“Beauty Is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Kevin Elliott, BTBA judge and bookseller at 57th Street Books. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
Beauty Is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Annie Tucker (Indonesia, New Directions)
If you read the initial reviews of Beauty Is A Wound from all of the usual media suspects, you might get the feeling that reading Kurniawan’s is akin to picking up a Marquez novel crossed with George R.R. Martin and run through a collander of Indonesian history. Forgive the kitchen reference. I cook when I’m feeling anxious or otherwise seriously affected by a novel or other work. And believe me, you will be affected when you read Beauty Is A Wound . . . Far far more affected than the death of one of your favorite characters or a multi-year wait for the next volume. I’m still so shaken, stunned, horrified, and amazed, that these noodles will most likely sit in my sink for a few days. Despite what you’ve read about the contents elsewhere, Beauty Is A Wound is one of those novels that sticks inside of your gut and churns long after you finish, making it difficult to forget . . .
. . . it may also need a disclaimer, as some of the contents will be extremely triggering to some readers.
What a way to start a post about why this book should win, huh?
Indonesia has been a thinly represented country in contemporary translated literature, but we were lucky enough to see three separate novels released in 2015 (Home by Leila S. Chudori from Deep Vellum, and another novel by Kurniawan, Man Tiger published by Verso). Each novel approaches Indonesia’s brutal history in unique ways, but this is the novel that reaches the farthest in every direction and succeeds on many levels in creating a multi-layered narrative which delights, informs, and disturbs in equal dose.
Blending elements of magical realism, allegory, satire, and a skewed marriage-plot sensibility, the novel begins with Indonesia’s most beloved and beautiful prostitute, Dewi Ayu, rising from the grave to tell the story of her own history and that of her three beautiful daughters who are all beset by terrible tragedy. But perhaps the primary reason for Dewi’s strong willed return to life is to visit her fourth daughter, to whom she gave birth just before dying. Her name is Beauty, and she is blessed with an ugliness that Dewi does not understand or approve of.
Among various characters who are introduced and storylines that seem destined to go nowhere (though Kurniawan displays his skillful storytelling most while threading disparate plotlines together), beauty with a lowercase “b” plays a pivotal role. Tragic ends, brutal interactions, and more than a little bit of sexual violence by way of husbands, suitors, and other male lovers swirls around the centerpiece of beauty. Though not graphic or obsessed over in the text, the rape and brutality in the novel targets physical beauty, yet character of Beauty is repeatedly dismissed as one who is immune and devoid of value. The male characters we are introduced to are the ones pointing the finger, and because this unfortunately plays in a contemporary western setting as realism, it’s difficult to remember that each character is in some small way a personification of an era and setting of Indonesia’s deceptive and bloody past. It’s easy to forget the satire since the world of the novel is so immersive and skillfully laid out.
There is even a point in the middle of the book where it is as if nothing were wrong with ignoring the brutality of the narrative at hand. A chapter begins “Once upon a time” as a fairy tale would. It’s as if nothing were wrong with the grotesque worship of beauty and the selfish means in which it is pursued and dominated. As if even the fairy tale itself should be swallowed like a spoonful of sugar. But even this chapter slowly reveals itself as an allegory of the bastard revolution promised to the country under new rule.
And that’s the hidden and true beauty of this novel. It draws you in so that, as a reader, no matter how far removed you try to place yourself, every terrible detail offends while every joke brings a laugh. The layered texture of its storytelling provide readers with multiple ways to approach the novel, including tuning into the allegory or choosing to read the entire novel as a multi-generational ghost story.
Kurniawan’s ambitious writing is filled with a joyful necessity and Annie Tucker’s translation seems to capture this by being straightforward and simple where the story needs and precisely elegant elsewhere (and knowing the difference between the two). There’s also a feeling of discomfort that comes from reading a novel like this, but the discomfort may very well be intended when reading about a history of place that is often ignored . . . and while realizing that even a people experiencing struggle in light of a fate they have no control over will often find strength to laugh in the face of those who seek to control them. To find beauty in what is not mandated or considered acceptable and to forge ahead is a strength of Kurniawan’s country and a strength that comes through the darkness of the novel.
After reading the last line of this book, I kept going back to reread passages that I couldn’t shake from my memory. Beauty Is a Wound lived inside of me long after the last page was closed. At first, there were single lines and passages that made me think I didn’t want it to win, but it was its unflinching nature, all-encompassing ambition, and astounding narrative achievement that convinced me it should.