A great novel represents contemporary South- East Asian literature on the world’s stage by winning the World Readers Award.
ONE afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for t wenty- one years.” So begins Beauty Is A Wound, by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, t ranslated by Annie Tucker.
It ’ s a enthralling read – richly and densely imagined and described, epic in proport ions, often bewildering in t he t wist s and t urns of it s plot , and breathtakingly bizarre in its st rangeness, its grotesque humour, it s scenes of dazzling t enderness and loveliness laid bare alongside t hose of obscene and extreme cruelt y, pain, sorrow and devastat ion.
Beauty Is A Wound may be read as commentary and reflection on Indonesian hist ory, with Dewi Ayu and her daughters representing t he nation at every painful phase of it s t urbulent pat h, from Dutch colony t o newly independent state – or it can be read as a fantast ical t ale of complicated lives, each one leading t o another even more absurd and astonishing.
Through it all, t here is love and desire, revenge and violence, heartbreak and war – t hat juicy combination t hat is t he delight of many readers, but served up with dark, wry humour and in a deadpan manner t hat does a good jobof gent ling t he blow of t he st ory’s many uncomfortable details.
The novel’s cent ral charact er, t he prost it ute Dewi Ayu, echoes and embodies t he author’s storyt elling st yle with her pragmat ism and ghoulist wit .
Of Dutch and Indonesian parentage, she is stunningly beaut iful, her t hree daughters even more so.
But beaut y, as t hey discover, is as much a curse as a saving grace.
Thus, when Dewi Ayu finds herself pregnant with her fourth child, she t ries t o abort it , and failing, prays t hat it will be born hideous.
Thus a female child who looks like t he “result of randomly breeding a monkey with a frog and a monitor lizard” is born. She is so horrifying in appearance t hat all effort s are made t o keep her away from her mother.
Dewi Ayu, believing her prayers for an ugly daughter have not been answered, names t his fourth child Beauty. The prost it ute t hen decides t o die and achieves her goal, seemingly by sheer will.
It is only when she returns from t he grave t hat Dewi Ayu realises t he t rut h. It is from t his point t hat we learn t he details of her complicat ed, surprising life.
As mentioned before, her story is just one of many t hat lead us from page t o page and so t o t he end.
Eka t akes us from one t ale t o t he next quite suddenly, and although all are linked, t here may be some momentary confusion, as well as disappointment , as we are forced t o t urn from a life t hat we have grown at t ached t o, and become morbidly curious about , t o an unfamiliar one.
However, such is t he author’s skill t hat it t akes just a page or t wo for us t o be once more riveted.
I found Beauty a smoot h, effort less read despite it s length and complexit y.
I mentioned t he author’s writing st yle earlier, but as I have not read t he original version of t his novel, I can’t say for sure how successful Tucker has been in rendering Kurniawan’s voice into English.
To be sure, some word choices st rike me as odd, and jar with my own expectations of what I t hink sentences and phrases might sound like in Indonesian. For instance, when Dewi Ayu says “Yeah”, it ’ s as if she’s being port rayed by a contemporary American actor who has broken charact er.
It may seem a small t hing, but it ’ s as incongruous as a character in an 18th cent ury period drama using a smart phone.
Just one other novel by Kurniawan has been t ranslated and published in English, in 2015, by Verso Books – and Man Tiger has been longlisted for t he 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Anot her, Love And Vengeance, is due t o be published by New Directions Books in 2017. It ’ s exciting t o t hink of Sout h- East Asian novels being t ranslated into English and made available outside t heir count ries of origin.
Hopefully, wider exposure t o contemporary Sout h- East Asian literature will encourage greater demand for it worldwide.
Even within t his region, an awareness of each other’s literary works is t o be encouraged. It is just unfortunate t hat Malaysians should need t o be t old of an Indonesian author by an American publisher.
Sadly, I suspect t hat an American t ranslat ion and/ or edition is also what many Malaysian authors would need in order t o be read by t heir countrymen.
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