Wild Words – Four Tamil Poets – Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi & Sukirtharani (translated by Lakshmi Holmström)

In 2003, a group who had set themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, namely Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, they were charged with obscenity and immodesty. The controversy, outside of abusive letters, came to a head when the film-song writer Snehithan, appeared on television declaring that the women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive. Two filmmakers, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayaasankar brought further publicity to the women writer’s cause by making a documentary SheWrite – bringing to the public’s notice the courageous stand the four women had taken.

The documentary apparently focuses on the controversy, however missing one important element, the poetry itself. As the “Translator’s Note” at the conclusion of this collection points out;
When we look back at the history of Tamil poetry, the marginal status of women in the literary canon and their relative meagre output are evident since classical times, Tamil women have been writing and publishing in various genre, but as far as poetry is concerned, we have seen a gradual change only since 1970….suddenly, in the 1990’s, the contribution of women to Tamil poetry became notable. That was a poetry that had to be noticed, not because it was written by women, but because it was different from what appeared in the mainstream.
This book was first published as a bi-lingual English Tamil work by Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangum House “Wild Girls, Wicked Words” in 2012, with the English only edition “Wild Words” being published by Harper Perennial in 2015. It came to my attention purely because of the controversy surrounding the work and always being one to champion, or at least attempt to understand, marginal writers, this book was marked as a “must read”.
The collection opens with seventeen poems by Malathi Maithri, who grew up in a fishing village community with a strong tradition of independent working women. This upbringing coming immediately to the fore with the poem “Waves”. A poem in five sections all opening with “This is a house whose windows/open out to the sea” detailing the everyday activities. The metre and repetition forming word waves, replicating living by the sea and ordinary events like reading an email, cars screeching, all mingled with food and desire.
A tradition of Tamil poetry is the “Sangam”, the five landscapes, Kuṟunji thinai, Pālai thinai, Mullai thinai, Marudam thinai and Neydhal thinai, translating as the mountainous, desert, forest, cropland and seashore regions. Each of these regions have symbolic flowers, animals, crops, soils, roles, Gods and more. The words themselves actually translate as flowers of the regions, however for English translation it is customary to use the name of the landscape instead of the flower. For more details on the Sangam this wiki article is quite detailed; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_landscape
In Malathi Maithri’s following poem, the tradition of the five landscapes comes to the fore:
My home
My little house is not
many leagues away, beyond the desert,
at the base of a beauteous mountain
set within a dense forest.
There certainly isn’t
a flowing stream beside it.
Nor is it at an estuary
within sight of the sea.
There is no room prepared,
ready to welcome me at any time.
My house is not
within any of the five landscapes.
I erect myself a palace,
all the same,
in the koel’s cage
where there is room for me
to rest, always.
Please do not seek
my address
elsewhere.
The tradition not being the domain of only male writers, our poet also has a home here, our poet also knows the traditions. A common theme throughout the four different poets is the awareness and openness about their bodies, Malathi Maithri’s poem “Cast away blood” describing the washing of underwear and menstrual blood.
As mentioned above, the natural world themes are common in Tamil poetry and the moon, stars, daylight and other natural world elements are all blended with family stories, her mother selling fish, walking village to village, her baby daughter, the joy of playing on a swing. All of these are grounded in the natural world but the reality of womanhood is always lurking and subjects such as menstrual blood, leaking breast, childbirth and stretch marks are not off limits.
Our next poet is Salma, a pseudonym, a self-educated writer, who kept her identity secret for years without her family of her (arranged) husband’s knowledge, the theme of solitude very much comes to the fore in the fifteen poems presented.
The rust of silence
While I wait for your words
a heavy silence falls
fills the space
uninterrupted.
Easier indeed
to trust to silence
than to trust in words
though silence itself has rusted.
