Beauty is a Wound – an Epic Indonesian story

2 months ago Shaili Desai 0

I found Beauty is a Wound in a bookshop at the Jakarta airport. The city of Jakarta has been nice so far. The people are easy going and helpful. I haven’t encountered the nasty traffic that people complain about – mostly it’s because we live very close to our work. Everything is a 10-min walk nearby. There is not much difference between Jakarta and an Indian city like Mumbai, although there’s no Marine Drive here. However, there is Ancol Marina – a short hour’s ride away.

With skyscrapers, plush malls, SUVs on the road and inflated prices of vegetables in the supermarkets, you wonder – where does the middle class live? What’s the culture here? I am yet to see the cultural hotspots in the city but there isn’t much in Jakarta that is old and looks like it’s from a hundred years. Bahasa Indonesian is ubiquitous – from restaurant menus to daily newspapers to business talks. My foreign mind sees this as a kind of opacity. I shout silently in my head – Let me know more about you, Indonesia! The shouts go unanswered, but you find a way.

I wanted to know more about Indonesian history and its culture, through the lens of a local and went looking for a book which could help me understand. Picking up Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan was still an impulsive decision, taken just before a flight to New Delhi.

The Plot of Beauty is a Wound

Eka Kurniawan is best known for his book Mantiger, which got a place in the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.  However, Beauty is a wound is his first book. Translated into English by Annie Tucker, the book is about Dewi Ayu, a prostitute of mixed heritage – Dutch and Indonesian. Her family is cursed to be unhappy and Dewi Ayu comes back from the dead to correct this – for the happiness of her daughters. The book starts with a sixteen year Dewi who is a product of incest. Her parents were born to the same father – but with different mothers. Dewi is beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, sassy and obstinate.

beauty is a wound
Book Cover : Beauty is a Wound

Refusing to leave Indonesia during World War II, when most of the Dutch colonisers left in fear of being killed – Dewi instead wants to marry an old beggar. She wants to right a wrong done by her Dutch grandfather. She is soon widowed and sent to a camp by the Japanese soldiers where she survives through her grit and resourcefulness. At the same time, she realises the commodity that her body is and grows into a famous yet respected prostitute that every man in Halimunda wants to go to bed with.

It starts with the Second World War and covers many important events during this time – from the colonising of the country by the Dutch to the liberation of the country as well as of the anti-communist purging. I would call the book a ‘wandering’ novel – it spans across generations, genders and histories. Often it diverges into multiple story lines and introduces new characters, along with a detailed story of their background.

What I felt about Beauty is a Wound

You’d think that it is a sad little tale of a prostitute but it’s not. Dewi is anything but a sad heroine and the book is more about her daughters and many other characters important to the story line. It is in equal parts funny, grotesque and dark. The writing is simple and yet has layers. The book raises many questions while being absurd and uses Indonesian folk stories to the full, cleverly mired into the narrative. The Undead are extremely popular in Beauty is a Wound. They heavily feature in the narrative and stand as reminders of the horrific past. Like they say, your sins always come home to roost. And the ghosts in the book not only roost but eat, drink, curse and joke.

During the end, it can get a little tedious and it feels like the author is babbling. Albeit subtle, there are many questions posed in the background. There are questions on war, culture, colonialism, the politics of rape, freedom and most importantly the inherent weakness of man for female beauty. I am not sure if it was his intention but the novel brings home the truth of how female beauty is blamed by weak men. Who is the victim here though – is it the country or the women in the story ?

With heavy use of Indonesian folklore and magical realism, Beauty is a Wound is set like an Epic where what is good and what is evil can be very confusing and Beauty is not only a wound, it is also a weapon.                                                                                

About the book: Beauty is a Wound | Ewa Kurniawan, Annie Tucker | 490 pages | Pushkin Press 

Other links: Beauty is a Wound : A Historical ContextZee JLF 2017 – Ewa Kurniawan | Review – Beauty is a Wound by Faraway Places | What I’ve been reading

Source for Featured Image : Indian Express