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In Suspicion of Beauty: On Eka Kurniawan

When the English-language editions of Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger were published last year, they were greeted with great critical acclaim. Beauty is a Wound made it into the New York Times’ annual list of the top 100 notable books for 2015. As a scholar and translator of modern Indonesian literature, I was naturally thrilled. Not since Pramoedya Ananta Toer has an Indonesian writer received this kind of attention from the international literary community.

What I have found particularly interesting is that reviewers have consistently described Eka (who prefers to be called so) in terms of other world literary ‘greats’. Alighting on the novels’ fantastic elements, most critics have drawn parallels with Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. Others have also detected notes of Faulkner, of Twain, of Gogol and Melville. Certainly, allusions to internationally renowned authors were not entirely absent from Indonesian reviewers’ remarks when Beauty is a Wound was first published in 2002. (One of Media Indonesia’s reviews mentioned Márquez and Kafka; the literary monthly Horison made reference to the ‘canonical novels of European and Latin American literature’.) But where such comparisons in the Indonesian-language reviews could be counted on one hand, in reviews of the English-language translations they have been the norm.

When asked how he feels about these parallels, Eka himself has said it’s ‘not something to be either proud of or annoyed by […] just a simple way for people to try to understand a writer.’ Even critics intimately familiar with the local and regional context of a work may feel compelled to erect a global frame of reference for the sake of championing an author’s work in the world literary arena—as the Indonesianist Benedict Anderson did in his preface to Man Tiger, which opens with a lengthy catalogue of famous writers such as Virgil, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Joyce, and emphasizes the cosmopolitan bent of Eka’s reading as a university student. (Eka, on the other hand, has said the biggest influences on his work have been Indonesian writers like Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Kho Ping Hoo, and Abdullah Harahap.)

Good intentions, then, may drive comparisons of Eka’s work to that of other authors on the global literary scene. But to what extent do we risk limiting our understanding of Eka’s work when we make them? Comparisons of lesser-known authors to well-known ones are certainly a common tactic. It’s a shorthand way of making an author intelligible to a new audience, and importantly, of signaling the adherence of an author’s work to a supposedly universal standard of literary quality—or dare I say, literary ‘beauty’. (For when we speak of a book’s ‘merit’ or ‘quality’ or ‘excellence’, are we not in some respect praising how beautiful it is—how closely it adheres to a certain artistic aesthetic ideal?) The irony, however, is that in the novels themselves, beauty is not a blessing, but a curse. And beauty is a curse precisely because it stops beholders in their tracks, preventing them from reaching a deeper, truer understanding of what that beauty conceals.

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‘There’s no curse more terrible than to give birth to a pretty female in a world of men as nasty as dogs in heat.’ So says Dewi Ayu, the protagonist of Beauty is a Wound. Indeed, throughout the novel, breathtaking beauty attracts nothing but misfortune, whether it be brutish lust, or worse, everlasting love from brutish men. There are many beautiful women among the novel’s cast of characters—Dewi Ayu, her three eldest daughters, and her two granddaughters among them. All of them suffer. Dewi Ayu is forced into prostitution during the Japanese occupation. Her eldest daughter is raped repeatedly. A granddaughter—so extraordinarily beautiful that everyone appends ‘The Beautiful’ to her name—is raped, then murdered. Rengganis, the fabled ancestor-founder of the town where the novel is set, too suffers and inadvertently causes others to suffer because of her goddess-like beauty. In the novel, men are not only as nasty as dogs in heat; they’re worse because they are so swayed by the superficial. In the end, Rengganis chooses to marry a dog, ‘“Because,” she stated, “a dog could not care less whether I am beautiful or not.”’

Beauty is a liability in Man Tiger as well. Although Mameh, the sister of the protagonist Marco, admires the beauty of her maturing body when alone, she must face the fact that outside the private world of the bathroom, her breasts attract unpleasant leers from men. Nuraeni, Mameh and Marco’s mother, is still pretty despite the years of domestic abuse she has suffered. But her good looks only attract more suffering—the sexual advances of the man whom she loves but who sees her as nothing more than a plaything—who is in fact, unable to see her true worth beyond her beauty because he mistakes her beauty for her true worth: ‘Throughout those months he had scrutinized her beauty, discerned it beneath the sadness.’ It is actually the reverse that is true: beauty in Man Tiger conceals the truth—Nuraeni’s beauty conceals her sadness, her vulnerability, the suffering and yearning that are really the attributes that make her fit to be loved. Like the luxuriance of her flower garden, which conceals decay and danger, beauty disguises the horrific physical and emotional trauma beneath.