Now a politician and activist and her writing no longer a secret we have strong feminist themes, such as in “A midnight tale” where the post childbirth decline of her body is described. “The contract” (a marriage contract) in simple language brings home the woman being a man’s chattel;
Always
my sister will repeat in anger
what Amma says more subtly:
That I am to blame
for all that goes wrong
in the bedroom.
Everyday, in the bedroom
these are the first words to greet me:
‘So what is it, today?’
Often
they are
the last words, too.
Here we have an activist poet, as our translator explains in the “Note”; “It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ’Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules.”
The third poet in the collection is Kutti Revathi, trained in Siddha medicine (a traditional medicine), she was not only a victim of gender bias but also the caste system;
Kutti Revathi distinguishes between the early feminist writers in Tamil and the poets of her own generation. Those early feminists, who certainly struggled hard to gain a voice, were nevertheless often from a privileged background. What is more, they tended to think of women as a single category, without cross-referencing gender with caste and class. The women poets of her generation, however, are often from subaltern groups. According to her, because the caste system insists on the rules that a woman must obey in terms of morality, these two dominations – male domination and caste domination – are not two separate entities but are intertwined, one within the other. For herself, she feels that disavowal of caste is central if we are to end the caste system and look to equality. (from the Translator’s Note)
Here the political comes to the fore, through poems such as “Suicide-soldier”;
Carp-eyed Selvi,
you are about to cast aside your own clothes
and lock them away, as if they are your body.
The mirror sets to right your nakedness
which you wear as your dress. You proceed
to assemble your uniform; your weapons
and suicide belt become your body now.
Siddha is ‘deeply influenced by the strain of Siddha thought which claims our bodies are ourselves: it is through the body that we understand the Natural world, gain knowledge of ourselves and achieve a connectedness with the universe.’ Here the opposite is true, the material is the body, which is about to be used to destroy the natural world. Other poems in her fifteen works presented are very much a homage to nature with day, night, rain, earth, flowers, vegetation, salt and seed all themes and subjects.
The final poet in the collection is Sukirtharani, with fourteen poems presented, when first starting as a poet her reading led her to other poets such as Kamala Das and the novels of Taslima Nasreen, it was then she realized that “a woman’s body had become the property of man. I realized that it was my first duty to redeem it. So my poetry began to put forward a politics of the body.” (taken from ‘My writing and I’ by Sukirtharani). Her upbringing was in the caste whose occupation was to take away the dead animals belonging to the upper caste people, bury and burn them for payment in rice, this is explored in a few poems, including;
I speak up bluntly
I shooed away crows
while flaying dead cows of their skin.
Stood for hours, waiting
to eat the town’s leavings –
then boasted that I ate hot, freshly cooked rice.
When I saw my father in the street
the leather drum slung from his neck,
I turned my face away
and passed him by.
Because I wouldn’t reveal
my father’s job, his income,
the teacher hit me.
Friendless, I sat alone
on the back bench, weeping,
though no one knew.
But now
if anyone asks me
I speak up bluntly:
I am a Paraichi.
Very much a poet who celebrates her independence, her lone voice and determination to overcome all impediments, this is clearly demonstrated in the following poem:
A faint smell of meat
In their minds
I, who smell faintly of meat,
my house where bones hang
stripped entirely of flesh,
and my street
where you men wander without restraint
making loud music
from coconut shells strung with skin
are all at the furthest point of our town.
But I, I keep assuring them
we stand at the forefront.
As our translator, Lakshmi Holmström, points out in the detailed “Translator’s Note”, the lines from Sukirtharani’s poem “Nature’s fountainhead” are pertinent:
I myself will become
earth
fire
sky
wind
water.
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over.”
May the words of these bold poets spill over to broader audiences, may their fight for feminist poetry and free speech continue without threat and as readers may you support these brave and unique voices in their struggle to be heard.
A bold collection, a collection worth buying simply to support these writers let alone to read their poetic blend of Tamil tradition and modern feminist thought.
Source – personal copy

