“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” So begins Eka Kurniawan’s epic novel, Beauty is a Wound. With that startling opening sentence, we are hurled from one fantastical situation to another. In this topsy-turvy world where violence and rape abound, a legendary beauty marries a dog, a pig turns into a human, a woman wears an iron chastity belt to prevent her husband from raping her, and ghosts interact with humans and with each other on a regular basis. It’s as if we ventured with Alice down the rabbit hole where the bizarre becomes plausible. All of these fantastic events take place against a backdrop of the recent history of Indonesia with its struggle for independence, guerrilla warfare, bloodshed, and massacres.
The novel recounts the story of the Dewi Ayu, the most beautiful, sophisticated prostitute in the village of Halimunda. The story of Dewi and her four daughters intertwines with cultural folklore to such a degree that the lines separating them blur with the latter bleeding seamlessly into the narrative of Dewi Ayu and one or another of her daughters.
Kurniawan has written a brilliant tale, one that is simultaneously imaginative, compelling, funny, tragic, and an absolute delight to read. Highly recommended.