Both Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are set in the fictional town of Halimunda and share a handful of the same characters and events. (It is this that has earned comparisons to Faulkner and the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in which most of his works are set.) But both novels are also set in a world where beauty will continue to be more curse than blessing so long as men are unable to put beauty in perspective. It is notable that the most admirable of the male characters in both novels can control themselves in the face of beauty. In contrast, the most despicable men are those who, in its presence, lack all restraint. Critics have observed that Beauty is a Wound recounts and reimagines important events in national history—the Dutch and Japanese occupations, the struggle for political independence, the 1965 communist purges. But no less powerful is the way both novels expose the everyday violence that women must endure and men have been taught to inflict for generations.

If true worth lies not in beauty, where then does it reside? Perhaps with moral uprightness? Not really—for none of Eka’s characters can really be considered truly virtuous either. Even the most heroic, the most admirable characters err; even they suffer lapses of selfishness and callousness, thoughtlessness and murderousness. Rather, the structure of the two novels suggests that an individual’s worth lies simply in having an interior at all.

Man Tiger begins with the plain facts, already bizarre in themselves: boy bites man. Shortly thereafter, it gets even weirder: tiger-boy bites man. And you’d be forgiven for thinking this new fact—the tiger inside the boy—is the real heart of the story. But it’s not. The novel takes us onward, into the heart not only of the boy, but of his sister, and his broken mother, and even his cowardly heel of a father whose sins we may never come to forgive, but which we do come to understand. These are the hearts of the story, not the tiger. And even though Nuraeni’s violent husband does worse—far worse—than the man with whom she falls in love, it is ultimately the latter who is the more villainous of the two, because he seems to have no interior, no depth, nothing beyond his blithe, unreflective, innocent smile.

If Man Tiger is a path snaking into the wilderness, Beauty is a Wound is a repeated diving and resurfacing. We plunge in and out of the consciousness of characters, and even those who do the most horrible things—thieves, rapists, and murderers—we come to have at least some sympathy for. We come to feel something like pity for the frustrations of Shodancho, even as his brutalization of Alamanda earns him our absolute horror and disgust. Even when the book finally reveals to us its grand villain—the mastermind behind the immense suffering of all its characters—we are unable to completely hate him. Why? Because we know too much about him. The depths of an individual are never pretty. Far from it. They are murky and in them lurk emotions and thoughts that cause us to recoil. Eka takes us there nonetheless because it is by dwelling in these depths ourselves that we are moved to compassion and are able to somehow value these individuals, not because we think they are beautiful or good, but because we know them intimately, in all their brokenness and complexity.

In order to truly understand someone, we cannot stop at what we see on the surface. This is what Eka’s novels argue. And I would argue that, by extension, this is also how Eka’s novels should be read. The problem with comparisons that invite us to rank his novels among other beauties in the history of world literature is that once we’ve paid tribute to their beauty, we may never delve further. When Deborah Smith in her review of Man Tiger for The Guardian remarks in passing that the parallels drawn between Eka and García Márquez and Rushdie ‘might threaten to obscure the writing itself’, she may very well be right.

For example, in emphasizing how many of Beauty is a Wound’s attributes seem to correspond to those of other ‘great’ works, we may overlook the interesting fact that when the novel was originally published, critics were fascinated by its deviance—its unabashed flouting of contemporary Indonesian literary aesthetic norms. The reviewer for the Jawa Pos criticized the careless construction of Beauty’s aesthetic framework. Although the reviewer for the newspaper Suara Pembaruan acknowledged the novel’s overall beauty, he stated that insofar as ‘wounds’ were to be found, it was ‘in the matter of aesthetics […] the author appears to be completely unconcerned with classic paradigms and is bent on doing something innovative and new’. One reviewer for Media Indonesia panned the novel outright for its disregard for any aesthetic standards at all (though a later reviewer for the same publication, along with other critics, came to Eka’s defense).