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The Things We Don’t Do – Andrés Neuman (translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Earlier in the week I reviewed the collection of short stories, from Canada, “Arvida” by Samuel Archibald, and that works shares a lot in common with Andrés Neuman’s latest release into English, “The Things We Don’t Do”. The personal recollections, the art of writing, the meta-fiction all in this book too.

When I reviewed Andrés Neuman’s “Talking to Ourselves”, also translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, I spoke of the relationship theme, that work being in three different voices told of a single family and their interactions, and Neuman continues the delving into relationships here with a collection gleaned from many sources and over many years. As a blurb of this work says; “Inspired by Borges and Cortazar, and echoing Vila Matas and Zarraluki, Neuman regards both life and literature’s big subjects – identity, relationships, guilt and innocence, the survival of extreme circumstances, creativity and language – with a quizzical, philosophical eye. Shining from the page with both irony and mortal seriousness, these often tragicomic ‘stories of ideas’ vacillate between the touching and the absurd, in the best tradition of Spanish storytelling.”
Here we still have the proving of oneself to another, “for once I had been good enough for her.” We have the perfect relationships, “what a perfect couple, two halves of the same little orange.” (from ‘a terribly perfect couple), fractured relationships “why would her husband pawn his present from the Christmas before last?” (from ‘secondhand’), new relationships as described in ‘delivery’ a single sentence rant over 10 pages taking place in a delivery theatre, about birth, creation, parenthood, a frantic replication of the thoughts that take place when a birth is underway.
The book is split into six different sections, each with a theme. As pointed out in the accompanying subscriber’s letter by Director of Open Letter Chad W. Post, that came with this book, “Andrés pulled these stories from a number of collections, both because they are some of his best stories, and because they work together in broad thematic strokes to create a collection that builds on itself from stories about relationships, to one about the final moments of life, to pieces about the ‘end and beginning of lexis.’”  Very similar to “Arvida” in that although these are stand-alone works, the collection works a whole, those “broad thematic strokes” painting a vivid holistic picture.
‘my false name’ is the story of the Neuman surname, from Europe to Argentina and the chance mixing up of Neuman’s that has succeeded in allowing the false surname to continue. Another very personal collection, nothing more so than the final four sections, ‘dodecalogues from a storyteller’, these “do not claim to be rules for writing stories; they are personal observations that arose during the writing process. It is worth purchasing this volume for these notes alone, their whimsy, insightfulness, a few examples:
To tell a short story is to know how to keep a secret.
Although told in the past tense, stories always happen now.
Far more urgent than to knock a reader out is to wake a reader up.
Some short stories would deserve to end with a semicolon;
‘The Last Minute’ exploring death with a grandfather in a bathtub, a suicide, an honourable Japanese gentleman eating takifugu (poisonous globe fish), to the section ‘relatives and strangers’ which includes a story about an analyst and his patient, but who is the patient? The lines being blurred.
The sections “End And Beginning of Lexis” and, obviously, the ‘Bonus Tracks’ for the US, Open Letter, edition, “Dodecalogues From a Storyteller”, very much focus on the art of writing and these are the sections that are full of irony, amusement and black humour. We have Vilchez, Tenenbaum, Rinaldi joining translator Piotry Czery at an event “the end of reading”, the irony in the story being that we are reading it!
“Lexis” being the total stock of words in a language these sections very much explore the art of translation, creation, reading and the more astute, or well read, readers will notice many interplays in this section:
Borges was blind, although he could still make out shapes, blotches, shadows. He could not read books or recognize faces, but he could see phantoms. Golden phantoms. As those of us who were his unconditional fans were aware, out of the precarious well into which time had gradually been plunging him, Borges could distinguish a single color. Therefore, when we learned he had agreed to give a talk to our Foundation, some of us thought up the idea of preparing a modest homage for him: all those present were waiting for him dressed in yellow, the feline yellow. Irma buttoned up her blouse, staring into space.
For readers who have read “Traveller of the Century” and/or “Talking to Ourselves” (both also translated by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor) this collection is more aligned to the later “Talking To Ourselves” and less to the sweeping story of Hans and Sophie and their translations of great European literature, the later sections do lean slightly toward that theme in the longer novel.
A very enjoyable collection of short sharp stories, an insight into the art of writing, the playfulness of language and translation, this is another welcome addition to the English language oeuvre for Andrés Neuman.


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Arvida – Samuel Archibald (translated by Donald Winkler) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

