Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound, translated by Annie Tucker, 2015
Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring, 2015
“Be happy in the beginning, Gus, but then be ever vigilant – a child as beautiful as that … the gods will not be still.” Thus Minke’s mother advises him on his marriage to Annelies in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel, This Earth of Mankind.
In Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, it is men who will not be still in the face of beauty.
Many scholars see Pramoedya Ananta Toer as Indonesia’s greatest writer, and Kurniawan is now being hailed as his successor. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger, the first and second of his four novels, demonstrate his virtuosity in very different ways.
Beauty is a Wound is a long, wild ride through Indonesian history, told through the central character of Dewi Ayu, a prostitute, and her family. They experience the traumas of history – Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, the War of Independence, the 1965-66 massacres, the Suharto regime – but, in addition, the family seems subject to its own special curse. Dewi Ayu and her daughters and granddaughters have great beauty, which exposes them to cruelty, rape and murder. We only find out at the end who is responsible for the curse and why.
The supernatural is everywhere, reflecting cultural beliefs and traditional stories, especially the wayang (shadow puppet) tales derived from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The first sentence is: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years.” Ghosts abound, and an evil spirit plays a key role.
The novel itself is high-spirited and funny, and the strength of the narrative kept me avidly involved despite the trauma, magic, chaotic time shifts and multitude of players – about 20 main characters and a host of minor ones.
Man Tiger is a much shorter, less exuberant novel, with only about 7 main characters. Like its predecessor, it has a killer opening: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.” Why did Margio, “the sweetest and most polite of his peers”, “a model of restraint”, kill Anwar, and why so savagely – by biting through his jugular? Through backstory, the novel excavates the lives of Margio and his father, mother and sister until, on the final page, we understand.
There is almost nothing of the supernatural in Man Tiger, apart from the white tigress who inhabits Margio – and she can be read as a metaphor. What kept me involved in this story was the depth of characterisation and the imperative to find out what had driven Margio to his gruesome act. In Beauty is a Wound, the characters are fascinating, but they also have a mythic quality – the men have unusual powers, the women have an otherworldly beauty. The characters in Man Tiger are real, ordinary people, and they engage us deeply.
Despite their differences, these two novels share themes. One is the superficiality of those men who only see the outer beauty of a woman and not the deeper qualities that the beauty conceals. As critic Tiffany Tsao notes, the man who seduces one of the women in Man Tiger is “unable to see her true worth beyond her beauty because he mistakes her beauty for her true worth.” That reveals his own shallowness. Tsao argues that “the structure of the two novels suggests that an individual’s worth lies simply in having an interior at all.”
Another theme is the intergenerational nature of trauma and violence. As Philip Larkin puts it: “Man hands on misery to man.” In Beauty is a Wound, the cruelty of Dutch colonisers has consequences in an independent Indonesia. In Man Tiger, the abuse of Margio’s mother by his father plays a role in Margio’s own actions.
A third theme is the dynamic between love and vengeance – the huge emotions aroused by love and desire and the extreme acts that can result. Love and Vengeance is the working title of the English translation of Kurniawan’s third novel, due in 2017. It would also have been a suitable title for both Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger.
I sometimes found the portrayal of women in Beauty is a Wound disturbing, and Lisa at ANZLitLovers examines this aspect in her thoughtful review. To me, the women in Man Tiger are more sensitively and realistically portrayed.
There are many reviews of these two novels but the one by Tiffany Tsao at the Sydney Review of Books is, for me, the most penetrating. I highly recommend it, especially her analysis of the implications of translation for fiction. She finds it odd that other reviewers of these books have not engaged with the fact of translation. “Each translated phrase is the sole survivor of a mass slaughter,” she says. “As readers of translated literature, we must be haunted [by] the words or clauses that have been culled for the sake of the final translated product.” Tsao worries that a beautiful translation may prevent us from seeing the depths in the original.
Pramoedya Ananta Toer was often thought worthy of the Nobel Prize, especially for his Buru Quartet and his moving short stories. The early work of Eka Kurniawan is a hopeful sign that Indonesia may one day have another contender.
Post 11 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festivals
Can we ever really know reality?
No, said CERN physicist John Ellis, “We are increasing the number of things we know, but the number of things we don’t know will always be infinity.” Ellis originated the term “Theory of Everything”.
Ellis was speaking at HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival run in Hay-on-Wye at the same time as the main Hay Festival. A perfect combination – after binging on ideas and debates, we could rejuvenate by immersing ourselves in music.
Existential novelist Janne Teller, at the same session as Ellis, described a different way of knowing. “We can listen to our characters,” she said. “They teach us.” What would it be like to be a flying horse? She described imagining her way into the horse, discovering what it was like to gallop, then feeling the moment as the wings stretched out and the horse lifted off the ground.
