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Beauty Is a Wound, a great Indonesian novel

October 18, 2019


THE PEN Conference took place here about two weeks ago. I read that the Indonesian writer, Eka Kurniawan, had come for the conference. I would have been interested to meet him and hear him talk about his great epic novel, Beauty Is a Wound.

Beauty Is a Wound is written in Bahasa and published in Jogjakarta in 2002. It has been translated by Annie Tucker (New Directions paperback original). I am guessing that it must have taken a number of years for the book to reach translation through the Indonesian Translation Funding Program. It is a huge novel of 470 pages. Kurniawan is a renowned Indonesian writer of short stories, essays, movie scripts and graphic novels, aside from the conventional novel. Though I would not say that this novel is conventional in any sense.

It is a blockbuster perspective of the Indonesian experience of history and culture from before colonization and after. It contains everything Indonesian, from the environment, i.e. an archipelago much bigger than ours; to its history of ancient kingdoms, i.e. Madjapahit, Sri-Vishaya; its customs of animism, belief in ghosts, legends, shadow plays, animal characters, all living and acting as protagonists in the novel’s many plots and subplots.

The cast of characters is immense, from Dutch colonizers to guerrillas fighting for independence, to gangsters and hoodlum bosses, to fishermen and farmers, to brothel madams and beautiful prostitutes. As I said, it is epic, and somehow Kurniawan knits the plots together with the characters into one mesmerizing whole that spans several generations and many chapters.

As part of the animist/ghost factor, there is more than an element of magic realism here, which is natural under the circumstances where one believes in the other life, the disembodied voices or spirits from the past.

It resonates with us as Asians, Filipinos, believers in spirits. It parallels our way of living — close family ties, bound to Nature, close communal living, elements of gender inequality and patriarchy, present here to the nth degree.

Characters come back from the dead, ghosts become close friends with the living, beasts act like humans, people can communicate with the deceased, romantic love can go above and beyond what is conventionally known and experienced. It is a kaleidoscope of Asian life and grand gestures, far from modern Western concepts but readily understood by Filipino readers if they are willing to plow through 470 pages.

Obviously, the novel is much too complicated and layered for me to show plots and subplots even sketchily. You have to read it for yourself and analyze your reaction.

Let me give you a brief glimpse with the following scene:

Dewi Ayu who has given birth to three beautiful daughters, each of whom has her own saga that ends in pain and sorrow because of their beauty, exclaims at the birth of a fourth daughter, of whom she has prayed and wished to be ugly (her wish is granted):

“There is no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.”

The language of the novel is earthy, and may even be considered crude in some parts, but is too human, too true to criticize it for its depiction of reality. It is sensual and dramatic with unexpected turns and wide expanses of settings and characters.

Halimunda is the mythical town where the epic story takes place, like Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. It is by the sea, and it has its natural disasters and its human crises as well as its transition from the early history to Dutch colonization to the war for independence interrupted by the Japanese occupation in World War 2, to the final struggle for Merdeka, freedom. Yet the past is always present as the future tries to invent itself.

The title means that possessing beauty is a two-edged sword. It may bring fame and maybe love, but it can also more frequently bring pain and tragedy. One must be very careful and very clever with this attribute in a world of gender inequality and patriarchal tyranny.

It does not cease to amaze how Kurniawan could depict women characters so authentically in a world of seemingly unchallenged patriarchy. Yet under these circumstances, the women who are oppressed and misused rise to levels of cleverness and manipulation, and attain a level of wisdom that wins them many battles and gives the next generation after them many lessons. And yet, they remain human and comprehensible in their behavior. The war is still on in Beauty Is a Wound. Kurniawan’s women characters challenge the patriarchy and its oppression. In the long run, there may be overwhelming victory for them with the spirit they bring to battle. This is one of the great Indonesian novels of our time.

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