Somewhere in mid-20th century Indonesia, just as the shackles of Dutch colonialism make way for Japanese occupation, a woman flies off a hill and vanishes into the sky after a brief reunion with her lover following sixteen years of captivity as a Dutch lord’s concubine. Several decades later, another woman rumbles out of her grave twenty-one years after willing herself to death upon the birth of her fourth daughter. In between these two mysterious occurrences sprawls Beauty Is A Wound, Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Annie Tucker.
Beauty Is A Wound has repeatedly been compared by many to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and there is a moment in its third chapter when one smiles at recognition at the nod made to a memorable line from the same. In the Columbian magic realist’s canonical novel, the young Aureliano asks his brother the question of what sex feels like, to which he replies, “It’s like an earthquake.” In Kurniawan’s, “It was amazing, like an earthquake,” are the echoing words.
Kurniawan’s novel is a book about sex, but notably, only about male pleasure. That smile of recognition lasts only a split second, for the dialogue takes place after an act of sexual barter between a Commandant and a young prisoner-of-war – the first such act in the long career of Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s most illustrious whore, and the book’s chief protagonist.
It is Dewi Ayu who rises from the grave in the book’s opening sentence, and wanders back to her erstwhile home, in which her old housekeeper Rosinah and the youngest of her four daughters, Beauty, now reside. Little does she know that her fervent wish that her youngest child be spared the alluring looks she believes to be a curse has come true: when Beauty was born, she had an electrical socket for a nose and was so repulsive-looking that “the midwife assisting her couldn’t be sure whether it was really it was really a baby and thought that maybe it was a pile of shit, since the holes where a baby comes out and where shit comes out are only two centimetres apart.” Dewi Ayu had not looked upon her newborn’s face before deciding that at 52 years, four kids and hundreds of men old, she’d had enough of life, and wrapped herself in a burial shroud and proceeded to die. Much has and hasn’t changed in the town of Halimunda in the interim years up to her resurrection, but a shockingly unattractive young woman from whose room sounds of lovemaking mysteriously emerge every night is the last thing Dewi Ayu expects to encounter.
Dewi Ayu’s elder three daughters – Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi – have all, as she says sardonically, “left as soon as they learned how to unbutton a man’s fly.” This is not strictly true, but Halimunda is a society in which women’s physical attributes are their only value, and so we infer that like their mother, they too simply learnt how to survive. The novel tells us how, in a narrative so bizarre and swiftly-paced that its darkness has no time to settle until all the pages are turned.
Indonesia, meanwhile, is an independent nation when the story opens – and it bears the lacerations of Dutch, Japanese and communist regimes. In Halimunda, however, reality is kaleidoscopic: people are “still” superstitious, but why wouldn’t they be when spirits abound, the dead walk and talk and come back to life, and communist ghosts appear with “gunshot wounds, mouthing some verses from the Internationale”? Regimes come and go: a mass grave of over a thousand communists needs to be dug overnight, a comrade who is a son-in-law of Dewi Ayu’s is exiled to Buru (the same prison in which the great Indonesian litterateur was himself incarcerated, and set his famed quartet of novels) by another son-in-law, there is war in East Timor, and the decades pass. And all the while, princesses fall in love with dogs, full-term pregnant bellies are found to be full of nothing but air and fishermen unionise but continue to perform sacrificial ceremonies to the Queen of the South Seas, throwing her a cow’s head as an offering.
There’s a particularly vivacious scene in which the interesting way in which communism often began by eschewing foreign cultures and promoting local ones is described. “He didn’t stop there, but started putting pressure on the city council, the military, and the police to confiscate those brain-rotting Western pop records and throw whoever listened to them – even in the privacy of their homes – into jail. ‘Crush America and may its false culture be cursed!’ he shouted every time. In exchange, the Party began to generously support folk art, providing the usual snacks and some Party propaganda too, so that all the folk art that had been subversive in feudal and colonial times now began to jazz up the Halimunda scene. For the Party’s anniversary they performed sintren, with a pretty girl who disappeared inside a chicken coop and reappeared holding a hammer and sickle, looking even more beautiful in full makeup (and the audience clapped). The kuda lumping trance dancers didn’t just eat glass and coconut shells, but now also swallowed the American flag. The forbidden rock and roll records were also smashed and swallowed.”
Beauty Is A Wound is bawdy and compulsively readable. Full of twists and turns, downfalls and mirth, there’s much to be entertained by, although one learns quickly that emotional distance is a vital part of that enjoyment. Characters die, disappear and disappoint. It is a brilliant tale woven against a canvas of ultimate futility: war and wickedness win, and the sooner we adopt Dewi Ayu’s steely detachment, the better the book is.
In a book so rich with multiple narratives, each reader will find a particular character or sequence that stands out. For me, it was the gravedigger Kamino, who owing to his profession has never had company. Aware that no one will want to move into his home in the ghoul-filled cemetery premises, he avoids romantic proposals entirely, and his social interactions are restricted to his line of work. “The sole entertainment in his lonely life was playing jailangkung – calling the spirits of the dead using a little effigy doll – another skill that had been passed down through the generations of his family, good for invoking the spirits to chat with them about all kinds of things.” But when he sees a girl weeping on her father’s grave and refusing to leave, his life changes sweetly – although only in the way that it can in a novel of such a sweeping longue durée of individual human lives.
Colonialism, nationhood and epic storytelling may be the foreground of the book, but its driving force is sexual desire. Here, the male gaze holds absolute dominion. It is only the supernatural events that are so naturally peppered throughout the book, and their invitation to suspend belief, that allow us to accept Halimunda’s depraved populace as a part of the mise-en-scène. Because it’s not acceptable, in fact, for a person to rape goats (and chickens until their intestines come out of their bodies), eat his own excrement, and teach schoolchildren how to masturbate with this bit of extra advice: “It will be even more enjoyable if you try it with the private parts of little girls”. And even if that person happens to live in a cage, it’s not acceptable for other people to then say, “Only love can heal such a crazy person.”
And most grievously of all, there is the excess of rape in the book – a husband rapes his wife whenever he catches her without her magical chastity belt, prostitutes are routinely violated, and among various other incidents, there is even a brutal set of rape-murders by a lovelorn teenager. Women who have been raped for years suddenly begin to “make love” to their oppressors or rescuers. Rape is simply par for the course, as is the absence of acknowledgement about the traumatic results of sexual violence as a weapon of insurgency or war, and the complex politics of trading physical succor for protection, favour or money.
Considering that the key protagonists in Beauty Is A Wound are almost all women, and the strongest and most fully-realised character is the matriarch-sex worker Dewi Ayu, this elision is not an aside but a deliberate one. There is no female proletariat in this political novel, only female prostitutes.
But Kurniawan is a master storyteller, of this there is no doubt, which is why this book is highly recommended despite this glaring, trigger-friendly oversight.
An edited version appeared in Biblio.