Tag Archives: indonesia

Book Review: Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan

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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.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008, Bali

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Some highlights…


With Bernice Chauly. We look like we’re at Zouk, but actually, we’re on top of a gigantic lily pond at the Four Seasons. Preeta Samarasan and Kam Raslan are blurry but present too.

With Jean Bennett, author of 27 books.

With Sharon Bakar, Deepika Shetty and Eric Forbes. Sorry, Deepika, there was no better shot and I so wanted to put up one with you all.

With Vikram Seth. Yes, this pic MUST come out blurry, no?

I heart Alberto Ruy Sánchez (and so does everybody else). He could charm every pair of pants off a centipede if he wanted to!

With Preeta Samarasan, Bernice Chauly and Tishani Doshi at a wine-tasting (like writers need an excuse). Too many cameras at the table! Preeta is gorgeous.

With Stephanie Theng. It was gratifying to take this because I’m used to being asked to sign things and to pose by myself, but rare is the… “fan” (*cringe*) who wants to take a pic with me!

Portraits of me…

Cam-whoring, as usual. Top pic by Chriswan Sungkono. Remaining three by “her personal photographer”.

And by me…


My beautiful and brilliant longtime friend Bernice Chauly, whose most recent book is Lost in KL, a collection of short stories.

Lijia Zhang, who worked for a decade in a missile factory – and wrote the tale!

Thanding Sari – doesn’t she look exactly like me in profile? I love her singing.

Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival

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I’m leaving tonight for for a week in Bali (and yes, on work!), to attend the Ubud Writers’ & Readers’ Festival 2008.

Other than general official engagements and anything that happens impromptu, my readings and panels, in case you’re there, are as follows:

Thursday 16 Oct: Performance Poetry Extravaganza, 19.30-21.30 at Warung Opera

Top performers and comedians from Australia, India and the Philippines present a riotous medley of rhythm, sound and song. Lexical dexterity will be at work in this high-energy, cross-cultural celebration of the literary spoken word. Tug Dumbly, Sharanya Manivannan, Edwina Blush. MC: Benito di Fonzo.

Saturday 18 Oct: Mindscapes, 15.45-17.00 at Indus

Novelist Charlotte Bacon tells us what happens “when geography rubs up against people’s emotional states.” Matthew Condon’s novel The Trout Opera was inspired by the stark beauty of Australia’s Snowy Mountains. Carrie Tiffany, an environmental journalist, explores agricultural issues and the lives of rural people in her fiction. Poet Sharanya Manivannan believes in the magical quality of water and coasts. These writers get together to consider the way exposure to different geographies shapes human experience and action. Moderator: Poonam Sagar.

Saturday 18 October: Wine Tasting, 18.30-20.30 at Casa Luna

According to Persian mythology it was a woman who first discovered wine. For that we are thankful! Join us as award-winning Indonesian wine writer Yohan Handoyo leads us through a menu of full-bodied wines matched with some of our most sparkling Festival writers and accompanied by tasty tapas in this celebration of wine, women and words. Featuring: Peter Zilahy, Tishani Doshi, Sharanya Manivannan, Dino Umahu. Cost: Rp. 650,000 | AUD $82.

Sunday 19 October: Poetry of the Body 15.30-17.00 at HSBC Lounge

Whereas poet and dancer Tishani Doshi sees the body as the place “where the spiritual and the sensual combine”, Sharanya Manivannan has a fascination with the ancient Tamil concept of a potentially malevolent force that exists in women’s bodies. These two Indian poets will discuss poetry, women, dance and the body along with readings of their work. This session will be followed by a 30-minute documentary film on Indian dance featuring Tishani Doshi and her teacher Chandralekha, legendary dancer from South India. Moderator: Debra Yatim.

I was really looking forward to another panel on sacred geography, but it was cancelled as the other writer is not able to participate in the festival this year.

On another note, Books Actually in Singapore will stock limited copies of Witchcraft from next week.

I’m told that the website from which you can order the book will probably go up while I’m away. More info will be available soon. Hold your horses please! Will let you know when I know. Ditto about launches, etc. And lastly, remember the Exec Assistant? Yeah, she’s out of the picture. Irresponsible would be an understatement. So for any enquiries relating to publicity, interviews and events, please contact either sharanya dot manivannan at gmail dot com or bullfighterbooks at gmail dot com.

Okay, I’m off to island-hop and shoe-shop… I mean, work. :) See you after the 20th.

Ugo Untoro + How To Eat A Wolf

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I never did blog about the Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale 2007, and neither did I blog about the Singapore Writers’ Festival 2007 — both festivals which invited me and took care of me and fed my stomach, literary appetite and ego very well in all. Blogging about the first was sidetracked by preparing to move back to India, and as for the second, well — if you don’t know what kept me distracted at the same time, leave be! Am just thinking about this now as I’m heading off to Mumbai this week for another major festival, Kitab, for which I have the privilege of doing the first event open to the public this year.

The Biennale, I think, will remain in my memory as a pivotal career and life experience. It was my first real festival, my first taste of the literary high life (as opposed to the boho cult stuff, and utter mediocrity). It brought me closer to three friends, one of whom I in fact feel like I owe a great professional and personal amount to, and made me several more. It was a spiritual, thrilling, insightful ten days. I really must blog about the whole experience.

Reading at Borobudur was one thing, visiting Candi Prambanan was another, but this — this was the moment when I realised that I really and truly was what I always wanted to be. A writer.

Ugo Untoro's painting inspired by my poem

This was a very, very special moment. I am in front of the painting “Selamat Datang” by the Indonesian painter Ugo Untoro, which was inspired by my poem “How To Eat A Wolf”. Selamat Datang means Welcome in Bahasa, and this artwork was at the entrance of the exhibit, which featured various Indonesian artists’ interpretations of the prose and poetry of the writers participating in the Biennale. This was easily one of the proudest moments in my life, and completely unexpected — it had never crossed my mind until then that so large and beautiful a painting by a famous painter could somehow be attached to any poem of mine.