by Eka Kurniawan
This wonderful novel by contemporary Indonesian author, Eka Kerniawan, is a breath of fresh air. Part family epic, part magical realism, part political commentary, this book cannot be easily pigeonholed. It is difficult to compare it to other books, but perhaps that is because it is the first Indonesian novel I have read. Despite being half-Indonesian, I cannot understand Bahasa Indonesian and let’s just say there are not many Indonesian authors being translated to English then appearing on a prominent shelf in my local book store.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but I’m pleased to say it was well worth it. The tale is intriguing from the outset when the protagonist, a former prostitute named Dewi Ayu, rises from her grave and walks home from the cemetery in her burial shroud.
Kurniawan weaves fantastical scenarios in a riveting fable-like narrative. The stories revolve around the lives of Dewi Ayu, her three exceedingly beautiful daughters and later, her last daughter, Beauty, a child more ugly than sin and the cause of Dewi Ayu’s death.
The concept of female beauty conquering the most powerful of men is subversive in itself in the religious environment of modern Indonesia. The three main male characters are deeply flawed political figures, all of whom are pitiful sexual deviants. On the other hand, the three generations of women hold power in their beauty and sexuality, but can be construed as ambiguous in their acceptance of arranged marriages to older men they don’t love.
There is much more to it than that and the book educates us in Indonesian historical events leading up to its independence in 1945. We are taken through Dutch colonial rule, the Second World War, Japanese occupation and communist uprising in Indonesia.
There are many weird occurrences in this book: women flying away, dogs turning into humans and vice versa, a woman wearing a chastity garment locked by black magic. In this there can be some comparison to Murakami’s novels, where magical events happen in the ordinary comings and goings of the cast.
It all makes for a very entertaining read. Something very different and spellbinding in Kurniawan’s narrative and his humorous prose keeps you hooked until the end.