“Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan

30983524I read this book for an Indonesian class, but also read the English translation. It’s not a book I would have chosen to read on my own initiative as I’m not a fan of magical realism, but I thought I’d share my thoughts here because what I read felt very different from what I expected after reading reviews online.

I think the biggest thing that struck me about the book is the coarseness of it. This isn’t a book with beautiful lyrical prose (and it’s not just an issue with the translation). The plot and writing tends to be very crude. The characters are all cynical and driven almost exclusively by sex. There’s a strain of black comedy as the book treats subjects like rape in a darkly humorous manner. For example, when a husband tries to rape his wife, the wife responds with this literary classic: “Are you horny, Shodancho? My earhole is still nice and tight if you want it.”

Indeed, all of the characters come across as superficial and shallow. Part of the problem is that there’s a large, unwieldy cast of characters, meaning that the book really doesn’t focus on any one character for long enough to really know them. The women are almost never point of view characters and their biggest decisions seem to be whether or not to spread their legs for me. The men are a bit more developed because we get to see their thoughts, even if they all come across as uncontrollably horny. I don’t need characters in a story to be “likable,” but I do want them to be interesting, and none of the characters in “Beauty Is a Wound” grabbed my interest.

The book also has an odd and unexplained system of magic. I read fantasy books and am perfectly happy to suspend disbelief, so long as the story convinces me to do so. “Beauty Is a Wound” never does. Stuff happens without any logic or explanation. Some characters seem to have greater insight into magic, but it’s not clear why. One character is shot, but it turns out he is invincible and does not die. Why is he invincible? We never find out and the other characters seem shockingly uninterested in this. They never even bring it up or ask him about it.

Finally, a brief comment about the book as an Indonesian novel. The story takes place roughly from the beginning of World War II to the early 1990s. I’m quite familiar with Indonesia and its political history, so I understood most of the references in this book. However, most Americans aren’t, and if you don’t know anything about Indonesian history before picking up this book you’ll probably be lost. The book jumps around quite a bit in time and isn’t always clear about when certain events are taking place. It also doesn’t devote much text to chronicling Indonesian history to readers. Granted, this isn’t a history book and Indonesian readers won’t need this background, but foreign readers do.

Overall, I was excited for “Beauty is a Wound” because I was told it was a biting political commentary, but in the this book just didn’t work for me. Part of this is taste. Like I said, I’m not a fan of magical realism and the focus on depraved characters made it a depressing read. In the end, I’m just not sure what I was supposed to get out of this book.

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