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The tale is a timeless meditation about women and men, and the things that enslave them to each other, such as beauty and power.

Sensational epic tale on love, lust, power

Sep 30, 2016 5:50 AM

Beauty Is A Wound
By Eka Kurniawan
Published by Pushkin Press
480 pages, S$17.95
Rating: A+

Reviewed by Helmi Yusof

BEAUTY Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan is one of the most ravishing epic novels this reviewer has read since Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude (1967).

The sheer scope of Eka's imagination is jaw-dropping. Going against the style of contemporary fiction, the Indonesian writer tells his story like an ancient oral storyteller. His lurid and intricate plot moves like a through-train, slowing down occasionally for dialogue or character expositions. But the emphasis is on the sensational plot, drenched with sex, politics and superstition, instead of the sharp psychological examinations popular among writers today.

Beauty Is A Wound centres on a prostitute, Dewi Ayu, and her four daughters in a fictional Indonesian town of Halimunda. Forced into prostitution by Japanese soldiers during the war, she quickly becomes the most powerful whore in Halimunda because of her extraordinary beauty and skills in bed.

Sleeping with various men, she gives birth to four daughters - three as beautiful as she is, and one an absolute ogre. Ironically, it is this last daughter she names "Beauty", though she later regrets this and wishes she had named her "Wound".

Nonetheless, it is the allure of Dewi Ayu and her daughters that drives much of the narrative, as the most powerful men in and around the town see their fates rise, tumble and burn through their association with the women.

Eka, who's coming here in November for the Singapore Writers Festival, populates his story with stock characters - the prostitute, the soldier, the gangster, the grave-digger, the cursed children, the ghost - against the volatile politics of Indonesia in the 20th century. He weaves sex, violence, murder, incest, bestiality, animism and supernatural encounters as not-so-unusual occurrences in the day-to-day life of the people.

Beauty Is A Wound thus works like an ancient folklore, filled with lessons on love, death, politics and ambition. Beneath the sensational tale, however, is a timeless meditation about women and men, and the things that enslave them to each other, such as beauty and power.

Readers who love the concise writing and psychologically-acute characterisations of contemporary writers such as Alice Munro or Cormac McCarthy might scoff at the idea of a lurid, pulpy storyline.

But the book has been lauded by critics and readers worldwide, with many crowning Eka as the successor to the late giant of Indonesian fiction, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. If you happen to be a fan of Latin American magic realism made famous by Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, you might even prefer Eka's flights of fantasy to Toer's realism.

Meanwhile, Beauty Is A Wound is worldwide bestseller and Eka's second title Man Tiger was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. His next translated novel, Love & Vengeance, is set to come out next year. It will arrive amid much anticipation.