In Suspicion of Beauty: On Eka Kurniawan – Sydney Review of Books, 2016

“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.”

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“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.”

Read the full essay.