A Drug is defined as …
… something a politician once used and now regrets, said psychiatrist David Nutt. He was the chairman of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but was sacked for telling the truth about drugs – for example, that horse riding is more dangerous for children than Ecstasy. He told the audience at Hay that the war on drugs has made the problem worse, and that all drugs should be decriminalised and addiction treated as a health issue rather than a legal issue. He points to the success of Portugal, and asks: Why believe in prohibition when we know it didn’t work for alcohol?Michelangelo versus Hirst
The Scream gives you something – it’s a visual attack on you, art critic Julian Spalding declared at HowTheLightGetsIn. But if you look at conceptual art, like Malevich’s Black Square, or Hirst’s shark, it gives you nothing – it’s no more than a clever idea. An unmade bed can’t be compared to the Sistine Chapel.
Spalding argued that the conceptual art of prominent British artist Gavin Turk was not art. Gavin Turk, who was on the same panel, quietly asserted that his art is art. “No, it’s not,” cried Spalding.
The “yes it is, no it’s not” went back and forth a few times, then the chairperson told Spalding that if Turk says his art is art, then it is, and Spalding was not allowed to say it wasn’t. That really set Spalding off, and squashed any chance of an enlightened exploration of the question.
“If you doubt evil …
… look into your own mind.” Philosopher Peter Dewes quoted Kant in a session on evil at HowTheLightGetsIn. But psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen said he does not use the word – it is a leftover from religion, and is scientifically unhelpful. “Why shut down enquiry?” he asked. “If someone enjoys cruelty, ask why. Has abuse in childhood caused him to become an abuser in adulthood?
Dewes was unconvinced, arguing that “evil” is a way of expressing repugnance. Another philosopher, Rebecca Roache, said that the term is helpful for things that are extremely wrong and that we don’t understand.
For Baron-Cohen, empathy is a more helpful concept. He uses it in measuring and researching prosocial and antisocial behaviour to identify the social and biological factors that cause people to have low affective empathy, and consequently to do things that the philosophers might label as “evil”.
“There is no such thing as race,” …
… said geneticist Anne Bowcock at HowTheLightGetsIn. “There are no specific genes that can be used to determine a person’s race. There are more differences within populations that between them.”
Journalist Kurt Barling agrees. “Racism begat race. Race itself is a fiction.” He says we need to liberate our imaginations from all racialized seeing and racialized solutions.
That’s all from Hay – for this year
This is my final post on the 2016 Festivals in Hay. In this post I’ve shared just a few moments from more than 700 events at HowTheLightGetsIn, and previous posts have reported on a tiny fraction of the hundreds of events at the main Hay Festival. Next year, the Hay Festival will run from 25 May to 4 June, but HowTheLightGetsIn will skip a year and return in 2018.
Participating in these twin celebrations of books, ideas, music, art and culture was a ten-day high.
Post 10 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festival, plus a review of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
“I’m sick of my novels coming true,” Salman Rushdie remarked during his session at the Hay Festival. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights features a jinn army swarming across the world, killing and destroying. He finished the book before the rise of ISIS.
The title references Scheherazade (1001 nights), and the novel feels like it has 1001 stories, on top of the pulsing drive of the central narrative. It’s exuberant, boisterous, over the top, and a lot of fun.
The slits between our world and the upper world crack open and Earth is invaded by jinn, the spirits of Islamic mythology, who create havoc. Dunia, a jinnia princess who loves humanity, tracks down the descendants of the numerous children she bore to a human philosopher 800 years ago, and enlists them to fight the dark jinni. The action is framed by the debate between two ghosts: Dunia’s philosopher lover, who advocates secularism, and a fundamentalist theologian who uses the dark jinn to create fear, so that people will return to God.
Most of the action is set in the present, but the narrator lives 1000 years in the future, looking back on this epoch-making “War of the Worlds”.
Rushdie says that in recent times we have experienced a “colossal fragmentation of reality … we live in a time when we don’t understand the narrative – we don’t know how things work.” Climate change, financial crises, terrorism and enormous change at great speed leave people anchorless. In the novel the “strangenesses” that happen as the jinn invade Earth are a representation of this upheaval.
Similarly, the dark jinn symbolise the darkness in “every human heart”, and the War of the Worlds represents our own struggles. The novel is about the folly that follows the separation of reason and imagination, he said at Hay. Just in case we miss this, he spells it out several times in the novel, and includes as the frontispiece Goya’s The sleep of reason brings forth monsters, together with the caption to the etching:
“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
Some reviewers have criticised this “telling as well as showing”, and complained about Rushdie’s other sins against the rules of writing. While such clunky bits would usually put me off, I didn’t mind them here – Rushdie writes such magnetic prose and tells such good stories that he can get away with it.
