A sur­real

A great novel rep­re­sents con­tem­po­rary South- East Asian lit­er­a­ture on the world’s stage by win­ning the World Read­ers Award.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by DAPHNE LEE star2@ thes­tar. com. my

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.

Photo: pon­tas- agency. com

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