Eka Kurniawan’s Comrade Kliwon as metaphor in Beauty is a Wound.
I propose this is an aspect of the novel that is worth exploring as an instance wherein the author crafts the philosophical underpinning of the story of the birth and growth of Indonesia (see Appendix for a brief summary), a country sold into prostitution by the forces that march history, and how the worldview of the nation is shaped primarily by the pathological condition metaphored by prostitution.
In the protagonist Dewi Ayu the portrait of the new nation as prostitute and in Conrad Kliwon (Chapter 7) the life force that tried to save the nation from being forever being a whore. I find this notion of ethos and pathos “worldview of the tragic-existentialism” recurring, in a story elegantly waved with elements of mystical magical Javanese symbolism, well-controlled plot yet presented in the genre of Time-Space-collapse, inspired by the complexity of the sub-plots of the Ramayana and Mahabharatta, the elements of the Theatre of the Absurd or French surrealistic/symbolic/Absurdist theatre, some elements of Javanese syncretist thinking, and most importantly in the tradition of the spirit of Raden Adjeng Kartini the legendary feminist-educator-liberator of the mind, the voice given to women, perhaps true to the idea of “motherland” or “ibu pertiwi” in which women hold more than half of the Earth at every epoch in history — these are the broad techniques and themes employed in crafting “Beauty is a Wound.”
Indeed, I believe, the title signifies the pathos associated with being beautiful, or even exotically and ecstatically and even more so, in this story the exhilaratingly erotically beautiful, as beautiful as the prostitute Dewi Ayu, who, like young and prideful Java and later Indonesia was relegated to become a prostitute to the Dutch, and later to the Japanese, and later to her own “nationalists” and much later by the military-regime-turned civilian-rule of General Suharto.
Thus, the portrait of Indonesia as prostitute whose savior is Communism, the latter destroyed by the purge which saw the mass graves of hundreds of thousands of communists killed by the US-CIA backed General Suharto. So that colonialism can continue in newer but less visible form. In the novel, pride led to suicide of the communist leader, Comrade Kliwon.
In my close readings of this seminal chapter on the metaphoring and chronicling of the mega-change of Indonesia, albeit through the prostitutionalizing of the nation, I draw instances of Eka Kurniawan’s use of the philosophizing-chronolizing device, in chracterizing Comrad Kliwon, as literary device and subtext.
Reminiscence of the writing of the once 14-year-imprisoned-50s-writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer (“Prem”) in seminal works such as Keluarga Gerilya, Bumi Manusia, Cerita dari Blora — those that presented the point of view of the revolutionary fighters of Indonesia a.k.a the “communists” — Eka Kurniawan’s characterization of Conrad Kliwon is one of sympathy in tone of the Marxists and the Communists, as if continuing the legacy of “Prem” or Pramodeya.
Throughout, the classic arguments of the International Workers of the World and the Marxist-Leninist Third International is revisited, giving today’s readers a reminder of what was Indonesian history about and how the struggles between the natives, the nationalists, the communists, and even the Islamists, overseen like a panopticon and synopticon of imperialism (Dutch, Japanese American) continue to define the theme of emerging nation-states such as Indonesia. And like a cycle of human and social progress, there is the high and low tide of revolutionary waves of change in all its bloody and bloodless consequences. Eka Kurniawan attempted to present a history lesson of the birth of Indonesia, as how Salman Rushdie skillfully did with the birth of India and Pakistan in his novel Midnight’s Children.
In Eka Kurniawan’s work, to be beautiful is to be cursed and raped as to be Indonesia is to be exploited and ravaged and raped as well. To be raped then leads to be giving birth to deformities and monstrosities, as in the march of history and the inevitability of the perpetual birth of civilizational insanity.
“No one knew how Comrade Kliwon ended up becoming a communist youth, because even though he had never been rich, he’d always been a hedonist.” (pg. 161).
Herein lie the thesis of this chapter in Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound that tells the story of Indonesia during the formative years of becoming a republic, of what I call “the portrait of modern Indonesia as prostitute” (with apologies to James Joyce’s “portrait of the artist as a young man” and the Filipino playwright Nick Joaquin’s “portrait of the artist as Filipino.”
