National Post

JOSE TEODORO

‘ The scatologic­ally enhanced fantasy can be attributed to the influence of Garcia Marquez’

- Beauty is a Wound Eka Kurniawan Trans. Annie Tucker New Directions 470 pp; $24 Man Tiger By Eka Kurniawan Trans. Labodalih Sembiring Verso 172pp; $23 By José Teodoro José Teodoro is a Toronto- based critic and playwright

Whenever an author from a fraught nation — especially a nation whose literature is little known in our culture — emerges i-n translatio­n, there’s always the dan ger of the author’s work being read with the expectatio­n that it represent the most traumatic moments in his nation’s recent past. In the case of Eka Kurniawan’s Be-auty is a Wound, how ever, the bullet-point history reading i-s more or less handed to us on a plat t-er. Kurniawan’s debut novel, origin ally published in 2002, encompasse­s v- irtually every major shift in Indo nesia’s troubled 20th century, from Du-tch colonialis­m to Japanese occu pation, from the Revolution of 194549 to the extremist Islamic rebellion of the 1950s, from the mass killings of 1965 to the subsequent decades of Suharto’s despotic rule.

That Beauty is a Wound would be selected as an Anglophone’s entrée into Kurniawan’s already substantia­l oeuvre is hardly surprising. Not only does the novel reward non-Indonesian readers for having paid cursory attention to Indonesian history, it’s also a work of magic realism, a genre o- f embellishm­ent, whimsy and un bridled metaphor that never fails to fulfill readers’ appetites for the exotic. I-’m not accusing Kurniawan of pan dering to an internatio­nal audience he couldn’t have anticipate­d having; my concern is that there are those who could be permanentl­y turned off Kurniawan after having endured Beauty is a Wound’s jejune excesses. This would be a shame since not only has Kurniawan written better books, he’s written a better book that was published in English the same week as Beauty is a Wound. ( We’ll get to that in a moment.)

Beauty is a Wound’s first sentence sets the tone: “One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from grave after being dead for twentyone years.” Dewi was a prostitute w-ho willed her own death, or some t-hing, at age 52, only days after hav ing given birth to a child that, we’re told, resembled “a pile of shit.” The child is named Beauty, ha ha. Dewi died, or sort of died, because, after Beauty, she didn’t want to have more babies. (Apparently she was unaware that her existence had value outside her capacity to produce offspring.) De- wi is one of several major charac ters introduced as Beauty is a Wound winds its way back and forth through history. The novel’s unruly sprawl c-an be attributed to it being the amal gamation of three novels Kurniawan had been developing. The book’s paint- roller applicatio­n of winky, scatologic­ally enhanced fantasy can perhaps be attributed to youthful gorging on García Márquez. There is much sex, bestiality, poo-eating and s- undry perversion­s. There is a mo ment when a woman suddenly takes flight. “That’s impossible,” she’s told, “you don’t have wings.” The woman replies, “If you believe you can fly, you can fly.” So there you have it.

W-ith the far leaner and more lim ber Man Tiger, published in Indonesia two years after Beauty is a Wound, Kurniawan hems the magic to far g-reater effect, his characters and ap proach to gender are more nuanced, a-nd his story’s resonance with Indo nesia’s violent past is implied rather than deployed in a barrage. Man Tiger subverts chronology in a simpler, m- ore sophistica­ted manner, begin ning and ending with the same event: t-he inexplicab­le murder of a womaniz- ing old sculptor by Margio, the novel’s 20-year-old protagonis­t. Everybody in the village knows Margio did it, but no one understand­s why he did it. ( Margio will later describe the impulse to kill as “a burst of light in his brain.”) Neither does anyone understand how Margio did it — the cause of death was a bite to the jugular — because no one, or almost no one, knows that Margio transforme­d into a female white tiger the size of a cow. This spirit tiger, a figure with deep roots in Indonesian folklore, is the novel’s sole fantastica­l e-lement, and because of its singular i-ty, its mythical power, and the preci sion of Kurniawan’s evocation, it feels at once charged with meaning and a-lluringly mysterious. (To pay compli ment by comparison, the sly, sparing use of the supernatur­al in Man Tiger r- eminded me at times of the won drous films of Thailand’s Apichatpon­g Weerasetha­kul.)

Man Tiger develops vertically, stepping back in time before advancing forward again, steadily building c-haracter and environmen­t. The out lining of Margio’s family’s dynamics, of his relationsh­ip to his victim and his victim’s daughter, with whom he attended a movie screening hosted by the Herbal Tonic Company the night of the murder, are compelling in a way that a straightfo­rward narrative approach to the same material could never hope to be. The novel’s sense of p-lace is vivid, bolstered by micro-hist ories of the people who live there. The killing is enigmatic, but the novel’s psychology is just coherent enough: Margio hated his father, dreamed of killing his father, but then his father d-ied, so might he have killed his vic tim, the father of his girlfriend, out of displaced Oedipal rage?

In virtually every way Man Tiger improves on Beauty is a Wound and fulfills its promise. The simultaneo­us publicatio­n of both works in English allows those interested to witness the remarkable velocity of Kurniawan’s maturity as a writer. The rest of you might want to skip ahead to Man Tiger and the fruition of what may very well prove an important new voice in internatio­nal fiction.

Much sex, beastialit­y, poo-eating, and sundry perversion­s

 ?? Ilustratio­n
by chlo
e cushman ??
Ilustratio­n by chlo e cushman

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