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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Beauty Is A Wound - Eka Kurniawan (translated by Annie Tucker) - Best Translated Book Award 2016

There has been quite a flurry around Indonesian literature in recent months, in August Words Without Borders featured Indonesian writers and pointed out:

“Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and Malay, Indonesia’s mother language, is one of the world’s top-ten spoken languages with a conservative estimate of at least 200 million speakers. (Some estimates are as high as 500 million.) But how many book-length literary titles are translated from Indonesian into foreign languages each year? Usually no more than ten. And how many Indonesian authors could even the most erudite literary critic in the United States cite by name? I would wager to say one, at most.”

In October, Indonesia will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest annual book publishing event in the world. Earlier in August I received an advance copy of Eka Kurniawan’s “Beauty Is A Wound” and then, late in the month, Kurniawan was a guest at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival in a “conversation” presentation.

Given Indonesia is one of our nearest neighbours (I’m in the South of Australia), and my exposure to their literature has totalled ZERO, I think it is probably about time I started to address this imbalance.

Kurniawan’s novel opens with Dewi Ayu coming back from the dead after being buried for twenty-one years. The first thing she thinks about is her “baby” Beauty (Dewi Ayu dies twelve days after giving birth). Beauty is a child she tried to abort a number of times, given she already had three daughters (all children are to unknown fathers) and she was nearly fifty years of age, and Beauty is the ugliest baby known, after Dewi Ayu had given birth to three stunningly beautiful girls:

However it was true that Dewi Ayu tried to kill the baby back when she realized that, whether or not she had already lived for a whole half century, she was pregnant once again. Just as with her other children, she didn’t know who the father was, but unlike the others she had absolutely no desire for the baby to survive. So she had taken five extra-strength paracetamol pills that she got from a village doctor and washed them down with half a liter of soda, which was almost enough to cause her own death but not quite, as it turned out, enough to kill that baby. She thought of another way, and called a midwife who was willing to kill the baby and take it out of her womb by inserting a small wooden stick into her belly. She experienced heavy bleeding for two days and two nights and the small piece of wood came back out in splinters, but the baby kept growing. She tried six other ways to get the better of that baby, but all were in vain, and she finally gave up and complained:
“This one is a real brawler, and she’s clearly going to beat her mother in this fight.”

We then travel back in time to Dewi Ayu’s youth, her marriage to an old mad man, being taken prisoner by the Japanese as part of their invasion of Indonesia and then being forced into prostitution.

This novel (by having Dewi Ayu coming back from the dead) managed to cover eighty or so years of Indonesian history. A work that is 470 pages in length (the Australian edition runs to nearly 500 pages) there is a lot of territory to cover. This is done by running multiple stories, all linked to Dewi Ayu in some way. We have Maman Gendeng, an indestructible criminal, who lands in Halimunda (where our story is set) in search of a legendary princess only to find that the story was 200 years old, as a result he proposes to the prostitute Dewi Ayu instead. We also have Shodancho a guerrilla revered by the community, a rival of sorts to Maman Gendeng, who becomes the leader of the military and is in love with one of Dewi Ayu’s daughters. And we have Comrade Kliwon, naturally a communist, who is a womaniser but also in love with the same daughter of Dewi Ayu.

The novel feels as though it is a collection of stand-alone stories, but the intertwining of characters and the passage of time as well as Dewi Ayu being the spine of the stories gives the novel multiple linkages.

Drawing on Indonesian folklore there are people who fly, rebirths, and ghosts a plenty, all of this with the backdrop of extreme violence, including sexual violence.  But each of the extreme situations are either balanced with humour or with the level headedness of one of the female characters.

The fact was, most people of Kalamunda were superstitious. They still believed the demons, spooks, and all kinds of supernatural beings ran wild in the cemetery, living among the spirits of the dead. And they also believed that the gravedigger lived in close communion with all of these supernatural beings. Aware of his difficult situation, Kamino had never even tried proposing to anyone. His only interactions with other people happened in the course of his business. He usually just stayed at home, a humid house made out of moldy old concrete shaded by big banyan trees. The sole entertainment in his lonely life was playing jailangkun – calling the spirits of the dead using a little effigy doll – another skill that had been passed down through the generations of his family, good for invoking the spirits to chat with them about all kinds of things.

This book is littered with little amusing anecdotes – as an example the village of Halimunda celebrates Independence Day on a different date that the rest of Indonesia, this is a result of the news travelling slowly to the village.

I’ll leave the linear (or more circular) plot quite bare for you to enjoy the novel yourself, however this work does cover sweeping epic times in Indonesian history, the invasion by the Japanese, the slaughter of thousands of communists, living under Suharto’s dictatorship, military rule and these events are all covered here. With the three husbands of the three daughters representing military, communism and criminals, the power struggles are obvious to see, as an aside the police are ineffectual.

A great introduction to Indonesian literature and the melding of humour, extreme events, folklore and reality is done with a nice balance.

During Eka Kurniawan’s appearance at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival he discussed a number of subjects, the ones I thought more relevant I’ll paraphrase here (he did answer questions in English however at times he did struggle to find the correct word).

As a university student, studying philosophy, he found he was spending more time in the library reading English translations of famous works. Upon reading Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a writer. The two major influences of “Beauty Is A Wound” are “dalang” masters performing “wayang”, Indonesian shadow puppet theatre. Stories containing heroics, humour and philosophy, as well as commenting on current affairs. Learning this after reading the novel, was a revelation, a better understanding of the work instead of the line I’ve seen trotted out a few times “magic realism” a la Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

The second influence, as revealed by Kurniawan, is Cervantes, the book’s epigraph from Don Quixote. Kurniawan revealed the idea of imagination is the guiding influence here.

Besides mentioning Cervantes, he also spoke of Milan Kundera’s reference to delivering a serious message with a tone of “lightness”, a feature that is evident throughout the novel. Instead of reeling from every horrific story you are somehow drawn to reading the next page.

The actual work itself is “three or four” novels mixed and combined into one to become our final work, and at times, as the stories seem to exist independently, this is quite obvious. Although the spine of Dewi Ayu throughout does link them in some way. Interestingly Kurniawan explained that the character of Dewi Ayu was the last character he formed. The criminal character of Maman Gendeng is the anti-hero that Kurniawan felt the most sympathy for when creating him, this, again, I could feel, although a criminal and indestructible his honesty to his word is refreshing, and even though he marries a twelve year old his loyalty and honour of this young girl is very different from the military character of Shodancho a brutal evil man.

I’m glad I delved into the world of Indonesian writing and there are a few other works now on my radar.

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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