Beauty is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, 2002
- Indonesia, #14
- Borrowed from SF library
- Read August 2017
- Rating: 4.5/5
- Recommended for: Anyone longing for a 100 Years of Solitude update written by Chuck Palahniuk
- Content warning (after the jump): sexual assault
You probably won’t be able to tell from reading this review, but I actually really liked this book. Enough to keep an eye out for Kurniawan’s other works when I’m browsing the shelves of second-hand bookstores. I’m really hoping for a copy of Man Tiger but I think it’s too new to have started to make its way onto the used racks in any significant numbers. I did find a copy of Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (which I initially thought was quite a clever title but then upon reflection I realized that not only is it not particularly clever, it’s completely nonsensical, which makes me wonder if I’m wrong in my optimistic assessment of Kurniawan). I started to read the first page but it was all about this guy’s penis and I just thought, men and their genitalia have dominated the conversation—not to mention the international literary scene—for long enough and I don’t need to read anything else about penises right now, so I put it back on the shelf and bought a copy of Bad Feminist instead. Anyway, the point is, I liked this book a lot. I thought it was great. But it has some serious, serious flaws.
Kurniawan goes for shock value all the time: there’s the birth of a baby so ugly the midwife literally mistakes her for a pile of shit; a young woman who spurns her true love and instead marries the man who has abducted and raped her, in order to take lifelong revenge on him; a teenage mother who leaves her dead infant on a rock to be torn apart by wild dogs. It’s purposefully distasteful, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it’s more Palahniuk than Brett Easton Ellis (which is a good thing, in my opinion), but where Kurniawan really falls down for me is his attitude toward women and sexuality. His main character, Dewi Ayu, is an incomparably beautiful sex worker and the mother of four daughters. In the book’s opening scene she rises from her grave after being dead for twenty years, which is obviously surprising at first but in the context of the rest of the story, seems a totally consistent choice for her character. Dewi Ayu’s decision to become a sex worker is framed as an empowering choice, kind of, except that her rationalization is that, due to being forced to become a comfort woman for Japanese soldiers during World War II, she’s already a prostitute, so she might as well keep at it and make some money. It’s fairly devastating to see a character assuming the responsibility for her own rape and sexual slavery, and it’s hard to tell how the author sees it. And while I like an empowered sex worker as much as the next sex-positive feminist, there’s something very male about the inability to conceive of female power in any terms besides sexual. Dewi Ayu is a powerful woman, but her power lies entirely in her ability to wield her sexuality and attractiveness to her own ends. When women in this book are disempowered—as they are in overwhelming numbers—it is entirely through sexual aggression and exploitation. Which leads me to my primary point: there is way, way, waaaaaaaaay too much rape in this book.
Every major female character in this book is raped. The depictions of sexual violence are graphic, and yet somehow romanticized. While I was reading this book, I was also reading Lan Fang’s Potions and Paper Cranes, which also dealt with the sexual enslavement of women in Indonesia during World War II. That book is not nearly as good as Beauty is a Wound and yet there is a single, brutal description of a Chinese “comfort woman” being raped by Japanese soldiers that rang far truer and was far harder to read than anything in Kurniawan’s book. In classical magical realism style, Kurniawan depicts horrific events with a detachment that borders on flippancy. When Dewi Ayu is captured by the Japanese and moved, along with a group of young Dutch and Indo women, from a harsh prison camp to a cushy house where they are fed and cared for, she immediately clocks what’s going to happen and not only resigns herself to her fate, but pretty well embraces it. When she clues the other girls in to their inevitable sexual slavery, they—more realistically—panic. Kurniawan seems to imply that these women, with their human reactions, are lesser beings than the serene Dewi Ayu, and would be happy enough if they could just get over their (rather pedestrian) hang-ups about the whole rape-and-enslavement thing. After all, his reasoning goes, they had been prisoners of war, sick and starving, sleeping in a prison; now they are well-fed and cared for and really, as far as payments go, sleeping with the occasional soldier is hardly the worst thing that could happen to them. This attitude is a real slap in the face for anyone who’s actually been sexually assaulted and shows, I think, a profound lack of understanding on the author’s part of what it might be like to be sexually abused (let alone kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery for months or years on end).
A lot of descriptions of this book call Kurniawan the natural successor to Pramoedya Ananta Toer. I largely failed to see the comparison; their writing styles could not be more disparate and I must say I enjoyed Beauty is a Wound far more than This Earth of Mankind, but they ARE kindred in their use of sexual violence as a plot device. As in Toer’s book, all the rape and kidnapping and assault in Beauty is a metaphor, I guess, for Indonesia and the way Europeans have despoiled it over and over again. But the thing is, rape isn’t just a literary device. It’s a real thing that happens to real people literally every minute of every day. I think Kurniawan could use a read-through of Roxane Gay’s The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.
All that being said, however, his prose is gorgeous, his creativity apparently boundless, and the man can construct a killer plot line. If the next thing I read from him is just as good but contains approximately 3000% less sexual assault, I think I’ll be pretty well satisfied.