by Eka Kurniawan
New Directions Publishing
reviewed by Christopher Klim
“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead twenty-one years.”
Kurniawan’s poignant and at times rollicking novel covers a century of Indonesian history from the death throes of Dutch rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and into the nation’s late-century struggle for independence. Centering on the fictional shore town of Halimunda, the story covers the exploits and trials of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, each sired by a different father during critical points of her life. These are strong if not capricious women who are self-determined and at times reckless in their path through time. They form unique characters who are ultimately metaphors for the primary facets of modern Indonesian history and its struggle to enter the twenty-first century.
Dewi Ayu, who is part Dutch by blood, sees her status fall as the Europeans evacuate during World War II. After enduring Japanese imprisonment, she is pressed into service as a comfort women—a crime against humanity that the Japanese remain unapologetic for. Ironically she reverses this fortune by becoming the most famous and sought-after prostitute in all the land.
In time, Dewi Ayu’s oldest three daughters marry a head of the military, the most feared criminal in town, and a leading socialist activist respectively. As much as they must witness their husbands’ wrath on Halimunda, each daughter, like their mother, experiences unimaginable cruelty, as well as a unique reconciliation with love. For these women, beauty is both a weapon and a burden that costs them more than they deserve. The suffering of these exotic, compelling mixed-blood women summons their ability to overcome extreme circumstance in a way that only a woman can.
Turning the tables on the exploitation of what we hold dear in our eyes, Dewi Ayu’s youngest daughter forms a hideous sight by any standard. She is shunned by her community and mockingly named Beauty by her own mother who abandons her by dying shortly after her birth. Through the girl Beauty and the events to which all the women are exposed, author Kurniawan indicts the inhumanity against man brought by foreign occupation and the ensuing fight for independence. Here, there is scarcely anyone either not guilty or a victim of violence and a lust for power. Too often, less developed nations are dragged into the future by the worst men have to offer.
Like the intergenerational curse that lords over the family, much of this tale is tragic. However, it gains momentum and entertainment in its use of folklore, verisimilitude of setting, and spectacular storytelling that harkens the classic novel form. A hint of contemporary verbiage exists that may or may not have been introduced by Annie Tucker’s clean and consistent translation. The writing is markedly mature by achieving both broad palette concepts and distinct character details at the same time. This is a large novel about a country and a handful of interesting people delivered by an interesting new author on the English-speaking scene.