I am reading a book from every country in the world. This book is intense!(!!) (Jason Mendoza voice). Buy it here, if you like.
The last book I read was Austria: Some Girls, Some Hats, and Hitler by Trudi Kanter.
THE BOOK: Beauty Is a Wound, by Ewa Kurniawan
IN SHORT: This is the bananas recount of the life (and afterlife) of the beautiful Dewi Ayu, daughter of a Dutch man and his Indonesian “concubine”/woman forced into sexual slavery; her four daughters; and the men who rape them. It is also a scabrous retelling of the creation of modern Indonesia, and the millions dead in its wake.
THE BEST BIT: I don’t even know where to start with this book except to say that it is exactly the two-fold motivation behind starting this project: (a) to break out of the engrained grooves of my storytelling habits and (b) to read authors foreign to me in all the senses of that word. It is perhaps instructive as to the book’s operating system that while writing the last part of a sentence in the previous paragraph, I am tempted to write “the men who rape them, both as living humans and as ghosts,” and I am pretty sure that is true, but I also feel like they may have been better classified as “demons,” whether alive or dead.
This is not a book for the faint-hearted, nor the faint-stomached. The author’s own website indexes the crimes against Dewi Ayu and her daughters as “incest, murder, bestiality, rape, insanity, monstrosity, and the often vengeful undead.” Dewi Ayu’s first act in the book is to rise from the grave, return home, eat “two whole tuna fish, including their bones and spine,” and then “emit a rumbling sound out of her asshole….” (The description goes on, but we will stop.) Her parents share a father, a man equally happy to procreate with his Dutch wife and “a native concubine named Ma Iyang.” Her first three children are beautiful; the second-youngest is married to her mother’s own lover at 12. (“Dogs get married at two years old, and chickens get married at eight months” — and that’s her mother talking.) The oldest is forced to marry the man who drugs her, carries her into a forest shack, and rapes her, though she loves another man, a Communist leader who later marries her sister. Later, she tries to protect herself from further rape by wearing “iron underwear”; of course, this is not successful. “Even if I died,” she laments, “believe me, this man would continue to fuck my grave.” The whole book could be written in italic.
Throughout the book, the men are disgusting, churlish, and violent; the women are implacable, which was the adjective used to describe Dewi Ayu in the South China Morning Post review of the book and seems to me most appropriate. Dewi Ayu survives marriage (to her mother’s lover) and sexual slavery (during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II) and is described as positively excelling in her work as a prostitute following the end of the war. Her daughters suffer endlessly. I do not know what to make of the endless sexual violence enacted against them except to say that it is nauseating, which was clearly the point. Though this book (along with Kurniawan’s Man Tiger) were only released in an English translation to American readers in 2015, Beauty Is a Wound was originally published in 2002. I cannot even begin to square it to the #metoo moment/movement at home — in fact, reading it outside of that context, while living inside of that context, is a mindfuck. Forget Beauty Is a Wound; the entire novel could be called 450-Page Trigger Warning.
What are we to make of a story in which rape is used as a weapon of war? (Of course, rape has been used as a weapon of war for centuries, and figured prominently in my first book in this quest, A Woman in Berlin.) What are we to make of a story in which rape is used as a weapon of war and the main characters just get on with it? Is that better or worse, more of a reflection of reality, or not? What are we to make of a story in which a man drugs and rapes a woman who later impregnates her three times, though twice producing nothing more than a “hot pot” of air? Or a woman who gives her pre-adolescent daughter to a gangster, who cares for her as a child until they begin a sexual relationship?
More than with other books in this series, I looked online for answers — and I found more of them in reader reviews than the critical notices.
A: “The continual, perfunctory violence toward women sickened me pretty quickly in, and the use of magical realism somehow seemed to diminish or normalize it.” I felt a simultaneous heightening (of brutality) and dampening (of emotional impact) that I could not square. Perhaps it’s my instinct that rape, uniquely, should be neither diminish nor normalized (nor used, as it is here in some ways, to symbolize other, even if equally intimate, acts of force.
B: From a reader who lived in Indonesia: “Reading Beauty Is a Wound seemed like a visit to the homeland of my soul, and I am still struggling with just how to review this book for ‘non-Indonesia proficient’ audiences. There is one word in Bahasa Indonesia that I keep repeating. It is ‘rasa.’ It means feel or taste, or sensation of. And Kurniawan has distilled the ‘rasa’ of Indonesia.”
And more, going back to A: “In an allegory where a country is a woman, and segments of that country other women, and ‘forces of evil’ keep attacking that country or segments, you have many rape scenes. One could easily summarize major events in Indonesian history by saying, ‘Once again, Indonesia got screwed.’ That’s what Kurniawan is doing. He’s not a crazy sex fiend. He is not advocating that men should treat women like that. He is using it to effect. I often want to start my own tale of Indonesia with the line, ‘From the day Columbus set off to locate Indonesia to steal her spices, Indonesia kept getting screwed….'”
I think that is very well noted. It returns us to the earlier question, though, of whether every act (including rape, which is not precisely “getting screwed”) is can or should be exploited for symbolism in this way. I think writers should be able to do whatever they want to do — I would never expect a cultural and political movement in one country to dictate how a writer halfway around the world (and not incidentally, writing 16-plus years before that movement) writes about his own. But it does take a larger leap on the reader’s behalf, I think, to cross yet another gulf: of language, storytelling tradition, historical context, and … everything else.
I just spent two months in Indonesia and found it utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. One thing in particular: I remember a guide describing the country’s flag, which is divided into a red horizontal stripe and a white one beneath it. “The red is for the blood of those who made Indonesia a country,” he said.
“And the white is for peace?” I said.
“The white is for their bones.”
Now, I looked that up later, and at least according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, that is not actually the case (“red for courage and white for honesty”). I don’t know if he believed what he said. But he might have, and when he told me that I said to myself: This country is a lot.