‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan (Review)

IMG_5313This week sees the latest staging of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and 2015’s guest of honour is Indonesia, a country which is currently a blank on my literary explorers map.  In honour of the event, then, I’ve decided to devote the week to Indonesian fiction, with three reviews of books by Indonesian writers for your pleasure – let’s see who’s up first 🙂

Eka Kurniawan, a rising star of Indonesian literature, recently visited Australia, speaking at the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Sadly, I was unable to attend the session, but I did manage to get hold of one of his books.  Beauty is a Wound (translated by Annie Tucker, review copy courtesy of Text Publishing) is a lengthy novel about Indonesian history and society, one with an intriguing start:

“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.” (p.1)

A famous figure in her home town, the beautiful, rich prostitute’s return from the grave causes turmoil in Halimunda.  She heads straight for home to get news of her family, her three elder daughters, whose beauty is legendary, and her fourth daughter, Beauty, whose appearance is slightly less appealing.

However, before we learn too much about the present, the writer whisks us into the past.  Back we go to pre-WW2 Indonesia to find out about Dewi Ayu and her very special family, and as we travel through several decades of Indonesian history, we get to explore Halimunda too.  In this small, remote town, daily life is full of violence, love, lust and strange occurrences.  Life here can be confusing, but as we gradually get our bearings, one thing will become clear – beauty, while helpful, is not always a blessing…

Beauty is a Wound is the first of Kurniawan’s works to appear in English, and an epic first outing it is, with an extended cast and ambitious ideas sprawled over five-hundred pages.  While the setting and feel is local, most readers will notice the ideas the writer has been influenced by.  It’s not stretching the point too far to label Beauty is a Wound as a work of Magical Realism, and from the first page, it seems to draw on the ideas of one of the best novels of the type.

In fact, it would be much harder to avoid drawing parallels with Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude than to make comparisons.  The fictional town of Halimunda is Kurniawan’s Macondo, and like the Colombian writer’s masterpiece, Kurniawan’s novel is a multi-generational tale.  While the return of the matriarch from the grave starts the novel, the focus soon moves on to her daughters (and eventually their children), detailing their loves and lusts throughout the years.  There’s also the small matter of incest and a curse, dooming the family to sorrow over five generations.

Another similarity with One Hundred Years of Solitude is the way things work a little differently in Halimunda.  Quite apart from Dewi Ayu’s return and Beauty’s unearthly appearance, there are plenty of magical events described in the story.  Dewi Ayu’s grandmother jumps off a mountain and flies off into the sky; a later character, the aggressive Maman Gendeng, is rumoured to be indestructible, with bullets bouncing off his body to lie spent on the floor.  Then there are the frequent ghosts, pigs turning into humans, and magical chastity belts which can only be opened by the right words.  I’ll just let you take that all in for a moment…

As well as drawing on the magical realism style, however, Kurniawan is also looking at the history of his country through the twentieth century, examining the end of the colonial period, the wartime occupation and its bloody aftermath, as well as the subsequent attempts to forge a nation.  In fact, once we move on to the more political elements, some readers might be reminded of another modern classic, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  Kurniawan uses his town as a test tube, a focused example of what was happening in the country as a whole, featuring the conflict between soldiers, communists and the ‘preman’ (gangsters).  While the preman are rightly feared, their leader Maman Gendeng explains that they are not completely to blame:

“They believe that we are the garbage of society,” Maman Gendeng summarized.  “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?” (p.458)

After the natives were used by the Dutch and the Japanese, they are just as let down by the new indigenous government.  Despite the magical touches in the story, there’s no disguising the bloodshed and mass killings…

Another kind of war described here involves gender battles, as the theme of beauty running through the book often pits men against each other (and women).  Dewi Ayu herself, born of mixed blood, is beautiful, but prefers life as a prostitute to settling down with one of the many men who want to possess her.  She’s far from the only beauty, though, with her three daughters foremost among the town’s attractions, each sending men crazy:

“There’s no one in this city, and maybe in this entire universe, who is more beautiful.  She is more beautiful than Princess Rengganis, who married a dog, at least I think so.  She’s more beautiful than the queen of the South Seas.  She’s more beautiful than Helen, who caused the Trojan War.  She’s more beautiful than Diah Pitaloka, who caused the war between the Majapahit and Pajajaran.  She’s more beautiful than Juliet, who made Romeo want to kill himself.  She’s more beautiful than anyone.” (p.178)

This brings a constant battle for affections, primeval in many ways, with the men fighting and the women as rewards.

Always engaging, Beauty is a Wound has the air of a folk tale at times.  It consists of eighteen lengthy chapters, which often start with an end and proceed to explain how we got there.  The story reads very well, with an easily discernible style, one for which Annie Tucker should be praised, and there’s a lot of humour on display too:

But the ruckus quickly came to an end as soon as the police came with a kyai who considered the whole thing heresy.  That kyai began to fume and ordered Dewi Ayu to stop her shameful behaviour, even demanding that she remove the burial shroud.
“You are asking a prostitute to take off her clothes,” said Dewi Ayu scornfully, “so you’d better have the money to pay me.”
kyai quickly prayed for mercy, moved along, and never came again. (p.9)

The humour is deceptive as it’s often a way of dealing with, and deflecting from, violence.  As they say, if you don’t laugh…

There are a few flaws to the work for those who want to go looking for them.  For one thing, the story is occasionally unsure as to what it wants to be, switching between fantasy and realism at regular intervals.  For most people, though, a much more important issue will be the way women are depicted and treated in the story.  While the men don’t always have the upper hand in the battle of the sexes, there are a lot of rape scenes – how necessary they are to the wider story may well depend on the reader.

