Beauty is a Wound, the debut novel by Eka Kurniawan, is a rollicking, colourful, wild ride through Indonesian history, seen mostly from the perspective of Dewi Ayu, the mixed-race granddaughter of Dutch colonialists, and her four daughters to various fathers.
In what feels like a quintessentially Indonesian (or at least, Javanese) beginning, the book opens with her mysteriously rising from the dead to return to the world of the living in May 1997, after 21 years in the ground.
The narrative leaps back to Dewi Ayu’s ordeal during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, and continues through to the fall of dictator Suharto, during which time she suffers at the hands of various men. The period from Indonesia’s founding through to modern times is indeed bloody, and the story certainly reflects this, with its own quirks and takes; as Kurniawan told the New Yorker, “you’re reading ‘a joke about history’.”
This is an Indonesian slant on magical realism — or a bawdy wayang show, written down as literature. It’s a rip-roaring tear through the country’s modern history, interspersed with vivid and folkloric flights of fancy as well as incredibly brutal violence (****-eating, bestiality, incest — it has it all, really).
Kurniawan depicts violence again women as an integral part of the general brutality that often defined the period. But it’s hard to buy the line that the book is a critique of violence against women in Indonesia when it seems to gleefully rejoice so much in depicting it, with all the nuance of sledgehammer. Of course, the narrative is not supposed to be believable, but when a vagrant woman is gang-raped (for days) and then looks at her rescuer with “the shy demeanour of a young virgin” and seduces him, it’s kind of, well, irritating.
Originally published in Indonesian in 2002, the version translated into English was published in 2015 and received rave reviews, including making the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize longlist (not the short, however). Read it for Kurniawan’s crazy, imaginative, fictional take on Indonesian history; just don’t make it the only thing you read about it.
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