[Trigger warning: the book was rather gruesome, so in this article I do talk a lot about violence/misogyny/generally uncomfortable things. Don't read ahead if you're squeamish!]
On my way back from a weekend break in Jakarta, I stopped by a bookstore in the airport to find something to read on the screen-less flight. After much deliberating, and enough humming and hawing to make one dude stare at me awkwardly from across the bookcase, I decided on a book by a local author. I definitely felt like reading something about Indonesia, but weirdly most of the books involved expats or yoga or expats finding themselves through yoga, which I really don't have time for. That's why I was very excited when I found Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. A fiction book written by an Indonesian about Indonesia and didn't involve spandex and mojitos! Huzzah!
It promised to be a gripping tale involving "history, satire, family tragedy, legend, humour, and romance in a sweeping polyphony," which sounded rather enticing. The story was about a very famous prostitute and her notoriously beautiful daughters, who grew up in the latter half of the 1900s in post-colonial Indonesia. I was quite taken after skimming through the amusing first page, which casually begins with "One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years." I don't know why, but my initial reaction upon hearing this was okay yas girl, you do you.
I must admit that the book took me an terribly long time to finish, partly because it can be quite gruesome in its many depictions of rape and mass murder. It's certainly not for the faint hearted, as it even touches upon bestiality and sort-of-incest at times. Who would have known from the whimsical cover art that at one point a girl would purportedly be impregnated by a dog. Twice. Strong reader discretion advised. Nonetheless, I pushed on and finished the book, albeit with a much smaller appetite and an newfound distrust of pretty much everyone.
The general overview of the story is that it takes place in a fictional Indonesian town called Halimunda over a period of several generations. A lot of elements draw upon the country's culture and traditions, including two epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharata (the former of which I thoroughly enjoyed reading). Over the course of the book, time passes through the revolt against the Dutch, the subsequent Japanese occupation, the return of the Dutch, the massacres of the 60s, the New Order regime and the struggle for independence amidst the rise and suppression of communism, among many other events that likely passed over my head entirely.
On that point, I feel as though there were many elements to the story that struck me as tangential and unnecessary, which probably would have had more resonance with someone who had a deeper understanding of Indonesia's history and culture. On the whole, I found the story to be overly cyclical - a strong and respected outsider falls for an extremely beautiful women, and ultimately this is his downfall. That's a woeful oversimplification, but the basic premise of most of the story lines.
The first few times I was feeling it, the repetition of this theme made me believe it was really building to something. However, the story occurred one too many times for me that by the time it got to the end, I felt like I had been dragging my body across a parking lot using only my forefingers. It was a truly exhausting journey followed by a rather flat ending, and would have been numbingly boring had it not been for the recurring rapes, murders and tormenting ghosts that kept me on my toes.
I was glad to be rid of the book when I finally finished. I would have put it down long ago, but firstly, mama didn't raise no quitter and secondly, I was curious about what happened to the semi-eponymous character Beauty (who, in the most deliberate of ironies, turned out to be the ugliest creature to ever walk the earth). The New Yorker described the book as having a "macabre humour," which I will definitely agree with, because although it made my stomach turn, it did make me chuckle a few times.
I did like quite a few of the characters. Dewi Ayu, the back-from-the-dead prostitute, was definitely a favourite, who amused me thoroughly with her resolute decision to die despite being perfectly healthy. (In order to achieve this, she wrapped her body in a funeral shroud and lay on her bed day and night until she finally passed away through sheer willpower. You gotta admire that spunk!) Her daughter, Beauty was a bit of a weirdo, so I wasn't to keen on her, but her care taker was a mute woman with a witty sarcasm and a wry sense of humour who really grew on me.
The men in the book are utterly pathetic in one way or another (which is done on purpose, don't worry) except for one that I quite liked, a stubborn communist called Comrade Kliwon who was a real trooper and a staunch survivor (well, that is until he was executed). Spoiler alert, most of the people in this book die, whether that's by being mauled by dogs or drowned by family members, you name it, it's probably in there. One has to admire his creativity, I'm sure he had a morbidly fun time coming up with ways for the characters to be terrorised. The most horrific for me was probably when one of the characters was incessantly haunted by ghosts, who really went to town on the creepiness factor. I probably would have had nightmares, but it was gruesome beyond my own imagination so I think my brain just blocked it out.
I'm not painting the best picture of this book, am I? It's really not that bad. It's also not that great either. I will neither discourage nor encourage you to read it, for the decision is entirely up to you. I'm rather ambivalent; it's very interesting but very gruesome, and I simultaneously liked it and was utterly revolted by it.
Shortly before leaving Singapore, a man in the camera shop noticed I was carrying it an asked about whether I would recommend it. I was frank about the horrific nature of the storyline, but I did encourage him to read it (I wasn't yet saturated by the never-ending narrative at that point). Given another chance, I probably wouldn't have given such enthusiastic recommendation. I would only say to him, and to you now if you're considering it:
Pepper & Söl