An Indonesian Epic

Nestled in between the Pacific and Indian Oceans is the island nation of Indonesia. With a population of nearly 300 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the fourteenth largest country by land area. Comprised of more than 17,000 islands, it is also the world’s largest archipelago. Within its realms is a multitude of races, a diverse mix of people, and a spectrum of colorful cultures. It has a long history that is riddled with trade, colonialization, and power struggle. For centuries, it was a valuable part of various Hindu and Islamic dynasties which helped mold and influence its culture. These influences, coupled with the nearly 350-year reign of the Dutch colonizers, make up for a rich historical tapestry. It was this lush tapestry that Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan laid the groundworks for his epic first novel, Beauty is a Wound.

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

Thus, opened Beauty is a Wound. It was an impressionable opening line, equally as memorable and as compelling as some of the most powerful opening lines in the Pantheon of literature. This has has set the tone to the rest of the novel, easily piquing the readers’ interest. It made readers wonder who Dewi Ayu was and why did she rise from her grave. Over two decades before rising from her grave, Dewi Ayu gave birth to her fourth and last daughter, whom she named Beauty. Beauty’s birth was the subject of scandal. This scandal was not only because of the circumstances surrounding her birth but, Beauty, ironically, was a baby of grotesqueries, an anomaly in a family of four women endowed with great beauty. Twelve days following Beauty’s birth, Dewi Ayu passed away.

Dewi Ayu was no stranger to controversy, as even the circumstances of her birth made up for an interesting subject for gossipmongers. Her parents, Henri and Aneu, were the children of Ted Stammler, a rich Dutch landowner in the fictional city of Halimunda. Henri, two years older than Aneu, was Stammler’s son with his wife, Marietje while Aneu was his daughter with his native Indonesian concubine, Ma Iyang. Cognizant of their illicit relationship, Henri and Aneu eloped and when they had Dewi Ayu, they sent her to their father who ended up looking after her. Dewi Ayu grew up into a beautiful young lady that earned the admiration of everyone in Halimunda.

“It’s not man’s job to think about whether God exists or not, especially when you know that right in front of your eyes one person is stepping on another’s neck.”

~ Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

Born in an affluent household, Dewi Ayu lived a comfortable life. But as fate would have it, the ripples of the Second World War made its way into Halimunda with the entry of the Japanese soldiers. Dewi Ayu, along with other young women in the city, were carted off by the Japanese soldiers to brothels. At the brothel, she worked as a comfort woman and, eventually, she developed the reputation as being one of the best. Post-War, she carried on being a prostitute in one of the best brothels in the city in order to pay off her indebtedness and to earn a living for her three daughters who are equally as beautiful as their mother. Despite her profession, she earned the respect of her fellow women. Her beauty and her daughter’s beauty was well known across the city.

Beauty is a Wound is a labyrinthine novel that navigates a vast ground and covers a multitude of subjects and themes. The first layer it was wrapped in is that of a family saga. Whilst Dewi Ayu’s voice loomed above the novel, the narrative also related the stories of her daughters, from their first love, their heartaches, their marriages, and, their motherhood. The narrative covered nearly a century of the family’s story. Interspersed in these stories and love affairs are the undertones of failed romances, such as the story of Ma Iyang and Ma Gedik, and Alamanda and Comrade Kliwon, and unrequited love. Star-crossed lovers pervaded the story.

The epic family saga was juxtaposed on the colorful and, often times, tumultuous contemporary history of Indonesia, with its development emphasized through the changing landscape of Halimunda. During the twilight years of the Dutch colonization, Halimunda has blossomed into a quaint city, but, during the war, the ominous rays of the Rising Sun savagely scorched its beauty. From the rubbles of the war, a young nation was born. Because of birth pains, it suffered from instability, leading to the rise of the communist movement, which was represented by Comrade Kliwon in the story. The novel also alluded to the mass slaughter of Communists that happened during 1965, following a failed Communist coup. In the hopes of destabilizing the Communist movement, the government forces rounded up and killed all suspected insurgents. This power struggle led to the ascension of Suharto, who, for over three decades, lorded over Indonesia as a despot.

Enriching the story of Dewi Ayu are the cultural touchstones. Myths were also subtly assimilated into the novel’s evocative tapestry. The rich elements of folklore and fantasy, characteristic of the Southeast Asian countryside, gave the story a veritable and distinct Indonesian flavor. One such folkloric element was relayed through the unfortunate love story of Ma Iyang and Ma Gedik. There was also the story of Princess Rengganis, who, before Dewi Ayu, was the most beautiful woman in Halimunda. Her beauty was so captivating that even her father longed for her. To win her hand in marraige, many a knight and a prince fought hard and plotted against each other. It was in search of her beauty that Maman Gendeng begun his personal odyssey before ending up in Halimunda.

“Communism was born from a beautiful dream, the likes of which there will never be again on the face of this earth: that there would no longer be lazy men who eat their fill while others work hard and starve.”

~ Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

Elements of magical realism permeated throughout the narrative, rendering the narrative a finely textured landscape. The incorporation of magical realist elements also resulted into a narrative that is brimming with allegories. Halimunda itself is an allusion for the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Ghosts linger everywhere. Death is a recurrring theme but the dead, just like Dewi Ayu, never stayed dead. Some of the historical contexts were guised in subtle symbolisms. The mass slaughter of communists was also projected through the action of Maman Gendeng following the rape of his daughter, Rengganis. Rengganis’ conviction managed to persuade Maman Gendeng into believing that a magical dog indeed raped his daughter. This nearly incited a manhunt that would have extinguished all wild dogs, known as aka, in the city.

