“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” (p. 1)
Last summer, while winding down my days at Balliol College, I had one of those chance discussions that that irrepressibly cosmopolitan place often afforded: I sat down to dinner with a Chilean acquaintance, and the talk turned to literature. He said to me, “nobody understands and tells Colombian history like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” It was a statement that surprised me, because fond as I was of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had never considered it a work of history. Then, while re-reading Joan Rappaport’s The Politics of Memory, I came across Marquez’s own words: “we must tell our stories before the historians have time to arrive.” It made me understand a little better what my Chilean interlocutor was getting at; and having just finished Eka Kurniawan’s sprawling novel of 20th Century Indonesia, Beauty is a Wound, perhaps I understand it even more now.
In a sense, Indonesia is indeed the place where the historians have not yet arrived. Just last week, I read that the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival at Bali was forced to “cancel a series of events marking the 1965 massacre of alleged communists, after threats by authorities to revoke its operating permit.” My attempts at amateur historical research after finishing the book often led me to the same, rueful destination, websites providing snippets of information, before concluding by noting that discussion about the massacres of ’65 continues to be taboo in Indonesia, with the authorities tightly censoring information about it.
Eka Kurniawan, then, is a few decades late, but still ahead of the historians (although not the film-makers). Beauty is a Wound is set in the fictional Indonesian town of Halimunda, and (in very Marquezian fashion) tracks the life of the extended family of Dewi Ayu, who is born in luxury to a Dutch father, is forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation, and comfortably remains one after independence. Her three beautiful daughters (after more than a few contretemps) end up married to the three power-brokers of Sukarno-era Halimunda: a former anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter and now in charge of the police force; the chief of the local gangsters; and the leader of the local chapter of the Communist Party. Through the intertwined lives of all these individuals, the history – and tragedy – of 20th century Indonesia is played out: from Dutch colonisation to Japanese occupation, back to Dutch occupation, independence, the great communist massacres of ’65, and then Suharto’s dictatorship.
Those intertwined lives are sprinkled with an admixture of the fantastical. A gravedigger’s son seduces his future wife by his ability to draw into himself the soul of her executed communist father; two pregnancies resulting from rape end not in conception, but a great burst of wind and the nothingness, much to the agony of the putative father; ghosts wander the town, needing active placation; a woman safeguards herself against rape by her husband through a lock upon her privates, bolted with magic spells; the local gangster wins ascendancy because no weapon can hurt him; the scatological mixes with the spiritual in a heady cocktail.
This sounds almost too Marquez, but there is a difference. This New York Times review, I think, brings out the similarities and differences very succinctly. It points out that like Marquez, Kurniawan uses magic realism to “show how the currents of history catch, whirl, carry away and sometimes drown people.” But, it goes on to observe, “García Márquez could fall into sententiousness and grandiosity; Kurniawan, by contrast, has a wry, Javanese sense of humor.” Consider, for instance, the following dialogue:
“The child was surprised to see him reappear after being gone for so long, and asked him, ‘How are you? I heard you were sick.’
‘Yeah, I’m sick with love.’
‘Is love some kind of malaria?’
Alamanda shuddered, and then leading her little sister, she took off walking toward the school. Kliwon followed and walked next to her miserably, before he finally spoke.
“Listen up, little girl,” he said. “Do you want to love me?”
Alamanda stopped and looked at him, and then shook her head.
“Why not?” asked Kliwon, disappointed.
“You yourself just said that love is worse than malaria.” (p. 170)
‘Have you become a communist?’ asked his mother, almost in despair. ‘Only a communist would be so gloomy.’
‘I’m in love’, said Kliwon to his mother.
‘That’s even worse!’ (p. 166)
These passages reminded me of another writer who uses an irresistible combination magic realism and humour to tell a poignant tale: Emile Habiby, in his Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist. When reading Habiby, one is often driven to impromptu bursts of laughter, before the slow, sinking realisation that laughter is the sandpaper that is covering up the cracks of an emerging darkness. Some of the most hilarious scenes in Beauty is a Wound are when the ghosts of dead communists infect the waking and sleeping life of Shodancho, the police chief who oversaw the killings. But, underlying that are the killing. As Kurniawan puts it bluntly:
“That afternoon, in one quick massacre, one thousand two hundred and thirty-two communists died, bringing an end to the history of the Communist Party in that city, and the entire country.”
Even as one can scarce forebear from laughter, that knowledge is on the edge of consciousness, shadowing it. Colonial exploitation, the rape of women in times of conflict, lawlessness and violence, mass murder – these truths of Indonesian history are ever-present, deftly written into the story as framing devices, occasionally sliding forth, rapier-like, into prominence. And then there are the moments of gravitas, rare, and all the more effective for their rarity. The musings of Comrade Kliwon, for instance, as he is about to be forced into exile:
“And the one thing that made him happy was that I can leave all this behind without having to become a reactionary or a counterrevolutionary.” (p. 312)
The bitterness of a two centuries of experience in countries all over the world lies heavily upon this simple sentence. At other places, it would be cloying; but here, in the midst of gibbering ghosts and bizarre miscarriages, almost paradoxically, it fits like a glove. Magic, irony, burlesque, narrative, tragedy – this novel gets the combination almost perfectly right. What emerges is a truly memorable read.