by Eka Kurniawan translated by Annie Tucker
This bloody century is the backdrop of Beauty Is a Wound, a sweeping, capacious 2002 novel by the young Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan, now available in English for the first time. It’s an astonishing, polyphonic epic, a melange of satire, grotesquerie, and allegory that incorporates everything from world history to local folk talks. In style, it owes something to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Salman Rushdie; in structure and ambition, it recalls Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, another novel that foregrounds a picaresque narrative against the dense churn of history—in that case, Europe during and after World War II—as a way to understand that history’s effects on a place and its people.
But Kurniawan’s real subject is desire; it is the concept through which the reader can understand everything that happens in his novel. Its main character is Dewi Ayu, a beautiful Indo (mixed Dutch/Indonesian) prostitute in the fictional town of Halimunda, introduced to us with one of the 21st century’s great opening lines: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years.” Dewi is the daughter of a half-brother and half-sister who fled the city, and the granddaughter of a Dutch nobleman’s concubine, who takes flight from a nearby hill after she escapes his clutches. Her grandfather, the Dutchman, never returns from the war, and at age 16 Dewi is kidnapped and forced into prostitution by the Japanese. She remains in the profession afterward in order to repay a debt to her madam.
“They embody the past and present
of the country itself,
in all its spectacular turmoil.”
In no time, she becomes the best prostitute in the land, a legendary figure with the power to drive men insane, who sleeps with but one customer per night (whoever pays the most). She gives birth to three daughters in fairly quick succession—each of uncertain patronage, and each headstrong and enchanting, like their mother. Biblical misfortune befalls the family: They are beset by rape, monstrosity, insanity, and vengeful ghosts, amongst other things. They embody the past and present of the country itself, in all its spectacular turmoil.
Beauty has been a wound for Indonesia, too. For so very long the archipelago was valued by outsiders for its exotic splendor and its resource wealth; an imperial variety of rape. By setting his saga in a fictional locale, Kurniawan—like Márquez did with Macondo, and Faulkner with Yoknapatawpha County—is able to marshal the broad strokes of history to a human scale. The apocryphal Halimunda was established by the beautiful Princess Rennganis, who married and ran away with a dog. Before that, it had been “nothing but a swath of swampy forest, a foggy area belonging to nobody.” That last phrase, “belonging to nobody,” is important, I think. Its inclusion implies this freedom won’t last long.
Told by an omniscient narrator, the storyline careens back and forth through time, detouring to follow side characters, pulling back to serve up dollops of history. If the prospect of a 500-page novel that marches through a country’s tumultuous century sounds like a chore, rest assured that Beauty Is a Wound is not that. This is first and foremost a tale of passion, and Kurniawan is an exuberant storyteller, with a wry sense of humor and a panoptic imagination. He has said, in interviews, that the tone is inspired by Javanese wayang, or puppet, performances, and this approach orients the narrative toward a sort of playfulness, despite its deep sense of tragedy.
Late in her (first) life, Dewi gives birth to a fourth girl, an unwanted child “so hideous that the midwife assisting her couldn’t be sure whether it really was a baby and thought that maybe it was a pile of shit.” She’d wished for the child’s ugliness, though, after witnessing what beauty had cost her and her first three daughters. Convinced that the fourth daughter would be similarly cursed, Dewi names her Beauty and refuses to set eyes on her, until she returns from the dead 21 years later and sees how wrong she was. Dewi’s resurrection is the occasion for the novel’s exploration of a country of 17,000 islands and 700 languages, cobbled together at great cost. It suggests that the past is never past—it may not even be dead.