Book Review - Beauty is a Wound & Man Tiger

Set in the fictitious Indonesian port of Halimunda, Eka Kurniawan’s ambitious, multi-layered novel Beauty is a Wound chronicles the life of Dewi Ayu, the mixed-race granddaughter of Dutch plantation owners, and her four daughters. It opens boldly in 1997, with Dewi Ayu rising from her grave, “after being dead for twenty-one years”, and then leaps back and forth in time introducing us to an array of characters.

The story covers almost a century, from the final years of Dutch colonialism to the fall of President Suharto, and includes the Japanese occupation, the postwar revolution, the acts of genocide against Indonesia’s Communist party and Suharto’s brutal dictatorship. Beauty is a Wound is the acclaimed Indonesian writer’s debut novel, published in his own country in 2002, and now published in English.

On returning to the land of the living, Dewi Ayu immediately thinks of her fourth daughter, born just 12 days before her death. She had been a particularly ugly baby and Dewi Ayu had gleefully named her Beauty. Setting the tone of the novel, Dewi Ayu declares: “There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.”

We are then taken back to Dewi Ayu’s childhood and precocious teenage years. At 18, she is forced into prostitution by the Japanese and circumstances compel her to continue “whoring” after the war. Displaying a rare beauty and a quiet self-possession, she is popular with the local men and distrusted by the women. Dewi Ayu gives birth to three beautiful daughters, all with different fathers, all of whom suffer tragedy.

Three hapless men — bandit Maman Gendeng, independence fighter Shodancho, and Comrade Kliwon, a communist leader — are in thrall to Dewi Ayu and her exquisite offspring.

The fate of the women of his homeland, Kurniawan suggests, was largely determined by such men, be they Dutch colonisers, Japanese occupiers, independence fighters or Suharto loyalists. Local myth and superstition also influence the lives of Dewi Ayu, her daughters and her grandchildren. One legend tells of the beautiful Princess Rengganis, who marries a dog and settles in Halimunda, “Land of Fog”. Her story serves as a warning to beautiful women in the region. Centuries later, beauty is still equally revered and feared.

In Kurniawan’s world, the lust for revenge is never-ending, from the time of Dutch colonisers to the bloodletting in the two years preceding Suharto’s three-decade dictatorship. Indonesia’s internal and political conflicts are his novel’s central themes, and he vividly depicts their impact on ordinary people’s lives. Take this chilling account of the military’s 1965 massacre of communists and alleged leftists: “The city of Halimunda was now filled with corpses sprawled out in the irrigation channels and on the outskirts of the city, in the foothills and on the riverbanks, in the middle of bridges and under bushes. Most of them had been killed as they tried to escape.”

The abuse of women and girls is presented as the inevitable fallout of violent conflict, and makes for difficult reading. After being raped by Shodancho, Dewi Ayu’s eldest daughter Alamanda lies helpless as he crows, “It’s too bad you met me, Alamanda. I win every war I fight, including the war against you.”

Annie Tucker’s skilful translation captures Kurniawan’s matter-of-fact prose and black humour. Elements of the supernatural and oral storytelling combine powerfully to evoke a brutal past and some of the pivotal events that helped shape Indonesia today.

His 2004 novel Man Tiger (translated into English by Labodalih Sembiring last year), is a slimmer volume but just as savage a critique of violence against Indonesia’s women. Set in another fictitious coastal township, the central character Margio, “a child of domestic rape”, believes himself to be possessed by a tiger — “white as a swan, vicious as an ajak”. As in Beauty is a Wound, it opens with the discovery of a corpse, then tracks back in time to reveal why Margio, now an adult, murdered his philandering neighbour Anwar Sadat (not the Egyptian former president). Like Beauty, Man Tiger is inspired by Indonesia’s oral storytelling tradition, so we are given the consequences of an act of violence before we learn the reason why it occurred.

In both novels, Kurniawan creates a vivid sense of poverty and rural isolation and weaves magic realism into his narratives to terrific effect. It’s easy to see why he is being compared to Gabriel García Márquez and hailed as one of the leading lights of contemporary Indonesian fiction.

Originally published by the Financial Times