Beauty is a Wound
Eka Kurniawan
Annie Tucker, Translator

(New Directions)
If you have never been able to get (or get into) Greek tragedies, forget it. Now, rather than having to travel back 2500 years, and having to put up with unpleasant characters like Oedipus, Electra, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon --- you can stay here in the twenty-first Century and deal with Dewi Ayu and her four daughters: Alamansa, Adlinda, Maya Dewi, and Beauty. This last, by the way, is the only one, the author tells us, who is not a raving beauty. When she was born, the midwife thought that she "looks like a cursed monster from hell."

    The baby's entire body was jet black as if it had been burned alive, with a bizarre and unrecognizable form. For example, she wasn't sure whether the baby's nose was a nose, because it looked more like an electrical outlet than any nose she'd ever seen in her entire life. And the baby's mouth reminded her of a piggy-bank slot and her ears looked like pot handles.

"If she were God, she would probably kill the baby at once rather than let her live; the world would abuse her without mercy."

And so it goes, there in Halimunda, there in Indonesia, with Dewi Ayu and her four daughters. Who, we will learn, are cursed --- as is Dewi Ayu herself.

Because when we begin Beauty is a Wound, the first thing we learn is that Dewi Ayu is dead, but certainly doesn't like it, isn't going to put up with it. Our earliest mise en scène has this old lady popping out of her grave, the one that's been her home for the last twenty-one years.

    The grave shook and fractured, and the ground exploded as if blown up from underneath, triggering a small earthquake and a windstorm that sent grass and headstones flying and behind the dirt raining down like a curtain the figure of an old woman stood looking annoyed and stiff, still wrapped in a shroud as if she'd only just been buried the night before.

She didn't look all that dead: her hair had grown "so that when she shook it loose from the calico wrap it fluttered in the afternoon breeze, sweeping the ground, and shimmering like black lichen in a riverbed." As she heads down the road, people around her are running away, or fainting, and "she complained, to no one in particular, that people were evil to have buried her alive."

We learn only by these hints early on that this is a cursed family. Other than that, the four girls seem like the normal children of a normal woman, despite the fact that she's just risen from the dead, ends up --- as before --- running the best whore house in town. For Dewi Ayu is famous, and special. As one of the local says, she's a "local legend."

    All the men wanted to sleep with her. Even two of her three sons-in-law took her to bed. She was an incredible whore.

§   §   §

If you are uneasy with people jumping out of their graves, and quickly jumping in bed, and with ghosts running around getting in fights and in general being a pain, irritating the living, while those who are not dead have the ability to turn invisible, or come to be so strong that when shot by others, the bullets just don't penetrate; along with girls getting raped by dogs, and then getting pregnant; and others getting pregnant with the result, in nine months, great explosions of fetid air (but no baby); and people chatting with the dead (and the dead talking back) . . .

. . . Well, if writerly tricks like that irritate you, you might as well give up before you begin, because Beauty Is a Wound is crammed-packed with these carryings-on. Plus your regular jealousy, love, violence, adoration, hate, misery, love, murder . . . all those things that make people people.

You'll find them in abundance here, and characters, some of whom we readers come to be fond of finding themselves shot dead, or strangled, or stabbed . . . to the point that we want to picket when somebody in the book that we find ourselves addicted to is dumped by the author without our permission, we want to go and find him and march in front of his place, with signs, "UNFAIR!" "MURDERER OF GREAT CHARACTERS!"

For instance, Comrade Kliwon, who, when there is a revolution in Jakarta, mostly complains about there being no newspapers, because "the Russian Revolution would never have succeeded if the Bolsheviks hadn't had their newspapers." So when our author offs him, we want to notify him, there in Tasikmalaya, or wherever he lives, that he should stop trashing our favorite characters like Kliwon. Or Rengganis the Beautiful, with black hair that "came from a deep mysterious darkness, falling straight past her hips."

    She had skin like the crust of a freshly baked loaf of bread still warm from the oven.

Poor thing: she thinks she is pregnant because she was raped by some canine. Her cousin Ai asks "Do you know which dog?"

    Rengganis shook her head, full of regret. "Every dog looks the same to me," she said. "Maybe he will come once his baby is born."

    "How will he know that it's been born."

    "My child will bark and he'll hear it."

It's this, this gently insane noodling about that captures the reader. Everyone here is vexingly bizarre, and their interactions with each other are even more bizarre, often from Mars, the whole thing rolled along there on the edge of insanity.

And yet it always seems somehow grounded. Alamanda dons an "Iron Maiden" with a padlock that keeps her husband Shodancho from making like a bunny with her. And then, after squeezing a promise from him (a promise not to kill one of her old lovers) she suddenly invites him in, for the first time, lovingly, so "they returned to the bedroom, and it was all a surprise for the servants in the kitchen and the neighbors listening to Alamanda's short yelps and Shodancho's low grunts. He came three times that evening, but satisfaction only arrived after they did it eleven more times the next day; truly, a pair of opponents who'd been starving for five years."

§   §   §

So now, those of us who fell asleep while trying to absorb "The Oresteia" or "The Trojan Women" or "Oedipus" or "The Eumenides" can now be spared a snooze in the playhouse, for we find many of the elements of classic Greek tragedy roped together here in Beauty Is a Wound. If you have never been able to figure out the twists and turns of the curse of the house of Atreus, here's where it all plays out. Atreus kills the sons of his brother Thyestes, cooks up the two tiny babes in a savory pot-pie with thyme, fennel and bay-leaf, which he then feeds to unknowing Thyestes --- who burps heartily after his mysterious (but great) sacrificial dinner.

And this starts the curse a-ticking, the whole ball of wax, taking us into the Trojan war, and Clytemnestra killing husband Agamemnon, and she in turn murdered by her son and daughter Orestes and Electra --- and soon thereafter morning (or mourning) becomes Electra and, finally, the curse dies out because the gods have gotten bored ho-hum with all these people screwing then murdering each other, eating each other burp.

With Beauty is a Wound, you can participate in an up-to-date family rape-murder-kill-eat curse, told by a master story-teller from our own time . . . instead of one of those looming up mysteriously from ages past.

They say that this book was written before Kurniawan turned forty. If so, I am wondering how this kid [See Fig. 1 above] can cram so many tricks into one book, tricks that actually build an epic. It's beyond me, especially the best trick of them all: making us stay up half the night so that we can live through all this love and magic and hate . . . and finally participate in the realization that comes to us, to them all, after burying yet another member of the family: the boy Krisan, when Alamanda and Maya Dewi are trying to comfort Adinda, explaining,

    "We're like a cursed family," Adinda sobbed.

    "We are not like a cursed family, corrected Alamanda, "We are truly and completely cursed."

Beauty is like a wound.

--- Carlos Amantea
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