I have always viewed magic realism as kind of a black sheep in the family of speculative genres. These stories are grounded in the real-world. They take their strength from a rich tapestry of characters and settings that happen to be enhanced by some rather mundane supernatural plot devices. These can be anything from an intergenerational curse, to ghosts, talking objects, or even telepathy. Totally normal phenomena within the story used to help make a point about the real world. Nothing special here.
Don’t get me wrong though. Magic realism can be used to craft some very powerful stories. Take Indonesia for example. It’s a country that was colonized by the Dutch and occupied by the Japanese. When it finally gained its independence, it very violently dealt with an outbreak of Communism before rebranding itself as a tourist trap. Indonesia is also a Muslim majority country with six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, and there is also some partially recognized animism. Finally, the country has seventeen-thousand islands. With all that going for it, when Eka Kurianawan opened his epic novel on Indonesia, Beauty is a Wound, with his protagonist rising from the dead, it totally made sense not to give the incident too much weight. It was the frequent brutal graphic sexual violence and bestiality that needed to capture the reader’s attention.
Enough of Death
“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years”
This is one of the best opening sentences in a novel that I have ever read. Dewi Ayu is a prostitute. She died shortly after giving birth to her fourth child, one of the ugliest beings imaginable. In fact she spent much of her pregnancy fantasizing about how ugly she wanted her child to be (after failing to abort the fetus), and the result was not disappointing. But of course, once the baby was born everyone went out of their way to tell Dewi Ayu how beautiful her new baby daughter looked so in a fit of disappointment she named the child Beauty and passed away.
Dewi Ayu was always a very independent woman. The mixed-blood adoptive daughter of Dutch colonizers, she decided she was going to forcibly marry Ma Gedik against his will. Ma Gedik lost his lover to a Dutch lord, and the loss drove him insane and also into a state of sexual depravity. The Dutch lord was Dewi Ayu’s grandfather so she decided to make it up to Ma Gedik by marrying him against his will. Needless to say he didn’t take it well.
Eventually, the Dutch left when the Japanese occupied Indonesia during World War II, but Dewi Ayu chose to stay behind. And so we got to witness what many Indonesian women experienced when their country was occupied by a foreign invading army of men. Eventually, the war ended. Dewi Ayu was pregnant, and she had a house to pay off so she began working as a prostitute, which made the men in her town very happy and the women in her town very jealous.
And then the book takes a darker turn. We get to read about Dewi Ayu’s daughters and grand daughters, their husbands, lovers and way too violent sexual encounters. We also get to learn more about the history of Indonesia as it is experienced by these characters who are forced to constantly adapt to violent changes beyond their control. The rape scenes are no longer funny, if they were ever that in the first place.
Disturbing and Fascinating
“The legend of her beauty rivaled that of the city’s founder, and the only reason there has never been a war over her was because she was a whore, so anyone could sleep with her as long as he had the money…”
This book is a perfect example of why I view magic realism as a black sheep. It’s got a prostitute who rises from the dead, communist ghosts, spiritual ascension, divination that actually works, and a mobster with superpowers. It’s all there, but none of this is why you should read this book.
Beauty is a Wound can be read in two ways. A fascinating satirical history of Indonesia from the Dutch colonial period to modern more tourist friendly times. And an endless sequence of violent sexual encounters, graphic rape scenes, crude jokes, and the occasional bestiality. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and both have their reasons for being present in the book.
Indonesia is a fascinating country. As mentioned above, the population is primarily Muslim, but the culture is diverse. Scenes from the Mahabharata are common knowledge. Buddhist spiritual enlightenment is an important plot point. And, the local gravedigger knows Jailangkung (a local divination method in which a spirit possesses a doll). There is local cuisine to experience, and of course the history of a new country that needs to discover its identity while still recovering from the wounds of the past.
Those wounds are very serious though. Colonialism has often been compared to rape, and as someone who has read the books from that period I totally get it. Natives were viewed as quite literally a different lower-level of human being. Not animals, but also not at the same level of white Europeans. And the Japanese occupiers were not much better. The idea that the Dutch and then the Japanese could just pack up and leave and let the locals figure things out for themselves was, let’s just call it, sad. All wounds heal eventually, but not at an easy pace, and that is something that Dewi Ayu’s children and grandchildren got to experience very violently and very graphically.
For me as a reader this combination led to a very mixed reading experience. Amusement, fascination and the desire to read more combined with horror, loathing, and the need to stop reading. The latter mainly in the second half of the book, but there was plenty that could have and maybe should have turned me away in the first chapters. It’s a very fine line that satirical works can cross and confuse their readers in the process, but it’s one that as a reader I was very much aware was being crossed. It’s definitely going to be on the list of things I bring up with God this Yom Kippur.
Beauty and Kindness
The Omer today is splendor in kindness. Sadly the book conveys the opposite message. In this context, I am interpreting splendor as beauty, something no woman should ever want to possess (according to Dewi Ayu). Beauty is a double-edged sword that women can wield to both hurt themselves and hurt others. Women can wield beauty to manipulate men, but men are dangerous creatures to manipulate. If they don’t get what they desire, they’ll take it by force. In the meantime, all the less attractive women pity the victim even as they secretly (or openly) envy her. It’s a toxic message, and it belongs to a world I don’t want my daughters to have to grow up in. How can I protect them from that? I don’t know yet, but it’s something I’m going to have to figure out.
About The Author
Eka Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya in 1975 and completed his studies in the Faculty of Philosophy at Gadjah Mada University. He has been described as the “brightest meteorite” in Indonesia’s new literary firmament, the author of two remarkable novels which have brought comparisons to Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez and Mark Twain; the English translations of these novels were both published in 2015—Man Tiger by Verso Books, and Beauty is a Wound by New Directions in North America and Text Publishing in Australia. Kurniawan has also written movie scripts, a graphic novel, essays on literature and two collections of short stories. He currently resides in Jakarta.