix.
Kurniawan’s prose is verbose but it is never overwhelming or overbearing. Each word was carefully measured although occasionally there were words that feel out-of-place perhaps due to translation. When I was midway through the book, I felt like I’ve already read over five hundred pages because of various stories, and plotlines. A huge cast of characters was also introduced. Each was woven into the tapestry of the narrative with acuity. I can’t believe that I still have one hundred more pages to read before the novel finally concludes. I am relishing the experience though.
There seems to be a final piece of puzzle that needs to be solved. From how the story flowed, I kind of have an idea on how it will pan out. I am still looking forward to how Kurniawan will tie the loose ends of the story (if there are). I am preparing myself to an explosive ending. How about you fellow reader, what book are you going to read this weekend? I hope it is a book that you’ve been looking forward to and I hope you enjoy it. Keep safe, and happy weekend!