He led a gang of marauding neighborhood kids, stealing whatever they could get their hands on for their own enjoyment: coconuts, logs, or a handful of cacao beans than could be eaten on the spot. One night before Eid, they would steal a chicken and roast it, and then the next day they would find the chicken’s owner to ask for forgiveness. (pg. 161)
There is a sense of foreshadowing of what the nature of transformation the young man, later Comrade Kliwon is to undergo, leading the way to his fascination with Marxism and later to be a member of the Indonesian Communist Party, the seeds of the metamorphosis could be shown in the idea that Kliwon is a thief yet with a conscience, in which perhaps in the idea of the march of socialism towards Communism via the global agenda of the Third International, the rationale of stealing from the rich and taking away their property is clear: destroy capitalism and say that it an inevitable historical progress or the march of history in order for the perfect Communist state to emerge as a “kingdom of god”, a modern supra-trans-millinearistic movement guided by the Hegelian-philosophy- inverted, served by the philosophy of history conjured by Marx (and Engels). (see historical and dialectical materialism as fundamental twin concepts of Marxism and Praxis.) Here the author, Eka Kurniawan is giving the readers a history lesson on the influence of Communist ideas in Indonesia, at the onset of Independence.
His mother, Mina– not wanting the same thing to happen to him as had has happened to his father– tried to distance him from crazy Marxist ideas and anything associated with them, and didn’t care what he did as long as he didn’t end up communist. She sends him to the movies and music concerts, and let him get drunk at the beer garden and buy records, and was perfectly happy with him hanging out with a lot of young girls. She knew that her son has slept with them but she didn’t care. From her point of view, that was better than someday having to see him stand in front of a firing squad, about to be executed. ‘Even if he does become a communist, I want him to be a happy communist,’ said the mother. (pgs. 162-163)
I like the passage above. It is both hilarious and serious. There is so much detail on the process of social transformation embedded, from a Freudian psychoanalytical-ideological perspective. Kliwon’s mother, needless to say, is well versed with “how not to turn a child into communist” and if one reads the underlying underpinning of the statements on the “hows” of cultural transformations, there are perspectives from Critical Theory in the tradition of the circa-Weimer-Republic Frankfurt School theorizing on society: of the work of Theodor Adorno on cultural industry. on the fetishness of enslaved-originated-arts-form of jazz serving the bourgeoisie class, and the study of the authoritarian personality, of Jurgen Habermas’s one-dimensional man, on Althusser’s deconstructing of state into “ideological apparatuses,” on the cultural analyses of Walter Benjamin and Raymond Williams — and so on and so forth. These are the hidden theoretical-treasures of Marxist critique, the writer Eka Kurniawan is teasing the read of Beauty is a Wound with; a vast body of knowledge on the critique of capitalism and culture buried in that passage on saving Comrade Kliwon.
Kliwon was clever and sometimes his way of thinking could be surprising if not borderline insane. He once brought three of his friends to the whorehouse and they took turns sleeping with a prostitute. At first the whore encouraged them to climb up on the bed in pairs because as she said she had a hole in the front and in the back. But none of them wanted to share a hole with a piece of shit, so they just slept with her one by one. Kliwon showed himself to be a selfless leader, inviting his friends to sleep with the prostitute first, and taking the last turn. When the sex was over, the prostitute was met with the depressing sight of the three kids crashing through the door and vanishing without paying. … ‘I asked her if she liked having sex with us,’ Kliwon said recounting the story in the beer garden not long after, ‘and she said that she liked it. If she liked it and we liked it, then why should we have to pay?’ People often enjoyed hearing such stories from him. (pg.162)
Eka Kurniawan attempts to illustrate what the character morally stands for, even when doing business with a prostitute. Even in pleasure and the appeasement of lust and the commodification of passion and the turning of the body into commodity to be exchanged as utilities in a capitalist economy, there is the dimension of justice in distributing pleasure. This is a deep-play analysis in the (Clifford) Geertzian sense of (anthropological sensibility) what it means to still be human in a dehumanized world in which the voices of the oppressed — the slaves, the workers, the becak pullers, the padi farmers, the prostitutes — are loud and clear. That within the world of the silent reproduction of the human self as it passes down the conveyor belt of colonial and post-colonial capitalism lies a sense of humanism.
There is no moral argument here about prostitution and the patronaging of it but a higher moral standard presented by the character Kliwon. I am reminded by one of the greatest modern Indonesian poet WS Rendra’s poem “Prostitutes of Jakarta, Unite! / “Ayuh, bersatulah pelacur pelacur Jakarta, bersatulah” (echoing the Third International Marxist slogan of “workers of the world, unite) when we speak of the voice given to the voiceless. In larger context and a deeper analysis, herein is the idea, I propose, that the story of Dewi Ayu is the story of Indonesia as prostitute in all its glory and nobility.