However, Beauty is a Wound is, on the whole, a successful work, one which most readers would enjoy as an introduction to Indonesian literature.  Kurniawan’s novel taps into world literature while keeping unique features of the writer’s homeland, and with another, shorter work (Man Tiger) also out in English now, I’m eager to try his writing again soon.  So, the next big thing in world literature?  That would be stretching the point somewhat, but Kurniawan’s definitely a name to watch out for in coming years 🙂

20 thoughts on “‘Beauty is a Wound’ by Eka Kurniawan (Review)

  1. I think the ripple effect of being the host nation at frankfurt is fairly notable Mexico was a g.few years ago see how many books formI there have appeared since .I’ve not read a novel from Indonesia I hope to get this one at some point


    1. Stu – Yes, it’s actually just as much of a punishment as a prize – being awarded the status means you really have to get your act together if you don’t want to be humiliated on the world stage. I’ve read a couple of pieces where it was stated that the Indonesian government, in particular, only really realised the scope of the undertaking when it was almost too late…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As a former teacher of Indonesian, I am really pleased to see Australia taking an interest in its literature at long last! Having good translations helps, I’ll be interested to see the other ones you’ve read.
    BTW There’s an interesting interview here http://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/interview-eka-kurniawan-beauty-wound/ about the other influences on the author i.e. martial arts novels, horror stories and pulp fiction (which I suspect is the major influence on his treatment of female characters).


    1. Lisa – I wouldn’t go that far… I’ll be interested to see if anything else comes out and whether Aussie publishers will ride the Frankfurt-inspired wave 😉 At any rate, I’ve got a couple more reviews to come 🙂

      Thanks for the link – the treatment of women characters is an obvious talking point of the work. I wonder if anyone will pick up ‘Man Tiger’ in Aus (I have a UK copy for review at some point)…


  3. Wonderful review Tony –

    I was reading the review of this novel by Ian Buruma in The New York Review of Books just this morning. He discussed it in relation to the two documentaries by Joshua Oppenheimer: The Act of Killing & The Look of Silence – and the history of the massacres in Indonesia which probably explains the portrayal of and violence against women in Kuniawan’s book. Unfortunately it’s locked online.

    He also mentioned, in passing, that Horror films are really popular there.

    (AND you both made Rushdie comparisons – which seemed funny).


    1. Tara – Thanks 🙂 I’m surprised he didn’t mention GGM – this screamed ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ to me 😉 Another of my reads for this week looked at all this in more detail – stay tuned for the review 🙂


  4. Nice review Tony 🙂 Funny that you compared it to 100 years of solitude. Well, that’s inevitable, I think. I myself can’t help but compare it to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. I even thought… “is this a copy of Allende or what?” LOL. But surely the elements of our local folklore can answer that 🙂

    About the folly of our government… Oh well, I can say that I am very sad with the fact that they just realized the importance of reading and literature when we have to rush to Frankfurt for the Book Fair. They even haven’t given a helping hand to our book industry yet. I hope they will have more awareness about that in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ratih – I haven’t read anything by Allende, but I can imagine that there are similarities there too 🙂

      Let’s hope that the Indonesian government continues (or starts…) to support the promotion of their country’s literature – it’s starting from a long way back compared to other countries…


  5. Apart from some books read in my teenager years I also have a gaping hole of Indonesian literature. Coincidentally I just discovered a couple of novels on/set in Indonesia by Dutch authors — an area that I never thought of or knew existed before, so I hope to read them in the next few months.


    1. Mee – I haven’t tried any of the Dutch ones, but I have seen a few around (Helle Hasse rings a bell); maybe I’ll get around to trying them too at some point 🙂


      1. I do have one book by Hella Haasse! Another that I’m thinking of is Maria Dermoût. With my pace though you’d probably end up reading them before I do 😉


  6. This sounds very interesting however, I’m tempted (by laziness) to try the shorter novel first! (This is partly because I wonder if I would have the patience for One Hundred Years of Solitude now)


    1. Grant – I’ve heard the shorter one isn’t quite as good (but I’ll have to find out for myself…). I’d recommend this, and I don’t think it would take up that much of your precious time 😉


  7. Good idea! I recently had a go at Indonesian Lit. only to find the books available were very few. Perhaps I did not look long enough but I found I had but few options. Nevertheless, Indonesian Lit seems to still be part of the lesser known/read ones (perhaps it is due to a lack of promotion?) but I’m sure you will introduce us to some interesting books!


    1. Space Cadet – The situation’s improving, but it’s still very much a work in progress. I’ll have to see what I can find in the coming months 🙂


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