The majority of reviews were favourable; yet even those who praised it seemed morbidly fascinated by what they regarded as its defects: its use of filthy language, its meandering narrative style, its historical inaccuracies, its excessive absurdity, its overtones of pulp ‘horror’ fiction, and even its unappealing physical appearance: multiple reviewers took pains to point out its excessive length (517 pages) and its tiny print. Beauty made a lasting impression not because it was considered wholly beautiful, but rather, because it dared to be different at the risk of being considered ugly.

Whether or not one agrees with the criticisms leveled at Beauty is a Wound by Indonesian reviewers, or with their definitions of what constitutes a ‘defect’, I’d suggest that the critical reception of the original version of Beauty is a Wound approaches a deeper understanding of the novel than the glowing critical reception the English-language media has delivered so far. From the Indonesian-language reviews, taken as a sum, Beauty is a Wound appears as a variegated beast: yes, like ‘great’ works of world literature; also vulgar; and low brow; and funny; and unconventional; and artfully unsettling; and too illogical; and too meandering; and too undisciplined; and too long. If the novel itself invites us to delve inside its characters and appreciate them—merits, flaws, and all—then in some sense, the initial reception of the novel was much more in line with its ethos than the undiluted praise that greeted the English translation in 2015.

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There is something else about the 2015 editions of Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger that we must take into account—a feature that makes commenting on them with any thoroughness difficult for most English-language reviewers: Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are translations. And in this sense, it is perhaps unfair to criticize recent reviews for not grappling more with the novels’ curious, deliberately questionable features. After all, to what extent can one truly engage with a work when one is unable to experience it ‘firsthand’? Should reviewers of a book in translation be capable of reading the original as well? I’d argue that at least they should address the fact of its translation. It seems very odd that reviewers of the English-language versions of Eka’s work, apart from mentioning who the translators are in passing, have not engaged with the fact of translation. And it seems odder still that this is more or less the norm for reviews of translated literature, unless the book under discussion is a retranslation.

If the novels argue that only by seeing past surfaces to the complicated depths will we be able to truly comprehend a thing or a person, how should we approach translations?  The literary translator bears a great responsibility to ensure that a translation permits its readers access to those depths. And the reader must consider that a translation’s merit may not lie only in how effortlessly it reads, but how much of the original’s depth it retains.

Translation is never simple and in the case of these two novels, it is especially difficult. In the original version of Beauty is a Wound, the crass and the sublime, dark humor and genuine poignancy, casual speech and ‘literary’ phrasing mingle to produce a jarring effect. In the original version of Man Tiger, the writing style replicates the trajectory of the narrative, which moves not forward to recount new event after new event, but backward to unearth startling facts and buried emotions. Each sentence is densely packed with detail—details that drive into the next sentence and episode, and ever deeper into the story. This writing style and narrative structure is also a feature of Beauty is a Wound, though it is more central to Man Tiger. Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring, respectively, have faced the challenge of translating Eka’s prose into English.

The problem is, of course, that if these qualities of Eka’s writing are translated into English, they risk being exactly what they were in the original Indonesian: jarring and very densely packed. Perhaps to the point where the prose slides into ‘awkwardness’—that vague catch-all word we use to describe writing that doesn’t sound quite right for whatever reason.

There were points in reading Annie Tucker’s and Labodalih Sembiring’s translations where I marveled at their deftness. For example, the following passage from Beauty is a Wound, in which the humour rings just right: ‘“Meditation saves me from having to look at this rotten world,” he’d say and then continue, “or at least from having to look at your ugly face.”’ Or this lively description of Nuraeni’s garden from Man Tiger:

Months passed and the allamanda began to soar, its highest tips slithering over the roof, its bright yellow flowers contrasting sharply with the blue sky, enchanting butterflies. The jasmine by the kitchen wall was a glimmer of white against a dark-green background, like stars in a night sky.

