Monday, 4 July 2016

Review: 'Beauty is a Wound' by Eka Kurniawan, trans. Annie Tucker

Books have the amazing ability to educate without becoming pedantic or boring. Especially historical fiction can do this purely through its setting, which was the exact reason why I loved historical fiction as a child. Upon expanding my literary horizons I also realised there were so many different cultures I could learn about simply through learning. Beauty is a Wound is exactly this kind of book, which both sheds light on a period in history not many will be familiar with while also being a hilarious and imaginative read. Thanks to Pushkin Press and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 16/06/2016
Publisher: Pushkin Press

One stormswept afternoon, after twenty-one years of being dead, the beautiful Indonesian prostitute Dewi Ayu rises from her grave to avenge a curse placed on her family. Amidst the orange groves and starfruit trees, her children and grandchildren have been living out lives of violence, incest, murder, madness and heartbreak. They are creatures of breathtaking beauty - all but one of them, whose ugliness is unparalleled. And Beauty is her name.
Set in the mythical Indonesian town of Halimunda, Beauty is a Wound is a bawdy, epic tale of fearsome women and weak-willed men, communist ghosts and vengeful spirits, chaste princesses and ruthless bandits. It is also a satirical portrait of Indonesia's painful past, journeying through almost a century of brutality, from Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation to revolution, independence and dictatorship. Weaving together history with local legend, Eka Kurniawan spins a fantastical masterpiece in which darkness and light dance hand in hand.
Being half-Dutch and having spent most of my life in the Netherlands, I am perhaps more familiar with Indonesia's history than manyh other Western countries. This perhaps sounds a little bit pompous but even in the Netherlands, which has played a crucial role in the country's history, Indonesia is hardly brought up. Soldiers sent there in the 1940s and 1950s aren't even considered veterans, so the Netherlands can pretend they never engaged in warfare post WWII to retain a colony. Max Havelaar is one of the few well-known Dutch books dealing with this part of our history. As such, it is incredibly rewarding that Kurniawan's Beauty is a Wound has finally been translated into English, bringing this fascinating and thrilling piece of literature to an even wider audience. The novel's Indonesian name is Cantik itu Luka and was originally published in 2002.

Beauty is a Wound is beautifully grotesque, full of murder, rape, incest, the undead and more. It's a roller coaster ride of epic proportions, mirroring the turbulent past of Indonesia. In the 20th century alone Indonesia has moved from colonial rule, to struggling for independence, the widespread murder in 1965-66 of Communists and ethnic Chinese and then the 30-year rule of Suharto, one of the most corrupt leaders in recent history. Indonesia's growth has been incredibly contentious and dramatic and this translates into Kurniawan's narrative of Dewi Ayu's life, death and return to the living. Dewi Ayu is a fascinating character and a female character unlike any I have ever read. Filled with a certainty of herself and a refusal to be intimidated by life, Dewi Ayu is what her country isn't, yet. Whether it is sex, violence or life, she approaches it with the aim to get out of it what she needs. She is joined by a large cast of fully sketched characters, who allow Kurniawan to cover so many different themes.

Kurniawan's writing style is what makes Beauty is a Wound the masterpiece that it is. With any other author it would potentially have been almost atrocious since Kurniawan doesn't pull any punches. The writing is incredibly descriptive and colourful, spans generations and probably crosses a number of lines for some people. In many ways it reminded me of novels by Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie. The former has the similar kind of dreamy and Absurdist qualities, whereas Rushdie is another writer whose writing shocks and enchants. Both authors have also used their novels to bring their countries' contentious histories to light, using the Magical and Absurd to try to explain the complex and occasionally destructive forces of time. Similarly to Rushdie's Shame, Beauty is a Wound combines a lot of different themes and feelings, covering politics, love, obsession, revenge, colonial history, village life, prostitution, and many more.

Kurniawan weaves a narrative in Beauty is a Wound that combines Southeast Asian mythology and folklore with Magical Realism, the Supernatural and Horror. Literary culture is so important to translating history into lessons for the present, into reminders for the future. Germany has worked very hard to learn lessons from its past, through literature (think The Reader) as well as other things, whereas, for example, the Netherlands is very much still struggling doing so. I think Beauty is a Wound is a crucial step in that direction for Indonesia. Props should also go to Annie Tucker who does a brilliant job in translating Kurniawan's Bahasa Indonesian into English.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved Beauty is a Wound! Kurniawan is a brilliant writer, creating fascinating images and characters, spinning wild and magical tales and confronting the reader with some harsh historical and social truths all at the same time. I will be talking about this one for a long time. I'd recommend this to fans of Magical Realism, Historical Fiction and fans of Salman Rushdie.

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