GABY RUSLI WRITES — “You can turn her into a prostitute and take the money she earns for as long as she lives,” said the old man. “Or, if there’s no man who wants to be with her, you can chop her up into bits and sell her flesh at the market.” If beauty really is a wound, then the prettiest woman in this universe must have gone through unimaginable agony.
Dewi Ayu was born to a prominent Dutch family in the years of Dutch colonialism in the fictional town of Halimunda in Indonesia. Being a woman of both Dutch and Indonesian descent through her Dutch grandfather and his native Indonesian mistress, she was a woman of unique beauty. Through her own will during the Second World War, Ayu fell victim to forced prostitution at the hands of the Japanese. After the war, she continued down the path of prostitution willingly and gracefully, becoming the prostitute that boys would die to lose their virginities to and whom married men would treat better than their wives.
Beauty is a Wound (2002) is one of Eka Kurniawan’s earliest works, published in 2002 with his famous book “Man Tiger,” released about two years later. He uses Indonesia’s earlier, turbulent years as the background to his books’ narratives to educate his readers, both native and foreign. Kurniawan aims to relay the intricate, distinctive, and authentic nature of the diverse Indonesian people in the face of a constantly changing political landscape. He has been compared by many reviewers to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, as both incorporate “magical realism” and realistic historical backdrops to their works.
Beauty is a Wound is never without intrigue and astonishing plot twists that will surely leave its mark on its readers. Yet, as unique as Kurniawan’s book is, it can often feel two-dimensional in its interpretation of gender. He uses rape and objectifying language to capture men’s callous disregard for women. However, he describes and romanticizes such sensitive subjects in tremendous and unnecessary detail that leaves one cringing, frantically reading certain parts just to get it over with. Additionally, one is left confused at the true purpose behind the book— is it a tale of generational romantic tragedy or a reminder of the true roles of men and women in Indonesia?
One can understand that this book is unconventional from the start as it centers around the life of a prostitute with the education and ideals of an aristocrat who raised her daughters in an equally liberal way at a time when women were only raised to be wives and bear children. Still, like the saying, “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing,” the over-sexualization of women and minors diminishes the overall merit of the story. If this is Eka Kurniawan’s attempt to portray and represent the adversity that girls and women have faced over time, it is undoubtedly a noble one. If it is not, then it is emblematic of the work that needs to be done about women’s rights for self-expression and safety as the girls and women of Indonesia (and globally) continue to face unfair and gendered laws in a constantly modernizing world.
New Book Reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an International Relations graduate and environmentalist who is passionate about Indonesian and Southeast Asian political affairs.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.