Curses also formed part of the narrative. The cursed demon seed was planted in Dewi Ayu’s womb four times whilst Princess Rengganis was accursed with a beauty that caused perpetual discord in the kingdom. Speaking of beauty, the novel explored beauty in its various forms, from the overt to covert. Halimunda, Dewi Ayu and her daughters are all physical manifestations of beauty. But beauty transcends the physical for it also comes in the form of virtues, from Dewi Ayu’s strong mentality, Comrade Kliwon’s indomitable courage, Ma Iyang and Ma Gedik’s undying love for each other. These positive attributes are antitheses to the heavy and dark subjects that the novel has underscored. But, as the title stated, beauty is also a wound; it has the capacity to cause mortal injuries. Dewi Ayu was quoted saying, “There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.”

With dark humor and absurdities, Beauty is a Wound is, above all, is a satire. Kurniawan dissected his country’s history, its people, and its culture to conjure a rich and intimate glimpse into Indonesian society using exaggerated, and, at times, powerful statements. The vivid portrayals of violence serve as a reminder that history is rarely comfortable. The novel contained several graphic scenes that depicted sex, lust, rape, incest, and even bestiality. This perversion to the carnal can discomfit readers. Sex and lust tend to drive most of the characters. Women, despite their strong personalities, were restrained by the whimsical needs of the men. There was a repeated portrayal of rape, which, seen on a different light, represents the abuses that women experience in modern Indonesia.

Kurniawan’s prose was verbose but it was rarely overwhelming or overbearing. Each word was carefully measured although occasionally there were words that feel out-of-place perhaps due to translation. By integrating elements of history, magical realism, and politics, Kurniawan managed to paint a portrait, which was at times evocative, and at times abstract. Kurniawan introduced an interesting set of characters who each ushered in his or her own thread into the snowballing story. The multitude of characters gave the narrative a colorful complexion. Despite their number, each character was memorable in his or her own way. Whilst his brand of storytelling often draw comparisons from the masters of magical realism such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, and even Haruki Murakami, Kurniawan’s storytelling and voice was entirely and distinctly his own.

If I might share my opinion, this world is hell, and our task is to create our own heaven.

~ Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound

The entire narrative, however, suffered from the same ambitiousness that carried Kurniawan’s vision. The complexity of the plot and the richness of language has the tendency to make the readers feel as though they have read more than 1,000 pages. It was tedious at some points and loose on some parts. There were parts that dragged and some parts where it picked up an upbeat tempo. The novel’s unusual structure made the meander, especially that it was not bound by time or chronology. Inconsistencies were also abound. Ghosts lingered everywhere in the city but when Dewi Ayu rose from the grave, the locals were shocked and horrified. The continuous depiction of rape also diluted the author’s message regarding the violence women are subjected to. The novel came off as coarse rather than refined.

Originally published as Cantik Itu Luka, Beauty is a Wound is an ambitious literary piece but never did it purport to be perfect. It was a reflection of its characters and of Indonesia: beautiful but never perfect. Whilst its aesthetics came off raw, it was this coarseness that gave the narrative a distinct texture. Beyond its blemishes, Kurniawan delivered a riveting tale through the story of Dewi Ayu, her descendants, and Halimunda. He painted an evocative portrait that is ripe with Southeast Asian folklore, the supernatural, and the tumultuous history of a young nation weighed down by war, insurgency, and corrupt and murderous regimes. Parts-historical, parts-folkloric, parts-family saga, it is an eclectic mix that made up for an absorbing tale. Beauty is a Wound is a rich, and riveting look into the gloomy history of Indonesia.

Ratings

78%

Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

Before encountering Eka Kurniawan through an online bookseller, my exposure to and knowledge of Indonesian literature is, admittedly, very sparse. Indonesia is one of our neighboring nations but never have I ventured into the heart of their literature. Over the past few years, my interest into the literary works of my region has grown exponentially. It started with Vietnamese literature and now I am beginning my immersion into Indonesian literature. Beauty is a Wound is a complex narrative but it gave me deeper insight into Indonesian literature and culture. It is an exotic literary rendering that kept me reeled in from the start. It has strong and graphic images which some readers might find obnoxious or off-putting. This is a book not recommended for the faint of heart. Reading Beauty is a Wound reminded me of the time when I barely had any iota on Vietnamese literature but it is now one part of literature that I am beginning to understand and appreciate. Beauty is a Wound has opened a new gate into my adventure into the realms of literature. I am looking forward to more works of Kurniawan and other Indonesian, and consequently, South East Asian writers.

Trigger warnings: rape, incest, bestiality, violence.

Book Specs

Author: Eka Kurniawan
Translator: Annie Tucker
Publisher: New Directions Books
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 470
Genre: Magical Realism, Family Saga, Historical

Synopsis

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.

About the Author

Eka Kurniawan was born on Novemebr 28, 1975 in Tasikmalaya, West Java but grew up in the coastal town of Pangandaran.

Kurniawan studied philosophy at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. He started his literary career by writing short stories and nonfiction books. In 2002, his first novel Cantik Itu Luka was published by Jendela, a small publisher in Yogyakarta, in cooperation with the Yogyakarta Cultural Academy. Later, it was picked by the Indonesia’s biggest publisher. In 2015, Cantik Itu Luka was translated into English by Annie Tucker under the title Beauty is a Wound. Beauty is a Wound. was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of 2015. His second novel, Lelaki Harimau, was published in 2004. Its English translation, Man Tiger, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, the first Indonesian writer to be nominated for the prestigious literary award.

His other works include Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas (Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, 2014) and a score of short story collections. In 2018, he won the Prince Claus Award, Kurniawan is also a screenwriter and is married to fellow writer and screenwriter Ratih Kumala. He currently resides in Jakarta.