In the seventeenth year … (t)he girls fell in love with him, and they showered him with gifts that piled up until the house began to resemble a junkyard. Thinking of nothing else, they held parties almost every night. His male friends also adored him, because he never kept the girls to himself. And that was how they lived. In those years, Kliwon and his friends probably had the happiest lives of anyone in the city. (pg. 163)
Herein lie the idea of hedonism and epicureanism emblematic of the decadent societies in which pluralism means the letting go of the masses to ravage each other sexually as long as the larger picture of exploitation is kept painted in newer colors of domination, and in this case, characteristic of the life of Kliwon before he met Communism. I am reminded of the Roman empire and Caligula, with his orgies and feasts of splendor, albeit in this novel the scene of seventeen-year-old fornicating and living in the pleasure dome is nowhere extravagant, nonetheless symbolic of a life of conspicuous consumption.
In this brief writing about the craft of inventing a metaphor, I have focused on Chapter 7 of the novel (pgs. 161-188) on how the character Comrade Kliwon is created to chronicle the spiritual-ideological evolution of Indonesia as a nation-state that was struggling to be free from the shackles of colonialism. Eka Kurniawan’s novel, Beauty is a Wound is about Indonesia the prostitute and how, even in her existence as a whore, there is a deeper beauty of Fate and Free Will at play, of a curse she had to live by, and in the end, it is the morality of living as a prostitute that brings the best out of the theme of the story. This statement may seem to be deeply contradictory at many levels if one does not analyze deeper what the author wishes to convey. Only in the last sentence of the 470-page novel that Kurniawan reveled the reason behind the love for the ugliest human being in the town (pg. 470), Beauty her name. In the end she is the only one who survived the epochal tragedy of epic proportion, paralleling the genealogical suffering of Indonesia as prostitute for the more than 300 years leading to Independence.
How did Eka Kurniawan craft the novel to tell the story of the power of curse: of the natives on the Dutch, the latter the rapist, the sodomizer, the enslaver, and the breeder of prostitutes (of young Javanese girls) taken from the villages? Herein lie the theme of deconstructionism, Absurdism, irony, dark humor, satire, and a Quentin-Tarantino-Bakhtinian-Grotesque-carnivalesque style of crafting of the characters as well as the narrative arc.
Kurniawan, Eka. (2015). Beauty is a Wound. Translated by Annie Tucker. (New York: New Directions)
A Brief Note on Indonesian Literature
The evolution of Indonesia literature is more exciting than that of the Malaysian, let alone Singaporean from the “thick-descriptive-Geertzian-big emotions-intensity-of-narrative arcs – because ( if we are to contend that good literature needs to show depth-of-despair, dying, and death as catharsis as opiates and dramatic eruptions) of the former’s history of such bloody and profound transformations, beginning with the ancient kingdoms, the Hindu-Buddhist political-philosophical dominance (see the wealth of literature on statecraft in Java, for example), to the war between the maritime powers, the arrival of the Dutch primarily and the establishment of Batavia (Betawi) as a trading post of the Dutch East India Company, to the more than 300-year enslavement of the Javanese and others by the Dutch, to the arrival of the British in the area and the struggle of the colonial powers, to the demise of the kingdoms, and the arrival of the Japanese to the intent to build and Indonesia Raya with the passion and collaboration shown by Achmed Soekarno and Hatta via the Nipponization of Indonesia and of course Soekarno’s campaign of “Ganyang Malaysia “_Crush Malaysia), to the surrender of the Japanese surrender after the loss of the Axis Power of Germany-Italy-Japan, to the complex and bloody struggle for Indonesian independence and next, even bloodier, the CIA-backed Suharto massacre of more than half a million Indonesians in a purge against so-called “Communists” so that General Suharto the “Bapak Judistira”, fashioned after the story of the Five Pandawas, can help the Americans siphon oil money out of Indonesia with the advise of the “Berkeley-Mafia” economists of the Kennedy Era …. the rest is history, right till today, Indonesia is blessed with a Heavy-Metal Metallica-loving president Bapak Jokowi who plays the bass guitar for a Metallica-inspired band …. such exciting history of the Muslim-fundamentalist strong and perhaps South-East-Asia endangering country bent towards ISIS … such fine historical evolution of the dialectics of