October 7, 2015 – 2:21 pm

Illustration from Indonesian edition of the book.

The blurb for Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is A Wound: “Indonesia’s troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million ‘Communists,’ followed by three decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.” All wrapped in an indigenous surrealism that is highly intoxicating. Charles R. Larson reviews.

Eka Kurniawan’s epic narrative of Indonesia’s last 75 years, Beauty Is A Wound (first published in 2002; English translation 2015), follows the guise of a family saga: a luscious prostitute, her four daughters, and their children, moving from colonial days under the Dutch, to the rise of Communism after World War II, and finally to more recent instability with an occasional semblance of order.

Kurniawan’s focal point is a city, called Halimunda, based, no doubt, on his own place of birth: Tasikmalaya, in West Java. It’s a traditional society where women of great beauty can attain status, especially - and perhaps only - if they are whores. The story itself is misogynistic to the extreme, replete with animal imagery of dogs and pigs, associated with males. Men assume that women exist for their pleasure, but the prostitutes at least understand this and thus avoid some of the worst abuse.

Here, for example, is what the writer says of Dewi Ayu, the matriarch: “And so it was there, in ‘Make Love To the Death” [a brothel], that Dewi Ayu became a prostitute. She didn’t live there, because she had a house. She just went there when dusk fell, and returned home when morning came. Now she had three young girls to take care of: Alamanda, Adinda, and Maya Dewi, born three years after Adinda. At night, the children were cared for by Mirah, but during the day she took care of them herself just like any regular mom. She sent the kids to the best schools, and to the mosque to recite prayers with Kyai Jahro.”

It’s her status that is so important: “She was the city’s favorite whore. Almost every man who had ever been to the brothel had slept with her at least once, not caring how much he had to pay. It wasn’t because they had some long-standing obsession to sleep with a Dutch woman, it was because they knew that Dewi Ayu was an expert lovemaker.

No one handled her roughly, as the other prostitutes were handled, because if someone did so all the other men would go nuts as if the woman was their own wife. Not one night passed without her entertaining a guest, but she strictly limited herself to just one man per evening. For this apparent exclusivity, Mama Kalong charged a high price and the extra profit went to her, that bat queen who never slept at night.” In short, a magnificent prostitute with status, plus the added attraction of her ethnicity.

What engages the reader of this compulsive story are the steps the narrative takes away from reality. Hence, the opening sentence: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years.” Magical realism? I hate the term that Westerners use to explain what they don’t (and possibly can’t) understand.

It’s become so overused, applied to book after book. I’d prefer to call it indigenous surrealism, though there’s nothing unbelievable about these incidents for the people raised within the culture. They believe in spirits and, especially, their ability to return and shape the lives of the living. Above all, the living communicate with the dead. Animism abounds: a rich symbiotic relation of man with his environment (including the dead). By the end of Beauty Is A Wound, all of the major incidents have been attributed to an evil spirit.

Before that, there is incest, bestiality, despicable brutality, and mass murders, first sanctioned by the colonial power and later by warring militias and political parties. Some of the worst characters in the story are Indonesian militia warlords, including one who insists that Dewi Ayu must end her days of prostitution and serve only him.

And the result of that move is Dewi Ayu’s four children playing an adult version of musical beds, as their earnest lovers (and husbands) are eliminated one after another. The daughters, who are not technically prostitutes, become little more than that because of the way they are shuffled around by the men in their lives.

The structure of Kurniawan’s novel resembles the endless stories of Scheherazade, related one after the other to escape death. Characters disappear and then reappear later, after you’ve assumed that they are long gone (and dead). Bodies also abound, some of them taken from graves; babies are frequent in the daughters’ lives, though at least two of them also disappear with little more than a puff of air.

And, finally, the richness of Kurniawan’s storytelling will leave you chuckling and amazed, begging for more. By the end, you finally understand the price that women have to pay if they are beautiful, and understand why one male character has decided he wants Dewi Ayu’s fourth child (the only one considered ugly). He doesn’t want to be trapped by the beauty and the unhappiness of all of the others.

Beauty isn’t only a wound; it’s a curse.

Note: Charles R Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, DC You can email him at [email protected] Twitter @LarsonChuck. The above article was posted at CounterPunch.

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“An unforgettable, all-encompassing epic… Upon finishing the book, the reader will have the sense of encountering not just the history of Indonesia but its soul and spirit. This is an astounding, momentous book.” (Publishers Weekly (Starred Review))

“Very striking.” (Tariq Ali)

“Without a doubt the most original, imaginatively profound, and elegant writer of fiction in Indonesia today: its brightest and most unexpected meteorite. Pramoedya Ananta Toer has found a successor.” (Benedict Anderson - The New Left Review)

“An epic picaresque that’s equal parts Canterbury Tales and Mahabharata - exuberantly excessive and captivating. Huge ambition, abundantly realized.” (Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review))

“A vivacious translation of a comic but emotionally powerful Indonesian novel.” (PEN America)

“Kurniawan’s story of an undead woman had morphed into the story of modern Indonesia, an epic novel critics are more wont to compare to One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Canterbury Tales.” (Sydney Morning Herald)

“The final wonder of Beauty Is a Wound is how much pure liveliness and joy there is mixed up with the pain, as if the verdancy of the author’s imagination was racing to cover a million corpses with fresh green tendrils.” (The Saturday Paper)

“As translated by Annie Tucker, Kurniawan’s prose is lucid and occasionally lyrical but never showy.” (Anthony Domestico - SF Chronicle)

“Kurniawan does not merely traffic skillfully in magic realism; his Halimunda - like García Márquez’s Macondo and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County - lets him show how the currents of history catch, whirl, carry away and sometimes drown people.” (John Fasman - The New York Times)

“Both Man Tiger and Beauty Is a Wound constitute a retort from the present to the dark times, while also acknowledging that the dark times may not yet be over. Against the killings of those years and the collective amnesia used to blank out the fate of the victims - a kind of second death, as it were - Kurniawan’s fiction summons its legions of ghosts.” (Siddhartha Deb - The New Republic)

“Gracefully translated by Annie Tucker, the writing is evocative and muscular, with particularly spicy descriptions and some good wry humor.” (Sarah Lyall - The New York Times)

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Author Eka Kurniawan

Born in 1975, the author of novels, short stories, essays, movie scripts, and graphic novels Eka Kurniawan has been described as “one of the few influential writers in Indonesia” (The Jakarta Post).

Translator Annie Tucker is a recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award.

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  2. For a different perspective, from the same timeline & geographic zone, watch the compelling film “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten”. It was released early this year & I saw it at a premiere in So. Calif., but cannot find any info about a DVD release. It is a well put together documentary that includes the good, the bad & the ugly side of what went down in that region of our world.

    By Timmy on Oct 7, 2015

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