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Indonesia’s New Literary Star

September 20, 2016

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound, translated by Annie Tucker, 2015
Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring, 2015

Eka Kurniawan (Photo: Text Publishing)

Eka Kurniawan (Photo: Text Publishing)

“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.

beautyisawoundThe 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.

mantigerThere 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.”

Kurniawan’s third novel. The working title of the English version is “Love and Vengeance”.

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.

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Photo: Alchetron)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Photo: Alchetron)


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.

Margio, the protagonist of Man Tiger, is inhabited by white female tiger. (Photo: Subash BGK, CC Licence)

Margio, the protagonist of Man Tiger, is inhabited by white female tiger. (Photo: Subash BGK, CC Licence)

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 20, 2016 9:21 pm

    Thanks for the mention!

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