Pulp fiction from one of Indonesia’s most important young writers.
Beauty Is a Wound (2015), Kurniawan’s English-language debut, was vast in scope and boldly executed. It was rude and brutal, but it was also funny and beautiful. This newly translated novel is simply rude and brutal. The carnage and acts of sexual assault in the first book were starkly depicted, but they were also imbued with a fabulist sensibility. The author was exploring the violent history of his country through a folkloric lens and using the language and modes of pop culture to make it immediate. He seems to be trying to do something similar here, but the results are much closer to Man Tiger (2015) than to the earlier work. Both latter novels are spare and quick rather than epic, and the fact that they’re short, at least, is good. The protagonist of this latest book is a young man whose impotence is his most defining feature. Ajo Kiwar’s flaccid penis is both a private struggle and a public fact. There are many scenes of Ajo Kiwar trying to rouse his flaccid penis and many moments in which he talks to and consults with his flaccid penis. Ajo Kiwar’s flaccid penis is the first thing that comes to the minds of his friends and acquaintances when they think of him, and it is the subject of much of the book’s dialogue. Even when he’s at his best, character development is not one of Kurniawan’s strengths. The mythic qualities of Beauty Is a Wound made up for this lack of depth; the characters there were real people but also archetypes and figures from fairy tales. Ajo Kiwar is just flat and uninteresting, and none of the other characters are much more compelling—not even the sexy lady bodyguard who falls in love with him after they beat each other soundly. There’s a lot of rape in this novel, and it feels even more gratuitous than many murders.
Tedious, and unpleasantly so.