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Beauty Is A Wound, Eka Kurniawan, New Directions, 2015, 470 pp (published in Indonesia in 2002, translated by Annie Tucker)
Summary from Goodreads: The epic novel Beauty Is a Wound combines history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humor, and romance in a sweeping polyphony. The beautiful Indo prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters are beset by incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead. Kurniawan's gleefully grotesque hyperbole functions as a scathing critique of his young nation's troubled past: the rapacious offhand greed of colonialism; the chaotic struggle for independence; the 1965 mass murders of perhaps a million "Communists," followed by three decades of Suharto's despotic rule.
I first learned of this novel from the BTBA (Best Translated Book Award) Fiction long list for 2016. I bought it because it is a fictional account of Indonesian history and because I liked the title. It was the last book I read in 2016. Filled with wild and crazy characters, featuring colonial oppression and the rape of natural resources and as well as a mixed race descendant of a Dutch East India Company trader, it covers war, communism, slaughter, rape, unstable politics, indigenous customs, and ghosts. The result is a rich tapestry.
Not that we don't have rape issues in the United States and not that rape is ever OK but boy, it was as common as dirt in the tumultuous archipelago now known as Indonesia. The central character is a woman, Dewi Ayu, the mixed race descendant mentioned above. She is possessed of great beauty, four daughters who are each from different fathers, and demonic powers. She is the most renowned prostitute in Jakarta.
When she rises from her grave, where she had been buried 21 years ago, all the tales and many of the ghosts come alive as well. The author then takes us back to where it all began for Dewi and brings us forward through 400 years of history.
I was drawn in from the beginning and except for a few lulls in the narrative, remained intrigued to the end. In college, I studied Margaret Mead's books about her anthropological studies on Bali, one of Indonesia's islands, and became fascinated with the area. I have since read Euphoria by Lily King (a novel loosely based on Ms Mead) and Mead's autobiography Blackberry Winter. But these are books written by Americans. Beauty Is A Wound is the first novel or book of any kind that I have read written by an Indonesian author. There is just no comparison.
As a reader you need to hang tough though. You will enter a world so foreign to any Western country with customs and beliefs strange to us. And yet, because of Western colonization there are elements of Western civilization intermixed. If you have read books by African or Asian authors, you will be prepared.
There is no denying that Dewi Ayu, her four daughters, and the men in their lives are the brilliant and vibrant center that holds the story together. As far as the human story of how we have developed from tiny bands of individuals to globalized interconnected trade and war, it is apparently one I never tire of reading.
(Beauty Is A Wound is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)