Published: May 24, 2021

Asian reflections on trauma and healing:  1965 massacres in Indonesia, excerpt from novel Beauty is a Wound (New Directions, 2015) by Eka Kurniawan, translated from Indonesian by Annie Tucker. 
CAS Advisory Council Member Stanley Harsha offers this translated excerpt.

In 1965-66, the Indonesian army led a massacre that killed an estimated 500,000 Indonesians, accompanied by widespread rape, torture and imprisonment without trial. The army officers who led this purge were largely trained in the U.S. and the U.S. government supported the army in these actions, amidst the climate of the Cold War and threat of communism in Southeast Asia. The target of these massacres were communists, but in reality this was a bloodbath against all ethnic Indonesian Chinese, socialists, scholars, writers, artists, and anyone subject to vendettas.  Eka Kurniawan vividly describes a vignette of that massacre in this excerpt from his first novel, Beauty is a Wound. In this excerpt, a gravedigger’s romance with a young woman is interrupted by massacred villagers dumped at his graveyard, until mass graves supplant burial sites. This depiction is an accurate portrayal of what happened across Indonesia in 1965. This novel continues in later chapters to depict how the village heals from the massacre—the local communist commando’s life is spared by the military commander, romance survives, and the commando raises a family. 

The Indonesian version of Beauty is a Wound, Cantik Itu Luka, was discovered gathering dust in a library by an American translator, Annie Tucker, who recognized its magnificence even though the novel was a flop in Indonesia. She asked a surprised Kurniawan for permission to translate it. From this translation, which was longlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award, the book gained immediate international recognition, winning the 2016 World Readers Award and a finalist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote, “Kurniawan’s story of an undead woman had morphed into the story of modern Indonesia, an epic novel critics are more wont to compare to One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Canterbury Tales.”  Written in a distinctly Indonesian style of magic realism, Kurniawan brings to life Indonesian history from Dutch colonial times to modern times, told in the story of a beautiful prostitute and her four daughters, and drawing from Indonesian folktales and superstitions. Emerging as arguably Southeast Asia’s most gifted novelist, Kurniawan has gone on to write a series of unique haunting and satirical novels, several of which have been translated.  

Eka Kurniawan

Eka Kurniawan

Excerpt from Beaty is a Wound, 2015, New Directions Press, by Indonesian writer Eka Kurniwan.

This love story was slightly disrupted by a busy afternoon. Five people had been killed in a clash between communists and anti-communists. There were four communists and one anti-communist and Kamino had to bury them all. He soon realized that more and more corpses were going to arrive at that cemetery, and that these days would mark the inevitable downfall of the Communist Party. He knew this from the numbers of dead. He dug five new graves, four in one corner for the communists, and one in another corner where the regular folks were buried. Five dead people, each with their kinsmen crying over their graves, and short speeches from the Party leaders, consumed all his time until the afternoon. But while he was busy, Farida didn’t go anywhere. She sat all day beside her father’s grave, just as she had done the day before.

“I am willing to bet,” said Kamino to Farida after his work was done and he was walking back to the house to wash up, “that tomorrow ten more communists will die.”

“If it gets to be too much,” said Farida, “bury them in one mass grave. On the seventh day there might be as many as nine hundred dead communists—there’s no way you can dig that many graves.”

“I just hope their children aren’t as foolish as you,” said Kamino. “Because to feed them I’d have to throw a banquet.”

“Tonight, may I be your guest?”

That question took Kamino off guard, so he could only respond with a nod. Farida prepared their dinner, and after eating they once again called a spirit: none other than Mualimin, of course, and Farida could once again have a nice chat with her dad. This continued until nine o’clock at night, when it was time to go to bed. Farida got the room that used to belong to Kamino’s mother and father, while he slept in the same room he had slept in since he was a child.

The next day, Kamino and Farida’s predictions came true—early in the morning twelve communists died. This time there were no eulogies by Party leaders, because the situation was dire. There was talk that DN Aidit and the leaders of the Communist Party had in fact been executed. The twelve communist corpses were thrown into the cemetery without ceremony. He didn’t know their names. And even though he only dug one big grave for twelve corpses, it was a busy day for Kamino because at noon the military truck reappeared and tossed out eight more corpses. Then in the afternoon he got seven more. 

Farida sat at her father’s grave, and when night fell she was Kamino’s guest, while he was still busy with the onslaught of corpses. And that’s how it went until the seventh day.
While most Communist Party sympathizers had gone running, more than one thousand communists still held out against the mob of soldiers and anti-communists at the end of Jalan Meredeka. Some of them shouldered old weapons, with severely limited ammunition. Besieged for one day and one night, they were very hungry but not willing to surrender. The stores in the area had already been destroyed and all the inhabitants had fled. Heavily armed soldiers surrounded them from all directions, and their commander had ordered the communists to disperse, telling them with a shrill voice that the Party had been finished from the moment their coup failed. But one thousand or more communists still held out. 

As dusk approached, a few of them took shots at the soldiers. But their bullets wounded no one. The commander finally lost his patience and ordered his men to shoot. Hit from all sides, communists collapsed in the street. Those who had not yet been killed ran about in a blind panic, knocking one another down, before the bullets killed them off one by one. That afternoon, in one quick massacre, one thousand two hundred and thirty-two communists died, bringing an end to the history of the Communist Party in that city, and the entire country. 

The corpses were heaved onto trucks, more and more, packed like stacks in a slaughterhouse transport, and a convoy of those corpse-filled trucks headed for Kamino’s house. That day was the man’s busiest day of all. He had to dig an extremely large pit—by the middle of the night he still wasn’t done, only finishing up with the help of some soldiers as dawn broke. He kept hoping that the communists would surrender, so that no more corpses would appear and he could finally rest. Through all this, Farida stayed with him, waiting for him, preparing his food, and sitting beside her father’s grave.

That morning, after the troops and their trucks had gone and one thousand two hundred and thirty-two communist corpses had been buried in one mass grave, Kamino, who hadn’t slept but still looked full of energy, approached Farida, who’d been there for almost an entire week, and asked:

“My lady, would you like to come live with me and be my wife?”

Farida knew that it was her destiny to accept that man. So that morning, after they’d bathed and put on their finest clothes, they went to the village headman and asked to be married. They became husband and wife and went on their honeymoon to Farida’s old house.

This meant there was no gravedigger on duty that day, but that was no problem, because the army troops had grown tired of bringing all the communist corpses to the graveyard and having to help the gravedigger dig mass graves. After all, some of those communists had been killed by regular army troops but most of them had been killed by anti-communists—carrying machetes and swords and sickles and whatever else could be used to kill—who had left their corpses at the side of the road to rot. The city of Halimunda was now filled with corpses sprawled out in the irrigation channels and on the outskirts of the city, in the foothills and on the riverbanks, in the middle of bridges and under bushes. Most of them had been killed as they tried to escape.

Not everyone had been killed, however. Some had surrendered and had been thrown into local jails and the military prisons before being brought to Bloedenkamp, the delta’s most terrifying prison. Interrogations lasted for hours, ending with the promise that they’d be continued the following day. Some would die there, starved or beaten to death. Communists still on the loose were savagely hunted down, even deep into the jungle.

Kurniawan, Eka. Beauty Is a Wound (pp. 281-282). New Directions. Kindle Edition.