It is that time of year again, where all the literary publications come out with their favourite books of the year, where we spend time reflecting on what has happened in the last twelve months and where personally I countdown to the 25th of December with my favourite twelve works in translation that I have read in the previous year.
Whilst I do this countdown I continue to read more works and therefore the period of my reflection is from 1 December 2014 to 30 November 2015 and I must admit it has been a year that took quite a bit of reflection to come up with my favourite works. The stand outs were still stand outs but you’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see which books I rated as the top 3 or 4 of the year, but when it came to culling the list down to twelve works from the eighty-eight I have reviewed in the last year it was an onerous task indeed.
Starting off with number twelve on my list…Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan (translated by Annie Tucker). I had the privilege of catching Eka Kurniawan when he was a guest of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival which in no way influenced my decision to include this work on my list.
Indonesian literature was not an area I had previously explored prior to this work and this novel covers the breadth of Indonesian history from Dutch rule through the Japanese Invasion, Suharto’s culling of communists, and does so using local myth and shadow puppet stories, bring each of the allegorical characters to life. An often brutal work, it is a book that keeps you guessing as to the fate of each of the characters, with a Tarantino style it is not unheard of for the main character to suddenly meet an awful fate.
Kurniawan’s novel opens with Dewi Ayu coming back from the dead after being buried for twenty-one years. The first thing she thinks about is her “baby” Beauty (Dewi Ayu dies twelve days after giving birth). Beauty is a child she tried to abort a number of times, given she already had three daughters (all children are to unknown fathers) and she was nearly fifty years of age, and Beauty is the ugliest baby known, after Dewi Ayu had given birth to three stunningly beautiful girls:
However it was true that Dewi Ayu tried to kill the baby back when she realized that, whether or not she had already lived for a whole half century, she was pregnant once again. Just as with her other children, she didn’t know who the father was, but unlike the others she had absolutely no desire for the baby to survive. So she had taken five extra-strength paracetamol pills that she got from a village doctor and washed them down with half a liter of soda, which was almost enough to cause her own death but not quite, as it turned out, enough to kill that baby. She thought of another way, and called a midwife who was willing to kill the baby and take it out of her womb by inserting a small wooden stick into her belly. She experienced heavy bleeding for two days and two nights and the small piece of wood came back out in splinters, but the baby kept growing. She tried six other ways to get the better of that baby, but all were in vain, and she finally gave up and complained:
“This one is a real brawler, and she’s clearly going to beat her mother in this fight.”
We then travel back in time to Dewi Ayu’s youth, her marriage to an old mad man, being taken prisoner by the Japanese as part of their invasion of Indonesia and then being forced into prostitution.
This novel (by having Dewi Ayu coming back from the dead) managed to cover eighty or so years of Indonesian history. A work that is 470 pages in length (the Australian edition runs to nearly 500 pages) there is a lot of territory to cover. This is done by running multiple stories, all linked to Dewi Ayu in some way. We have Maman Gendeng, an indestructible criminal, who lands in Halimunda (where our story is set) in search of a legendary princess only to find that the story was 200 years old, as a result he proposes to the prostitute Dewi Ayu instead. We also have Shodancho a guerrilla revered by the community, a rival of sorts to Maman Gendeng, who becomes the leader of the military and is in love with one of Dewi Ayu’s daughters. And we have Comrade Kliwon, naturally a communist, who is a womaniser but also in love with the same daughter of Dewi Ayu.
The novel feels as though it is a collection of stand-alone stories, but the intertwining of characters and the passage of time as well as Dewi Ayu being the spine of the stories gives the novel multiple linkages.
Drawing on Indonesian folklore there are people who fly, rebirths, and ghosts a plenty, all of this with the backdrop of extreme violence, including sexual violence. But each of the extreme situations are either balanced with humour or with the level headedness of one of the female characters.
The fact was, most people of Kalamunda were superstitious. They still believed the demons, spooks, and all kinds of supernatural beings ran wild in the cemetery, living among the spirits of the dead. And they also believed that the gravedigger lived in close communion with all of these supernatural beings. Aware of his difficult situation, Kamino had never even tried proposing to anyone. His only interactions with other people happened in the course of his business. He usually just stayed at home, a humid house made out of moldy old concrete shaded by big banyan trees. The sole entertainment in his lonely life was playing jailangkun – calling the spirits of the dead using a little effigy doll – another skill that had been passed down through the generations of his family, good for invoking the spirits to chat with them about all kinds of things.
This book is littered with little amusing anecdotes – as an example the village of Halimunda celebrates Independence Day on a different date that the rest of Indonesia, this is a result of the news travelling slowly to the village.
I’ll leave the linear (or more circular) plot quite bare for you to enjoy the novel yourself, however this work does cover sweeping epic times in Indonesian history, the invasion by the Japanese, the slaughter of thousands of communists, living under Suharto’s dictatorship, military rule and these events are all covered here. With the three husbands of the three daughters representing military, communism and criminals, the power struggles are obvious to see, as an aside the police are ineffectual.
A great introduction to Indonesian literature and the melding of humour, extreme events, folklore and reality is done with a nice balance.
For my full review, including how I came across this work, and a few notes from the Melbourne Writer’s Festival revisit my original post here.
Review copy from New Directions Publishing.