social change that Indonesia’s literary evolution, from the time of the enculturalization of the Ramayana to the age of the wayang and the “Islamization of the Ramayana” to the emergence of the poets and prose writers of Peojangga Baroe (Pujangga Baru) or the primacy of Takdir Ali Syahbana, Boeya Hamka, and the emergence next of the fiery writers of LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat) of Prameodya Ananta Toer, of the 50s (which influenced the birth of Malaya’s ASAS 50 (Kassim Ahmad was one its pioneers), to the literary force provided by Chairil Anwar and next came the 60s Hippie-Days poetry of WS Rendra, prose of Putu Widjaya, the stories of urban life weaved by Muchtar Lubis, Sutarji Calzoum Bachri, and the emergence of the writers of the 80s such as Supardi Djoko Damono and as time and literary periods proceed, responding to the temper of the day we see more and more exciting writers who still, like their forefathers such as the Rimbaud-influenced-existentialist poet Chairil Anwar, these new modern writers, singing the rock songs of Achmed Akbar of the prog-rock band God Bless or the radical tunes of internationally-acclaimed public-rocker-intellectual Iwan Fals, these new and equally fiery writers so to speak, write as if they “write in blood, write naked, and write in exile” … about the things around them. And then we have Eka Kurniawan, an interesting new blood bringing a new perspective of radicalism.
A Melancholic Note:
I took a deep breath, after finishing my reading of Eka Kurniawan’s mystical-magical-historical-satirical fiction Beauty is a Wound (Cantik Itu Luka). Closed my eyes for a few minutes to first let a cognitive map of the style, form, and craft emerge, and next allow the memory of my childhood growing up in the village in which the Javanese culture (although I am partly Bugis whose ancestry goes back directly-seven-generations to Raja Haji the rebel rouser of Sulawesi) is a dominant feature of the inhabitants of my village in Majidee Johor Bahru.
Although the 470-page novel is a translation, I did not find the story a “lost-in-translation” piece of work. I am all too familiar with the setting and the context of how the characters operate albeit having to work harder in thinking about the culture of the Soekarno era.
Words such as “dukun”, “orkes Melayu”, “preman”, “becak” and a few others used in the translated version brought me back to the enriching and enchanting worldview of the Indonesian-Malays primarily of the Javanese, and more word-associations formed in my mental image vis-a-viz the story, momentarily taking me away from another culture — the American culture — that has become part of me after spending more than half of my life in it. The shifting of worldviews, of one culture to another was smooth and even poignant and nostalgic as I emerge out of the literary world build by the author. Nostalgic in the sense that the elements of Javanese and Malay magic — of divining, spirit possession, spiritual healing with mantras in old Javanese and Arabic combined, and of the rites, rituals, tools of work and play used by the “dukun” (spiritual healer), of the cultural practices of healing (or even voodoo-ing) — these brings back fond memories of those vicarious moments of learning as well as of immersing myself in the hidden and informal out-of-class curriculum of my life-long learning experience. In short, from a very young age, I was immersed, like a little postmodern flanuer, in my fascination with Malay-Javanese mysticism — elements that shape and color Eka Kurniawan’s novel.
In fact, I wanted to have the power of the “dukuns” and become invincible and powerful and cool and feared, as such as Si Buta Dari Gua Hantu, Si Gondrong, Mata Malaikat, and many of the movie characters of the Javanese magical-warrior class/Kshatriya class, imbued with superhuman powers. I wanted to fly invincibly and be shot with a hundred bullets of the Dutch (like my great great grandfather Raja Haji who died as such) and not die not hurt at all. I wanted to go into other people’s body and soul, and see the future, and also cast and break spells. If I were Javanese, I wanted to become the Arjuna-Krishna hybrid of the Nine Javanese saints or the Wali Songo or the Wali Sembilan: pure, pristine, and pirate-of-the-Caribbean-type of gung-ho-Shaolin masters. That type. I wanted to kill my enemies without even touching them. That cool of a warrior.
My dream as child of perhaps thirteen.
The dream of being “a beautiful warrior and wound others”! Ahaaa –beauty is a wound indeed.
Herein lie the aspect of Eka Kurniawan craft I will discuss further: crafting of the mystical into the real and into the story of vengeance whist portraying the actors as if in a Bakhtinian carnival — of the grotesque and the evil.