Monthly Archives: October 2015

“You yourself just said that love is worse than malaria”: Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound

“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?’

‘Worse.’

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)

Or:

‘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.

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On Salman Rushdie’s Latest

A few months ago, PEN Foundation decided to honour Charlie Hebdo at its annual New York Gala, by giving it its Freedom of Expression Courage award. In response, a few prominent writers withdrew from attending the gala. “Six authors in search of a bit of character“, was what Salman Rushdie tweeted, when he heard about this. In a longer comment, Rushdie rejected the distinction between supporting Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, and endorsing the content of its cartoons, and wrote that “this issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non Muslims, into a cowed silence.” In writing this, Rushdie was taking a side in what has recently become a fractious and acrimonious debate. One point of view has it that certain core values of the European Enlightenment – reason, free speech, and secularism – are under serious threat from “fanatical Islam”, and must be defended at all costs. This is the point of view that Rushdie endorsed.

One can, of course, oppose the argument without resorting to caricatural arguments of cultural relativism. Many have, indeed, pointed out its simplicity, its ahistorical understanding of the Enlightenment, and its propensity to reduce the world into binaries. But that is not at issue here: Salman Rushdie is perfectly entitled to his views, and indeed, given his circumstances, perhaps more entitled to hold them than most others. The problem arises when he attempts to use the vehicle of fiction – and, specifically, that of the fairy tale – to stuff his politics down our collective throat. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, his latest book, bears all the signs of an excellent writer who has begun to take himself and his politics too seriously for his art.

Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Nights (which adds up to a thousand and one nights) is ostensibly a story about an epic battle between rival Jinn armies around the present time, using our world as their battleground. The ultimate origin of the quarrel is mirrored in an earthly quarrel going back almost a millenium: between the rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, and the religious hardliner Ghazali. A long time ago, when the commerce between the human world and the world of the jinns was regular, Dunia, a Jinn princess, fell in love with Ibn Rushd for his reason. Her descendants, now spread out across the world, can be known by their missing earlobes. At the same time, Ghazali had released the jinn Zumurrud Shah from captivity in a bottle, and postponed his three wishes to a more opportune day. Now, with the slits between the world of humans and the world of jinns open again, Ghazali claims his wish, which is that Zumurrud (and his jinn companions) spread fear throughout the world in order to bring everyone to the path of the true religion. In this battle, Dunia (who has always loved humans), and her descendants are arrayed on the other side.

So far, the premise is suitable for an entertaining story, with unmistakable – yet unintrusive – political resonances. At some point, however, Rushdie seems to forget that his primary task is to spin a good yarn, and allows the politics to take over. Dunia’s forces are the defenders of (Enlightenment) reason, and Zumurrud (and the other “Grand Ifrits”) represent religious fundamentalism. At certain points, the allegory becomes so thinly veiled, that it is almost jarring. For instance, while recounting a parable within the main story, Rushdie writes a page-and-a-half of prose that is unsubtly about the political situation in present-day India, complete with the most favourite political slogans of our day: “anti-national”, “development” etc. Such references can make for good, and witty, political polemic, but a story is simply the wrong medium for such obvious point-scoring.

As I struggled through the book, it reminded me more and more of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. A book that began as a gripping, engaging story, gradually began to relegate the story part of itself to the background, until it became clear that it was a sideshow, in service of a distinctly non-story goal. In The Fountainhead, that was Howard Roark’s courtroom speech. In Two Years Eight Months Twenty Eight Nights… well, I will refrain from spoilers, but suffice it to say that it was a mercy that, when it finally came, it was only a page long, and nowhere near as arduous as Roark’s never-ending defense of selfishness.

I am reminded of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book that Rushdie wrote during his period of enforced exile-and-hiding in the shadow of the Ayatollah’s fatwa. Haroun is, and always has been, one of my favourite books. And now, looking back, I feel that it makes all the political points that Rushdie tries so hard with Two Years… Haroun’s two realms of “Gup” and “Chup”, of the battle over saving the ocean of stories from being destroyed by those who would not have any stories in the world, speaks to the issues of our day – censorship, conformity, violent suppression of difference – far more powerfully than Two Years… The reason, I think, is that as Kundera pointed out, the novel stops being a novel when it begins to make definitive statements about the nature of things (in Two Years, the definitive statement is about the superiority of reason over unreason, although Rushdie does make a token attempt to undermine it in the last paragraph of the novel). The purpose of the novel, as Kundera argues, is to depict “the world as ambiguity, to be obliged to face not a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters), to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” There is very little ambiguity, however, in Two Years…

Recently, I skimmed a review of another reader who was none too impressed by Two Years…, and asked Rushdie to retire. That, I feel, is a little harsh. There are moments in the book when Rushdie remembers that he is a writer, and not a political polemicist (at least not here and not now), and crafts words and phrases and sentences of great beauty. For the people of New York during the great war, for instance, “their childhoods slipped into the water and were lost, the piers built of memories on which they once ate sweets and pizza, the promenades of desire under which they hid from the summer sun and kissed their first lips.”

Unfortunately, those moments are too few and too far between in this book.

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