Arvida is a small settlement of 12,000 people (2010) in Quebec, that is part of the City of Saguenay. Founded as an industrial city by the aluminium giant Alcoa in 1927, this is a settlement with dark secrets, ghosts, ritual body mutilations. For writer Samuel Archibald, Arvida “was a place of refuge wherealmost everything could be wiped away and forgotten Arvida was a town for second chances, undue hopes and also games.”
“Arvida has never been a town at the crux of history, but rather a place resolutely outside it.”, “a kind of working class mythology”, Arvida is like a photo, “a very beautiful photo from after the war, which was, like all beautiful photos, an empty picture, with practically nothing in it and everything outside it.”
Just like the town itself, our collection of stories live outside of the norm, they live on the fringes, and although a collection of short stories they form a cohesive whole, the dark corners of an industrial town, the secrets in families…
Samuel Archibald’s debut collection “Arvida” won the 2012 Prix Cuop de cœur Renaud-Bray in it’s original French language, and the English translation was shortlisted for the 20165 Scotiabank Giller Prize, one of the few writers writing in French to have made the shortlist with only four French language works since the prize began in 1994. Note: Not being an expert in French Language Canadian literature these figures may be slightly incorrect, I have included Pascale Quiviger for “The Perfect Circle”, Gaétan Coucy for “The Immaculate Conception” in 2006 and Daniel Poliquin “A Secret Between Us” in 2007.
The collection opens with the story of our narrator’s father, and all of his memories being associated with food, despite the fact that our narrator’s mother was an amazing cook, and his father loved food, he would sit and watch others eat their dinner, not partaking himself. A explained in the opening story, “My father and Proust, Arvida I”:
When I think about it now, the comedy darkens. The ore I age, the more something tragic makes its presence felt, the sense of a bitter nostalgia at the core of all things: the idea of wanting to do something magnanimous for people who ask for nothing and are in need of nothing; the idea of a sacrifice reduced to a risible and secret simulacrum; the idea that the object of desire has nothing to do with desire itself; the idea that fulfilment of the desire never satisfies it, nor does it make it disappear, and that in the midst of all the things longed for desire survives in us, dwindling into remorse and regret.
Our collection includes stories of hunting and large mythical cats, people with the profession of making others redundant, mixed with nature, the idea that it is larger than mankind itself. A tale of a botched illegal immigration from Canada into Detroit with a Costa Rican girl, a story that involved goons, cocaine, alcohol and not a lot of planning or money – it is the story of América.
Antigonish is a story of ceaseless travel and the pursuit of nowhere, somewhere:
America’s a bad idea that’s come a long way. I’ve always thought that, but it doesn’t paint a very good picture.
I should have said: America’s a bad idea that has gone every which way. An idea that’s spawned endless roads leading nowhere, roads paved in asphalt or pounded into the earth or laid out with gravel and sand, and you can cruise them for hours to find pretty much zilch at the other end, a pile of wood, metal, bricks, and an old guy on his feet in the middle of the road, asking:
“Will you goddam well tell me what the hell you’re doing around here?”
America is full of lost roads and places that really don’t want anyone to get there. It took fools to make these roads and fools to live at the end of them, and there’s no end of fools, but me, I’m another kind of fool, one of those who tries to reinvent history, pushing on to the very last road, and the very last god-forsaken destination.
I’m sure they’ve made a much more welcoming road not, with scenic walks and lookouts and all that stuff, but in those days, driving the Cabot Trail at night in the middle of a storm was a crazy idea. The guy at the Cape North gas bar had been polite enough not to say anything. He’d only said, “Drive fifteen, twenty miles an hour, no more, and God willing, you’ll get to the other end.”
With hints of the two Davids; Cronenberg, Lynch but with a distinctive small town voice that allows the tales to dribble unknown into your consciousness, this is a haunting collection, one that will slowly infiltrate your memory, just like living in a settlement on the fringes, these tales float on the fringes of your mind.
The story “A mirror in the mirror” tells the moving and haunting tale of a woman living in her deceased parent’s home, her husband away in Montreal, she lingers in the home and surrounds, not seeking an outside connection through to the tale “Jigai” the story of a woman who “came from the ends of the earth with pebbles in her pockets” and practices ritual body mutilation on the women of the surrounding areas, all with their permission of course.
Later in the collection there becomes a shift to the very personal “The Centre of Leisure and Forgetfulness, Arvida II” a further account of the writer’s upbringing, family, his memories of Arvida; “there was nothing more Arvidian that to forget Arvida itself.” Which clearly our writer has not done! The continuing meta-fiction ends the collection with “Madeleines, Arvida III” a wonderfully personal story of how Archibald became a writer, how to tell stories (or not tellstories) and a circular reference to the beginning of the collection, and the opening lines.

The publisher Biblioasis says they are “committed to the idea that translations must come from the margins of linguistics cultures as well as from the power centres” and this is a collection for the margins, a brilliant travel into small town Canada. A work that will linger with me for quite sometime and one that I believe will be among the discussions when the Best Translated Book Award judges sit down to formulate their longlist.