The novel has been described as fantasy, science fiction, fairy tale and magic realism. None of these labels fits it exactly – it is all of them and more. At Hay, Rushdie said: “The problem with the term ‘magic realism’ is that people only hear the word ‘magic’, whereas the best magic realism is deeply rooted in reality. We don’t have to write something naturalistic to write about the real world. Van Gogh’s Starry Night doesn’t look like a starry night, but it’s still a great picture.”
During the 1960s and 1970s I was a science fiction fanatic, so I was delighted when Rushdie admitted to a similar passion and listed the authors I had also read, such as Van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp and Pohl and Kornbluth. SF is a fine genre for novels of ideas, he said, but most of the SF at that time was written by men and did not have good female characters. So he was grateful, as I was, to discover the superb books of Ursula Le Guin, inhabited by real women.
Ursula Le Guin recently reviewed Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights for the Guardian. She loved the book, but she did have a problem with Dunia – she thinks like a man: “like so many other kick-ass, weapon-wielding warrior women – she’s a man in drag.”
My own thought about Dunia is that she has strong character but little personality. I reacted emotionally to most of the humans and jinni in the book because they have distinctive personalities. Dunia seems more like a symbol, except when she’s annoyed by the equivalent of the sat nav on her magic carpet when it takes her to the wrong destination. We should have had more moments like that.
With the separation of reason and imagination as the theme, Rushdie said at Hay, you couldn’t have a happy ending. So when he finished the book and found he had written a “happyish” ending, he purposely messed it up. This mutilated ending, according to Le Guin, “neglects the possibility of more imaginative uses of both the light and the darkness in us.” I agree with her. The twist at the end feels forced, a cop-out to the clichéd idea that destruction is more interesting than creation.
Nevertheless Le Guin recommends the novel, and believes that many readers will “take delight in its generosity of spirit.” And so do I, with the caveat that if you’re uncomfortable with allegory, or with creatures made from fire and smoke, it may not be the book for you.
Post 8 in a series on the 2016 Hay Festival
“The joy of tax is simply the ability of tax to create the type of society we want,” says Richard Murphy. “It can be the mechanism to deliver a better life for most people.”
At Hay Festival, Professor Murphy described his program for reorganising the economy to respond to the challenges of climate change and inequality. His prescriptions are set out in his latest book, The Joy of Tax, and many have been adopted by Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the British Labour Party.
Murphy recommends rebuilding the tax base by reversing past tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people and cracking down on tax avoidance by multinationals. The extra tax can then be used to reorganise the economy to meet social goals.
He advocates a national investment bank to invest in new infrastructure, decarbonise the economy and invest in new technologies such as robotics. These investments would create many new jobs.
A key tool in Murphy’s program is Quantitative Easing or QE. QE is economist jargon for printing money. Murphy recommends “People’s Quantitative Easing” instead of QE to rescue banks, as happened during the global financial crisis. Governments can safely print money to create jobs as long as there are people wanting work. No more money would be printed after full employment is achieved. He sees his program as strongly pro-business, as opposed to the current dominant ideology of neoliberalism, which benefits big business but hurts small business.
During the session at the Hay Festival, Murphy focussed on his program. In a subsequent post on the New Weather Institute, he looks at how rapidly our economy can be changed to meet the challenges of climate change and inequality. He says that three things are needed for rapid change:
- Recovery from a crisis, eg, from the Great Depression
- A new technology that demands change, eg mass produced goods
- A major innovation in economic thinking, eg the post-war Keynesian consensus.
After the economic crises of the 1970s, another change occurred, with increasing computerisation and the Thatcher-Reagan embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s.
What are the prospects for change now? First, we have experienced a crisis, with the failure of neoliberalism in the GFC. Second, there is new technology. “It is green, it is sustainable, it is radically different and it is at least in part robotic. It is demanding massive innovative change now, and it will happen.”
Third, Murphy believes that now, for the first time, we really understand money and that this validates his program of using QE, tax and a national investment bank. If that program is implemented, he says, the transition needed to meet current challenges could be quite rapid.
Note: This was the second of three Hay festival sessions on how quickly we can change to meet the challenges of climate change and global inequality:
- How quickly can we change … culture? – see my report in previous post
- How quickly can we change …economics?
- How quickly can we change … the built environment?
I was unable to attend the third session, but there is a summary on the New Weather Institute website. The consensus was that the technology is all there to meet the challenges, but “the political class in Britain is unlikely to take the steps we need to have a built environment that doesn’t fatally consume our natural resources. It’s up to us. The more of it we do, the easier it will get and finally the politicians will get it too.”
Does this conclusion also apply to Australia?