Cbr15bingo Asia & Oceania
I have never before read a novel quite like Beauty is a Wound. It is a combination of history, myth, magic, spiritualism, violence and absurdity. Set in the fictional Indonesian town Halimunda, Beauty is a Wound is the story of three generations of a family and of Indonesia under Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, and the political strife that followed WWII. It is about the greed and selfishness that allows individuals and nations to dominate, use and abuse the objects of their desire, be it land and resources or beautiful women.
The novel opens with a resurrection; Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s most beautiful and desirable prostitute, bursts forth from her grave 17 years after her death. Dewi Ayu is part Dutch and part native Indonesian. Her Dutch family left Indonesia at the start of WWII, but Dewi Ayu stayed behind and was forced to become a “comfort woman” for the Japanese as a teenager. Over the years of the war and immediately after, she gave birth to three beautiful daughters (Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi), whose lives, we are about to discover, were filled with tragedy. When Dewi Ayu discovered she was pregnant for a fourth time, she prayed that this child would be ugly, since beauty and desirability caused so much trouble for her and her children. The fourth daughter, named Beauty, is a fright to behold, much to Dewi Ayu’s relief. The woman then decides to die, leaving the baby to the care of her mute servant. Somehow, as if by magic, Beauty learns to read, write and do many other things that no one had ever taught her. But as a teenager, Beauty becomes obsessed with the “prince” that she believes is coming to find her. It is at this point that her mother returns home from the grave.
The narrative then shifts to the stories of Dewi Ayu’s three beautiful daughters. Each girl is admired and desired by local men, even when they are small children. Each daughter winds up with a man who represents a different political force in Indonesia: a general known for his effective and brutal smothering of dissent; a communist known for his extraordinary talent at organizing the masses; and a crime boss who instills fear in all of Halimunda. The stories of Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi are disturbing (rape and physical violence) and parallel the violence that the people of Indonesia faced at the hands of repressive political/military forces and other groups vying for power. Each daughter has one child, and the lives of those three cousins in Indonesia are even more disturbing to behold. Families and nations struggle to deal with past sins, betrayals, and deception.
There is a lot of really disturbing violence in this story, which is not surprising since it revolves around colonialism and its aftermath. What makes it hard to put down is Eka Kurniawan’s creativity in presenting it. She weaves in native myths, pop culture and a good amount of humor, or perhaps absurdity is the better word. Fellow Cannonballer GentleRain recently reviewed a memoir of a journalist in Indonesia that made me believe that as awful as the details of this novel are, they most likely cannot hold a candle to the reality that the people of Indonesia have faced for generations. Much like The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Beauty is a Wound reminds me that I have pretty serious educational deficits when it comes to Southeast Asia. I think Beauty is a Wound is an excellent novel that can introduce readers like me to that part of the world’s history, but be prepared for some truly disturbing detail.