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A General Theory of Oblivion – José Eduardo Agualusa (translated by Daniel Hahn)

Earlier this year I read and reviewed the Best Translated Book Award longlisted “Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret” by Ondjaki (translated by Stephen Henighan), my first foray in Angolan literature. As part of my subscription to the outstanding not-for-profit independent publisher Archipelago Books the new release “A General Theory of Oblivion” by José Eduardo Agualusa (translated by Daniel Hahn) landed on my doorstep. Also translated from the Portuguese, this is very much a different tale to the childhood innocence story from Ondjaki.

José Eduardo Agualusa won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for his novel “The Book of Chameleons” (also translated by Daniel Hahn), and if I decide, one day, to back read award winners or shortlisted novels this one will possibly make my list, but with the plethora of new works to investigate it may be some time before I get to older works!!!

Due for release in mid-December, our novel opens with the story of a Portuguese woman Ludovica, or Ludo, who suffers agoraphobia, a fear of wide open spaces. She wants to remain locked in a safe indoor environment and when her parent’s unexplainably die she is forced to travel to Angola to live with her sister and her Angolan husband. Living in an exclusive apartment the revolution begins. Everybody leaves, their supplies remaining behind and her sister and her husband mysteriously do not return from a party one evening, have they escaped the country or has a terrible fate befallen them? Ludo observes the world from within her own world, a microcosm of Angola itself, she gleans her history from snippets around her, observation and the world news.
I’m afraid of what’s outside the windows, of the air that arrives in bursts, and the noise it brings with it. I am scared of mosquitos, the myriad of insects I don’t know how to name. I am foreign to everything, like a bird that has fallen into the current of a river. I don’t understand the languages I hear outside, the languages the radio brings into the house, I don’t understand what they’re saying, not even when they sound like they’re speaking Portuguese, because this Portuguese they are speaking is no longer mine.
Switching between third person narrative and the stories of Ludo as she scrawls her life story down, we observe the changing landscape of Angolan politics through a single lens, a lens that is not privy to distractions or all information. A bit like our own current world in an era dominated by media moguls, we only know what we’re allowed to know.
Alongside Ludo’s story we have a number of interconnected tales, stories of carrier pigeons with valuable diamonds in their guts, stories of the diamonds being found by a political prisoner Monte, who Ludo observes attempting to flee the authorities, Monte is harboured by a kind woman who actually has a link to Ludo via the diamonds in the pigeons’ guts.
We also have Little Chief, who has been in hiding for four years, resurfacing after the death of the first president and working for an NGO serving soup to the people in the slums:
The young man was enthused by this. He started accompanying the nurse, in exchange for a symbolic wage, three meals a day, a bed, and laundry. In the meantime, the years went by. The socialist system was dismantled by the very same people who had set it up, ad capitalism rose from the ashes, as fierce as ever. Guys who just months ago had been railing against bourgeois democracy at family lunches and parties, at demonstrations, in newspaper articles, were no dressed in designer clothing, driving around the city in cars that gleamed.
Whilst we do have a number of concurrent stories the main thread is following Ludo, locked in her apartment, where she has bricked up the door to stop intruders. Whilst enclosed she writes her life story on the walls of her apartment in charcoal (as she no longer has any paper, the extensive library being used for fuel). Her jottings on the walls forming part of the story and appearing in italics:
I realize I have transformed the entire apartment into a huge book. After burning the library, after I have died, all that remains will be my voice.
In this house all the walls have my mouth.
This is a literary novel, a work that refers to other works, a work that refers to the art of writing, the common theme of being locked away and seeking solace in a novel or your own writings (including poetry). The book came about after José Eduardo Agualusa was approached by the filmmaker Jorge António to write a screenplay for a feature-length film to be shot in Angola. He decided to write the story of Ludovica Fernandes Mano, a Portuguese woman who had bricked herself into her apartment days before the revolution. José Eduardo Agualusa had access to ten notebooks in which Ludo had been writing her diary, Sabalu Estevão Capitango giving the author these books. He also had access to other diaries and photographs of Ludo’s texts and charcoal pictures on her walls taken by the visual artist Sacramento Neto (Sakro).
Often, as she looked out over the crowds that clashed violently against the sides of the building, that vast uproar of car horns and whistles, cries and entreaties and curses, she had experienced a profound terror, a feeling of siege and threat. Whenever she wanted to go out she would look for a book in the library. She felt, as she went on burning those books, after having burned all the furniture, the doors, the wooden floor tiles, that she was losing her freedom. It was as though she was incinerating the whole planet. When she burned Jorge Amando she stopped being able to visit Ilhéus and São Salvador. Burning Ulysses, by Joyce, she had lost Dublin. Getting rid of Three Trapped Tigers, she had incinerated old Havana. There were fewer than a hundred books left. She kept them more out of stubbornness than to make any use of them. Her eyesight was so bad that even with an enormous magnifying glass, even holding the book in direct sunlight, sweating as though she were in a sauna, it took her an entire afternoon to decipher one page. In recent months she had taken to writing her favourite lines form the books she had left in huge letters on those walls of the apartment that were still empty. “It won’t be long,” she thought, “and I really will be a prisoner. I don’t want to live in a prison.” She fell asleep. She was awoken by a quiet laugh. The boy was there again in front of her, a slender silhouette, cut out against the stormy glare of the sunset.
A street kids, climbing scaffolding on an adjacent building enters Ludo’s world and as a result things will never be the same.
A highly readable and enjoyable novel, however the implausibility of the character connections is too much to ignore, with numerous characters all somehow linked via diamond mining, rebellion, blood, or neighbourhoods to have other common connections is just too unreal to be real. Personally I found a number of characters quite confusing to understand where they slotted into the plot and then to have a final “scene” with numerous players was too fantastical. Besides the implausibility there are a number of gems that appear in the text and the scrawling on the wall and the reason why Ludo has locked herself away (which is revealed) are quite moving.
A breath of fresh air from your usual African fare that seems to make its way into English, this is a worthwhile read.

