Book Review of Beauty is a Wound by the Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan
by Inez Hollander.
Elizabeth Pisani, author of another great book on Indonesia that recently came out, gives us some staggering statistics on Indonesia: not only is it the home “to one in every thirty of the people on this planet,” Indonesia is also the 4th most populous country in the world. In addition, though most Indonesians live on no more than $2 a day, and a great many have no running water or electricity, Jakartans send out the most tweets into the world on any given day and 64 million Indonesians use Facebook.
And yet, Pisani argues “Indonesia is probably the most invisible country in the world.”
So why is this the case?
One of the reasons may be that Indonesia has not entered the canon of world literature yet, even though Pramoedya Ananta Toer has done so to some extent and should have been awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. The fact that this Mandela of Indonesian letters was never recognized by the Nobel Prize committee for literature may well lie in Indonesia’s obsurity as anation but very few writers since Toer have managed to break through internationally.
Another reason for Indonesia’s invisibility is that this country of 17,000 islands and 700 languages is so incredibly diverse that one could argue that it is very hard to write the great or definitive Indonesian novel, for what is truly “Indonesian”?
A third obstacle is Indonesia’s history of censorship. During colonial times, the Dutch spoke on behalf of the Indonesians, and after them, Indonesian Presidents Sukarno and Suharto did, while the people had very little freedom of opinion or the press.
However, things have been changing in Indonesia in the last few years, and, as democracy is given more free rein, a young Javanese novelist by the name of Eka Kurniawan has emerged with a novel so big that it is bound to become a classic. Better yet, it has been translated into English and is receiving warm reviews in the international media.
Beauty is a Wound is grand in scope, as colorful and diverse as Indonesia itself and comprehensive in its chronology, starting with colonial times and telling Indonesia’s turbulent history of the past century. While the narrative is polyphonic, telling many different stories from different characters’ points of view, the novelist is not pulling any punches: the most memorable figures in the book are a prostitute and a communist, victims in Indonesia’s history but larger than life and immensely popular with the people.
Reviewers have given it labels such as as picaresque, Quixotic, Rabelaisian and reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, but I was reminded of William Faulkner: just as Faulkner used the gothic and the grotesque to mock and mythologize his beloved and benighted South by using his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, so does Kurniawan use the fictional town of Halimunda as well as the gothic, the supernatural and the grotesque to tell Indonesia’s rocky history.
Indonesia’s history is told here through the lens of one family, a matriarchy, with at its helm, a stunning Indo Dutch woman by the name of Dewi Ayu who goes from being a comfort woman for the Japanese, to being a famous prostitute in town. Circumstance, she tells her daughters, forced her into prostitution, “Just like circumstance makes somebody a prophet or a king.” As Indonesia evolves, so does she: “I was born into a Dutch family and was a Catholic until I recited my syahadat and became a Muslim on my wedding day. I was married once and I was once a religious person. Just because I have lost all of that doesn’t mean I have lost love. I feel like I have become a Sufi and a saint. To be a whore you have to love everybody, everything, all of it: penises, fingers and cows’ hooves.”
Dewi Ayu is not just a prostitute; she is a sage (“Well, you are free to love me… But don’t expect too much in return, because expectation has nothing to do with love”) and realizes full well that her beauty and the beauty of her daughters is a curse, as it opens the door to rape and exploitation by men. Beauty is a wound, which is also why, when she’s pregnant with her fourth daughter, she wishes the child to be as hideous as the darkest night, yet she gives the child the name “Beauty“. Interestingly, if Dewi Ayu is the female version of Indonesia’s Everyman, one can’t help but draw the parallel that Indonesia’s beauty (and plenty of natural resources over time) became a curse for the country too, as it drew in both the Dutch and the Japanese, who, like the men in Dewi Ayu’s and her daughters’ lives, took and took, yet gave very little back.
Communism, which may well have been triggered by the kleptocracies of the Dutch and the Japanese colonization, took hold of Indonesia with traumatic cosequences. Under Suharto, in 1965-1966, millions of members and sympathizers with the Communist party were tortured and killed, which is partly played out in the character of Comrade Kliwon, a selfless hero who also gets entangled in Dewi Ayu’s family. (I will refrain from outlining major story lines, as that will spoil your enjoyment of this fascinating, and at times, graphic and gross read!). At one point, the book, which is riddled with the presence of the “undead”, isdominated by communist ghosts, a clear indication that the novelist is showing a willingness to open Indonesia’s many closets, harboring the skeletons of the past. As such, the author is rewriting Indonesia’s history, telling all (the good, the brave and the ugly) and countering the whitewashing of history by figures such as Sukarno and Suharto. Rightly so, tempo dulu has no place in this, or as the author comments, after Dewi Ayu buys back the plantation where she grew up: “She had bought it back out of alonging for the past, but now the nostalgia was killing her.”
For the Indo community, this novel is a breakthrough of sorts, too. I grew up reading novels by Daum, Couperus and others and was always struck by the ugly stereotypes that were used for Indo characters: like mulatto characters in Southern literature, these characters were ultimately tragic, cast out by both black and white, and in colonial lit, both Indonesians and Dutch, ascenario which would become a harsh reality and leading to the so-called “Double Diaspora” of many Indos worldwide after WWII. However, in this novel, while Dewi Ayu’s plight may be seen as tragic, she refuses to be a victim and becomes a truly heroic character, a figure of strength and a mother figure of that beautiful nation, Indonesia. That Kurniawan picked an Indo female (and a prostitute at that) and not a Javanese sultan as the primogenitur of this grand and sprawling Indonesian epic isboth intriguing and inspiring. Hopefully, The Indo Project can invite Kurniawan one year for our annual TIP Talk to find out more as to what was behind the creation of Dewi Ayu and her offspring.
END OF THE REVIEW