Eka Kurniawan’s epic narrative of Indonesia’s last seventy-five years, Beauty is a Wound, 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 twenty-one 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.
Eka Kurniawan: Beauty is a Wound
Trans. by Annie Tucker
New Directions, 480 pp., $19.95