Source personal copy.

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Beauty Is A Wound – Eka Kurniawan (translated by Annie Tucker) – Best Translated Book Award 2016

There has been quite a flurry around Indonesian literature in recent months, in August Words Without Borders http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/myth-and-history-writing-from-indonesiafeatured Indonesian writers and pointed out:
“Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and Malay, Indonesia’s mother language, is one of the world’s top-ten spoken languages with a conservative estimate of at least 200 million speakers. (Some estimates are as high as 500 million.) But how many book-length literary titles are translated from Indonesian into foreign languages each year? Usually no more than ten. And how many Indonesian authors could even the most erudite literary critic in the United States cite by name? I would wager to say one, at most.”
In October, Indonesia will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest annual book publishing event in the world. Earlier in August I received an advance copy of Eka Kurniawan’s “Beauty Is A Wound” and then, late in the month, Kurniawan was a guest at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival in a “conversation” presentation.
Given Indonesia is one of our nearest neighbours (I’m in the South of Australia), and my exposure to their literature has totalled ZERO, I think it is probably about time I started to address this imbalance.
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.
During Eka Kurniawan’s appearance at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival he discussed a number of subjects, the ones I thought more relevant I’ll paraphrase here (he did answer questions in English however at times he did struggle to find the correct word).
As a university student, studying philosophy, he found he was spending more time in the library reading English translations of famous works. Upon reading Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” he suddenly decided that he wanted to be a writer. The two major influences of “Beauty Is A Wound” are “dalang” masters performing “wayang”, Indonesian shadow puppet theatre. Stories containing heroics, humour and philosophy, as well as commenting on current affairs. Learning this after reading the novel, was a revelation, a better understanding of the work instead of the line I’ve seen trotted out a few times “magic realism” a la Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.
The second influence, as revealed by Kurniawan, is Cervantes, the book’s epigraph from Don Quixote. Kurniawan revealed the idea of imagination is the guiding influence here.
Besides mentioning Cervantes, he also spoke of Milan Kundera’s reference to delivering a serious message with a tone of “lightness”, a feature that is evident throughout the novel. Instead of reeling from every horrific story you are somehow drawn to reading the next page.
The actual work itself is “three or four” novels mixed and combined into one to become our final work, and at times, as the stories seem to exist independently, this is quite obvious. Although the spine of Dewi Ayu throughout does link them in some way. Interestingly Kurniawan explained that the character of Dewi Ayu was the last character he formed. The criminal character of Maman Gendeng is the anti-hero that Kurniawan felt the most sympathy for when creating him, this, again, I could feel, although a criminal and indestructible his honesty to his word is refreshing, and even though he marries a twelve year old his loyalty and honour of this young girl is very different from the military character of Shodancho a brutal evil man.
I’m glad I delved into the world of Indonesian writing and there are a few other works now on my radar.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

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