There were also points where I disagreed with some of the translators’ choices. “‘[H]er face is cursed to be very happy’” from Man Tiger, I might have translated instead as “‘look at the smile on her wretched face’”. Or the ‘shame’ of ‘[h]is shame urgently began to advance’ from Beauty is a Wound, I might have translated as ‘penis’ (more on this subject later).

But there were also points where I initially found the translations ‘awkward’ – but on reflection saw that they made perfect sense because of the way they conveyed something of the original that may otherwise have been lost. For instance, the following passage is from Beauty is a Wound, in which two lovers reunite after being separated for over a decade:

‘Do you still want me?’ asked Ma Iyang. ‘My whole body has been licked and splattered with a Dutchman’s spit, and he has stabbed my privates one thousand one hundred and ninety-two times.’

‘I have stabbed twenty-eight different women’s privates as many as four hundred and sixty-two times, and I have stabbed my own hand countless times, and that’s not even counting the privates of animals, so are we really all that different?’

There are several ways to translate that phrase, ‘he has stabbed my privates’ [‘kemaluanku ditusuk kemaluannya’]. If one wanted to preserve the original structure of the Indonesian, which tends to favor passive rather than active construction, it would be ‘my privates have been stabbed by his privates’. If one wanted to experiment with different translations of ‘stab’ [‘tusuk’], one could substitute ‘pierce’, ‘skewer’, ‘impale’ or ‘run through’. (‘Tusuk’ is a word one might also use to talk about, say, impaling a piece of meat on a skewer, as opposed to ‘tikam’, which is closer in connotation to ‘stab’.)

‘Privates’ [‘kemaluan’], one might translate as ‘genitals’ (awfully clinical) or ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ as the case may be (though the original ‘kemaluan’ refers not just to penises or vaginas, but includes the whole ‘down there’ in general). Literally, the root word of ‘kemaluan’ is ‘malu’ or ‘shame’ (hence, most likely, the rationale behind the urgently advancing ‘shame’ in Tucker’s translation I mention above). Thus ‘he has stabbed my privates’ could be ‘he has skewered my privates’; ‘his penis has stabbed my vagina’; ‘my genitals have been pierced by his’; ‘his shame has impaled my shame’ etcetera. One could even omit the genitalia entirely: ‘I’ve been run through one thousand one hundred and ninety-two times’. Or if one wanted to go for something skewery in feel, but more identifiable as a sex-related term, one might replace ‘stabbed’ with ‘penetrated’. Almost all of these options are a bit awkward around the edges—but Eka’s usage deviates from the idiomatic in Indonesian as well. Arguably rendering it unconventionally in English does justice to its unconventionality in the original. What Tucker’s ‘stabbed my privates’ does have going for it is its evocation of battle—the play on the double meaning of ‘privates’ and the obvious war connotations of ‘stab’—which taps into the mingling of love with violence that recurs throughout the Beauty is a Wound.

In brief, ‘stabbed my privates’ might have been translated in many ways; and this is true of all the phrases, sentences, and passages in a translated work, even the shortest and most straightforward-seeming ones. The translator must discard all but one. Each translated phrase is the sole survivor of a mass slaughter. If we’re lucky, the survivor may be able to spin a story that recreates life before the massacre—that gives us the illusion that it’s still being lived.

As readers of translated literature, we must be haunted—like the inhabitants of the ghost-ridden Halimunda. We may not know the victims’ particulars—the exact words or clauses that have been culled for the sake of the final translated product—but it is still possible to honour their memory and mourn. This, I think, is something we must understand if we are to begin to fathom and appreciate the depths of a translation—any translation—beyond how it sounds. With Eka’s work, especially, a translation that reproduces in feel the blemishes intentionally sprinkled throughout the original may be the translation that best reflects Eka’s unique style.

The title of the novel in the original Indonesian is ‘Cantik itu Luka’—which can be translated ‘Beauty is a Wound’ (this is perhaps the most obvious translation), but could also be translated ‘How Beautiful—Wounds’. Indeed, the novel insists, in the tale it tells and in its telling of the tale, that it is in the unsightly and gaping exposure of what underlies the surface where what we should call beauty is truly to be found. Comparisons to other world authors that play up the beauty of Eka’s writing may be harmless enough—as long as they don’t prevent us from pressing on to the raw flesh beneath.