Beauty Is a Wound
The English-language debut of Indonesia's rising star.
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.
Beauty Is a Wound astonishes from its opening line: One afternoon on a weekend in May, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.... Drawing on local sources—folk tales and the all-night shadow puppet plays, with their bawdy wit and epic scope—and inspired by Melville and Gogol, Kurniawan’s distinctive voice brings something luscious yet astringent to contemporary literature.
At the beginning of this English-language debut from Indonesian author Kurniawan, Dewi Ayu, who was once the most respected prostitute in the fictional coastal town of Halimunda, rises from her grave after being dead for two decades. She's returned to pay a visit to her fourth daughter, Beauty, who is famously ugly. What follows is an unforgettable, all-encompassing epic of Indonesian history, magic, and murder, jumping back to Dewi Ayu's birth before World War II, in the last days of Dutch rule, and continuing through the Japanese occupation and the mass killings following the attempted coup by the Indonesian Communist Party in the mid-1960s. Kurniawan centers his story on Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their families. Readers witness Dewi Ayu's imprisonment in the jungle during the war, a pig turning into a person, a young Communist named Comrade Kliwon engaging in guerrilla warfare, and a boy cheating in school by asking ghosts for help. Indeed, the combination of magic, lore, and pivotal events reverberating through generations will prompt readers to draw parallels between Kurniawan's Halimunda and Garc a M rquez's Macondo. But Kurniawan's characters are all destined for despair and sorrow, and the result is a darker and more challenging read than One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is much physical and sexual violence, but none of it feels gratuitous every detail seems essential to depicting Indonesia's tragic past. Upon finishing the book, the reader will have the sense of encountering not just the history of Indonesia but its soul and spirit. This is an astounding, momentous book.