On Eka Kurniawan

Cover00Hilary Plum at Bookforum:

There is something deeply affecting about Kurniawan’s portrayal of the women in his novels, whom he lets us see at first through others’ oft-dismissive eyes—the prostitute; the timid, abused wife and mother—but who then assume their place at the story’s center, commanding the fullest empathy. In translation, Kurniawan’s mode of politically incisive fabulism may place him in the company of such writers as George Saunders and Kate Bernheimer—the latter, especially, shares his focus on the violence of women’s lives, as refracted through the lens of fairytale.

Like other great fabulists, Kurniawan has ducked the conventions of E. M. Forster’s classic distinction between “round” and “flat” characters, avoiding the focus on individual psychology that has dominated the tradition of the novel in English. With his keen sense of voice and perspective, combined with a freedom from realism and bold use of exaggeration, he is able to portray collective as well as individual experience, to make both at once the subject of his fiction. In interviews, Kurniawan has discussed how the form and tone ofBeauty Is a Wound was influenced by the all-night shadow-puppet performances known aswayang. To read it is to be reminded that while the novel may be a solitary form—born of one experience of solitude, and offering another—the folktale is always communal. The audience gathers round, and the story must bind them there together, tell them who they are to one another. What good fortune that English-speaking readers may now find ourselves enchanted, confronted, and perhaps transformed by Kurniawan’s work.

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