Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (2002, translation by Annie Tucker, Text Publishing 2015)
A while back, we agreed that the Book Group would stick with short books. So we read Of Mice and Men. Then somehow we settled on Beauty Is a Wound, which weighs in at just short of 500 pages.
Not that I’m complaining. The book more than fills the promise implied in its epigraph from Cervantes [note to self: read Don Quixote]:
Having cleaned his armour and made a full helmet out of a simple headpiece, and having given a name to his horse and decided on one for himself, he realised that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love, for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul.
The book gives us three quarters of a century of Indonesian history seen largely from the perspective of the ‘lady-loves’ of its variously idealistic (or not) warriors. A multitude of stories involving Dutch colonisers, Japanese invaders, guerrilla resistance, nationalists, Communists, anti-Communists, capitalist thugs – all revolve around the central figure of Dewi Ayu, the most famous whore of the fictional city of Halimunda, and her three beautiful daughters. Tender love, passionate mutual obsession, brutal rape, prostitution, high romance, fraternal and intergenerational incest, borderline necrophilia: these are all there, with World War Two, Indonesian Independence, the 1965 massacre of leftists and the 1975 invasion of East Timor as context. More than once the streets of Halimunda are filled with corpses, and then with the unappeased ghosts of the slaughtered.
Eka Kurniawan has been called Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s successor. The latter’s Buru Quartet was also a panoramic account of recent Indonesian history seen through the lens of one man’s life, but as far as my memory goes those earlier novels were strictly realistic and unsensational – the story of their being written without pen and paper while the author was in prison is much more thrilling than the novels themselves. Beauty Is a Wound, on the other hand, is unlikely to land its author in prison,even though writers about the 1965 massacres were banned from this yeas Ubud Writers Festival, but it provokes a visceral response to the history it treats.
The book’s web of relationships is extraordinarily complex. For my own peace of mind, I attempted a diagram showing the main ones. The diagram doesn’t show the revelations of the final chapter which manages the improbable feat of pulling the many threads together into thematic consistency, but it does contain one or two spoilers if you look at it closely. But here it is, small but embiggable, for anyone who’s interested (dotted lines represent anything from concubinage to one-off rape, while deep unfulfilled love is indicated by a dotted line with a cross):
Annie Tucker, the translator, has done an awesome job, creating the sense that we are in a world not quite like ours. Partly, I mean by that, we know we are in a non-Western cultural setting. Some words remain untranslated but explained – such as moksa (in Indian philosophy, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth) or jailangkung (a Javanese game in which the spirits of the dead are summoned). But more interestingly, the translation allows us to feel that we are not just in a different culture, but in a different reality. When characters return from the dead or avoid death altogether, when there are curses, prophetic insights or hauntings, we feel that we are in a weird waking dream of our own rather than listening in with an ethnographer’s ear.
At the meeting: This was not one of those times when we all had similar responses to the book. We had such an engrossing conversation over soup and salad that we barely got to discuss the removal of Tony Abbott or his embarrassing Lady Thatcher address.
There were eight of us, though one was only there between dropping his daughter off at soccer training and picking her up – the driving time meant he had just about 40 minutes to eat, drink and opine (all of which he did most elegantly). One hadn’t read the book at all. Another ‘declared at tea’ – reading on the Kindle so couldn’t say what page. One pointed to the fact that he’d read the whole book to prove that he didn’t hate it, though he was, well, flamboyant in his account of it as tediously ‘factual’ in its prose and intolerably sexist in its treatment of the women characters (who are there for purposes of sex and nothing much else)
A number of us had grappled with the possibility that there was some kind of allegorical account of Indonesian history at work. One chap, who had been struck by the fact that the central characters, Dewi Ayu and her daughters. were mainly very passive, suggested a reading in which they represented the soul or the spirit or ‘the people’ of Indonesia, and the treatment that had roused the other chap’s ire signified the damage done to the country by each of the groups that their various rapists, and exploiters belonged to. That made a lot of sense to me. And the prose style has the matter-of-factness of folktale, which fits that reading.
Someone told us that a number of speakers had been banned from the Ubud Writers Festival yesterday because they were scheduled to speak about the 1965 massacre of leftists. I don’t think Eka Kurniawan was one of them, but the news did shed an interesting light on the book’s unflinching account of the massacre.
Oh, and my chart of the relationships was widely admired, possibly with a slight edge of irony.