One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” So begins Beauty Is A Wound, by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker.
It’s a enthralling read – richly and densely imagined and described, epic in proportions, often bewildering in the twists and turns of its plot, and breathtakingly bizarre in its strangeness, its grotesque humour, its scenes of dazzling tenderness and loveliness laid bare alongside those of obscene and extreme cruelty, pain, sorrow and devastation.
Beauty Is A Wound may be read as commentary and reflection on Indonesian history, with Dewi Ayu and her daughters representing the nation at every painful phase of its turbulent path, from Dutch colony to newly independent state – or it can be read as a fantastical tale of complicated lives, each one leading to another even more absurd and astonishing.
Through it all, there is love and desire, revenge and violence, heartbreak and war – that juicy combination that is the delight of many readers, but served up with dark, wry humour and in a deadpan manner that does a good job of gentling the blow of the story’s many uncomfortable details.
The novel’s central character, the prostitute Dewi Ayu, echoes and embodies the author’s storytelling style with her pragmatism and ghoulist wit.
Of Dutch and Indonesian parentage, she is stunningly beautiful, her three daughters even more so.
But beauty, as they discover, is as much a curse as a saving grace.
Thus, when Dewi Ayu finds herself pregnant with her fourth child, she tries to abort it, and failing, prays that it will be born hideous.
Thus a female child who looks like the “result of randomly breeding a monkey with a frog and a monitor lizard” is born. She is so horrifying in appearance that all efforts are made to keep her away from her mother.
Dewi Ayu, believing her prayers for an ugly daughter have not been answered, names this fourth child Beauty. The prostitute then decides to die and achieves her goal, seemingly by sheer will.
It is only when she returns from the grave that Dewi Ayu realises the truth. It is from this point that we learn the details of her complicated, surprising life.
As mentioned before, her story is just one of many that lead us from page to page and so to the end.
Eka takes us from one tale to the next quite suddenly, and although all are linked, there may be some momentary confusion, as well as disappointment, as we are forced to turn from a life that we have grown attached to, and become morbidly curious about, to an unfamiliar one.
However, such is the author’s skill that it takes just a page or two for us to be once more riveted.
I found Beauty a smooth, effortless read despite its length and complexity.
I mentioned the author’s writing style earlier, but as I have not read the original version of this novel, I can’t say for sure how successful Tucker has been in rendering Kurniawan’s voice into English.
To be sure, some word choices strike me as odd, and jar with my own expectations of what I think sentences and phrases might sound like in Indonesian. For instance, when Dewi Ayu says “Yeah”, it’s as if she’s being portrayed by a contemporary American actor who has broken character.
It may seem a small thing, but it’s as incongruous as a character in an 18th century period drama using a smart phone.
Just one other novel by Kurniawan has been translated and published in English, in 2015, by Verso Books – and Man Tiger has been longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Another, Love And Vengeance, is due to be published by New Directions Books in 2017. It’s exciting to think of South-East Asian novels being translated into English and made available outside their countries of origin.
Hopefully, wider exposure to contemporary South-East Asian literature will encourage greater demand for it worldwide.
Even within this region, an awareness of each other’s literary works is to be encouraged. It is just unfortunate that Malaysians should need to be told of an Indonesian author by an American publisher.
Sadly, I suspect that an American translation and/or edition is also what many Malaysian authors would need in order to be read by their countrymen.