Translated from Indonesian by Annie Tucker
“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years. … She had passed away at fifty-two, rose again after being dead for twenty-one years, and from that point forward nobody knew exactly how to calculate her age.”
This novel tells the story of Dewi Ayu, a mixed-race prostitute living in Halimunda, a coastal town in Indonesia. Through her story and that of her family, Eka Kurniawan traces the history of the country, from the Dutch colonial period to post-independence. He weaves together history, legends, magic realism and humour to tell a compelling tale.
Dewi Ayu comes from a privileged family, born out of an incestuous relationship. She is left with her Dutch grandparents, who raise her. When the Japanese invade Indonesia during the Second World War, her grandparents leave for the Netherlands, but Dewi Ayu decides to stay. She, with other young girls, is taken from an internment camp to become comfort women for the Japanese soldiers. She quickly emerges as someone who is unflappable and is capable of taking care of herself.
When she goes back to Halimandu, she gains a reputation as the most beautiful and accomplished prostitute. Over the years, she gives birth to four daughters: three stunningly beautiful—Alamanda, Adinda and Maya Dewi—and Beauty, who is spectacularly ugly. Dewi Ayu dies soon after Beauty is born; it is to see her youngest daughter that Dewi Ayu rises from the grave.
The fortunes of the family are intertwined with the story of Indonesia: the men the three older girls marry all play a role in the country’s independence. Alamanda falls in love with Comrade Kliwon, a Communist, but makes a mistake when she toys with the older regional military commander, Shodancho, and has to marry him. Her sister Adinda eventually marries Kliwon. And Maya Dewi is married to Maman Gedong, a thug who used to be a revolutionary.
The book is rich and full of twists—and what a cast of characters! Kurniawan gives them all breathing room so you get to know them (even though you won’t like all of them). But Dewi Ayu dominates them all. She is so alive, she practically leaps off the page. There are some stomach-churning moments (bestiality, incest) but also times where I found myself chuckling.
I thoroughly enjoyed Beauty is a Wound—it is original, absorbing, funny and moving.
On a personal note: I bought this English translation of an Indonesian novel in a little bookshop in Venice, proving that literature does travel!