Prize-winning Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan isn’t for the squeamish. Packed with semen, menstrual blood, excrement and urine, his tour-de-force, Beauty is a Wound (originally published as Cinta itu Luka) isn’t “la-di-da” chic-lit, an “adultery-in-bourgeois-Hampstead” novella or Euro-crime noir.
Instead, Kurniawan hurls his readers deep into the heart of Java, reminding us along the way that the world’s most densely-populated island (one hundred and fifty million souls and counting on an area the size of England...) is far more rambunctious than the “sopan santun”, carefully-calibrated demeanour and unblinking passivity of its courtly elite with their slow-moving palace dances and often indecipherable double-speak.
The novel is like story-telling on acid.
Densely-plotted and overflowing with characters and incidents, Beauty is a Wound is also studded with pithy one-liners. Witness the gangster Memen Gedeng’s frank assessment of mankind: “Every human is a mammal, just like a dog, and walks on two legs like a chicken.”
Moreover, Kurniawan’s Java is more than a mere backdrop.
The author has conjured up a whole imaginary city, Halimunda, that’s a worthy heir to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo or William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. In Halimunda, the layering of influences and sources – Hindu, animist, Muslim, European and Chinese are so dizzying and eclectic it defies definition.
The gorgeous, mixed-race Ayu Dewi, (the product of an incestuous liaison) stands at the heart of the novel. Indeed, we begin by reading of her unexpected re-awakening from the dead, an event as commonplace (at least in Halimunda) as a trip to the local wet market.
Having reclaimed her home and more importantly, her trusted deaf-mute maid, Rosina, she bathes and then devours a vast amount of food after which she belches and farts: “…emitting a rumbling sound out of her asshole, the kind of fart that can’t be held in...”
The novel then switches back in time, returning to the pre-war, Dutch colonial era of Dewi Ayu’s privileged childhood – a world of tennis parties, obsequious servants, rambling family homes and Buitenzorg-like luxe – before plunging into the maelstrom of the Japanese invasion, internment, casual violence and comfort women-type prostitution.
Throughout it all, Dewi Ayu remains an implacable and voluptuous presence. Indeed, given the continuing dominance of pan-Asian faces (from Indonesia’s Pevita Pearce to the Philippines’ Anne Curtis Smith) across Southeast Asian film and TV screens, Dewi Ayu’s enduring allure is perhaps unsurprising.
What is refreshing, however, is the woman’s spirit and her terse, unforgettable pronouncements. Take, for example, how she refers to her own daughters: “They left as soon as they learned how to unbutton a man’s fly.”
For Dewi Ayu, with her striking blue eyes and fair skin, love is little more than a commodity, something she trades in order to survive. Overcoming her distaste early on in life, she forces herself to submit to the Japanese prison camp commandant in return for medicine.
Years later and by now the town’s most sought-after whore, she knows that her personal stoicism has saved her from the heartache and pain that has assailed her daughters and their various paramours.
Whilst Kurniawan has been compared to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the resolutely leftist story-teller of the Sukarno Era and its terrible aftermath, the parallels aren’t appropriate.
Kurniawan celebrates and revels in the humanism of what he’s created whereas Pramoedya, a committed and unflaggingly dogmatic ideologue, was trapped within his obsessions.
It’s the humanism at a time of worrying religious conservatism that makes Beauty is a Wound so admirable, so extraordinary and also (most importantly) so subversive.
With the sole exception of Dewi Ayu, the rest of the characters are in the thrall of their emotions. When they fall in love, the world literally stops.
A coup de foudre sends reverberations across the Javanese landscape and out into the oceans.
For example, with Ayu Dewi’s second daughter, the manipulative Allamanda, the tables are turned when she falls in love with the captivating communist activist Kliwon:
“When she began to realise that she had truly fallen in love, she was horrified that she had been conquered and tried to kill those amorous feelings by thinking of the most appalling ways to make the man fall at her feet.”
As Jon Fasman writes in The New York Times, Eka’s work shows us “…how the currents of history catch, whirl, carry away and sometimes drown people.”
Eka Kurniawan is a Southeast Asian storyteller with a magnificent and effortless grasp of his material.
He rejects the prissy and bourgeois.
Instead, he wallows in the humane and the earthy.
He makes us laugh, gasp and cry – often in rapid succession.
This novel is as close to an all-night wayang as you’ll ever get.
This is the real thing and I would have given anything to have been the author.