Beauty is a Wound – Eka Kurniawan

So she let her stomach get bigger and bigger, held the selamatan ritual at seven months, and let the baby be born, even though she refused to look at her. She had already given birth to three girls before this and all of them were gorgeous, practically like triplets born one after another. She was bored with babies like that, who according to her were like mannequins in a storefront display, so she didn’t want to see her youngest child, certain she would be no different from her three older sisters. She was wrong, of course, and didn’t yet know how repulsive her youngest truly was.

Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound takes place in the Indonesian city Halimunda, where a prostitute named Dewi Ayu lives through many decades of the turbulent twentieth century. It has a giant cast of vibrant, larger-than-life, sometimes-magical characters and a wide tapestry in terms of story and time, and its view of history is startlingly, centrally female. This romp of a book dwells on the crude, from piss and shit to sex, more often than on the sublime — but a New York Times review was rather inadequate when it described Kurniawan’s work as being merely about “unruly, untameable and often unquenchable desires.” Because it’s not just about desire; specifically, it features numerous, terrifyingly varied portrayals of rape. The beauty possessed by Dewi Ayu’s first three daughters, like “mannequins in a storefront display,” is not just a wound but a grave, ever-present danger for each of them.

I read the book as being “postcolonial” in the sense that it does examine the volcanic changes that take place in Javanese society after independence from the Dutch, from Japanese occupation to civil war; its topics range from law enforcement and local politics to the experiences of prisoners of war. But in the relations between male and female characters, the country’s violence and strife is replicated in miniature. So many men see their way clear to raping, to owning, to violating, some other woman. And each female character who is raped suffers as mightily as if she were an entire country unto herself.

It’s a fascinating, sometimes offensive read, and I’m still not sure I understand it fully, nor was I actually sure I enjoyed it. But as a book that has both the grandeur of García Marquez and the mordant scatological humor of Beckett, and is told in its own original, rambunctiously vulgar, yet beautiful voice, it is well worth a read.

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