“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.”- Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound
This book has one of the best, most memorable opening sentences I’ve ever read. And it definitely set the stage for one of the most compelling and engrossing stories I’ve read in a long time. Over 500 pages of prose and I enjoyed every page. Even without having any knowledge of the history of Indonesia, I loved it.
Indonesia seems to have had a turbulent history of colonization, first by the Dutch, then the Japanese. I find the same theme in a lot of novels that focus on colonized subjects who become involved in proxy wars: confusion over what exactly is happening:
“Look,” she said to another woman next to her, “they must be confused by two foreign nations making war on their land.”
I’m always a fan of anyone who writes compelling, multi-dimensional women. This book traces the history of Indonesian-Dutch prostitute Dewi Ayu and her four daughters and their characters are written so well. It’s a complicated family history, complicated even further by wars, colonialism, communism, independence struggles, and love. In addition, fairy tales and legends are mixed in to this funny yet tragic story.
I like stories that focus on small communities like this. Imagine being part of a community that you were born and raised in, one where everyone knows you and makes room for you because they know they have no choice but to put up with you since migration isn’t a common practice. Something Elizabeth Alexander wrote in her “The Light of the World” has always stuck with me, something regarding African societies (told to her by her late husband) about how the village always makes room for everyone, including the mentally ill, and I saw that in this book; people adapting to each other.
Kurniawan is a great writer, really exceptional. I enjoyed the way he presented Indonesia’s history in a fictionalized account, making it accessible, as well as interesting and educational.. I had no idea, for example, that Indonesia had a history with communism:
“Comrade Salim admitted that he was not a good Marxist, that he didn’t understand all that class theory yet, but he was fairly certain that injustice had to be fought in any way possible. There are no Marxists in this country, he said, but there are plenty of starving masses, who work more than what they get for it in return, who have to bend their knees every time a big man appears, who know nothing expect that the only way to be free from all of that is to rebel.”
I already touched upon the compelling female characters in this book. Cynthia Enloe wrote a bit about brothels in Asia during World War 2 and the Vietnam war and it was something I’d never really thought about before but it was interesting to see that although war is often in the masculine domain , there is a lot about the involvement of women that isn’t considered or that is glossed over. We know women and children are always the biggest victims in war and this book at least lends some warmth and a richer narrative to the stories that aren’t often mentioned, those that are seen as peripheral to the war. This line, “The colonel came to believe that the brothel built up his men’s morale and was good for their fighting spirit…”, reminds us of how women are used in times of war.
Indonesia as a locale for this story was interesting: the dichotomies of native Indonesian vs. Dutch, interspersed with some magical realism, myths, humour and wit, bawdiness, as well as great insights, made the story really come alive. Also, to me the history seemed to be very much like that of many countries where the needs of the people are quite basic, yet are still out of reach due to bad governance:
“Long ago he had heard an imam in the mosque talk about heaven, about rivers of milk that flowed at your feet, about beautiful ever-available virgins, nymphs, about everything being there for the taking and nothing forbidden. All of that seemed so beautiful, really too beautiful to be believed. He didn’t need anything as grandiose as all that–it would be enough for him if everyone got the same amount of rice. Or maybe that wish was really the most grandiose wish of all.”
Prepare to be shocked, outraged, and delighted.