‘Man Tiger’ by Eka Kurniawan (Review)

IMG_5346After my trio of reviews back in October celebrating Indonesia’s role as guest of honour at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, I fully intended to look at some more of the country’s fiction.  Unfortunately (!) my efforts with German Literature Month got in the way of that idea, but now that November is finished, I’m free to look at some more non-Teutonic works.  So, back to Indonesia we go, and first up is a writer we encountered not too long ago, with a familiar, but shocking, story of love and death – and the animal nature of both…

*****
Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound is an epic early novel, but while his follow up, Man Tiger (translated by Labodalih Sembiring, review copy courtesy of Verso Books), is a much shorter story, it’s recognisably the work of the same writer.  Again, the story is set in provincial Indonesia and focuses on women, sex, violence, and supernatural happenings.  Where it is a little different, though, is in how much darker and grittier Man Tiger is.

As was the case with the earlier book, the reader is given no time to ease into Kurniawan’s world – the action starts on line one:

“On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.”
p.1 (Verso Books, 2015)

We’re immediately thrown into the middle of chaotic scenes in a small town, quickly finding out that the rumours are true.  Margio, a well-known local youth, has murdered a respectable local man, who also happens to be the father of his girlfriend.

In searching for motives, most people quickly draw the conclusion that an argument about Maharani, Anwar Sadat’s youngest daughter, is to blame.  Initially, though, the focus is on the crime itself, a particularly gruesome one with no weapon involved, merely the youth’s teeth.  It’s almost as if there was an animal inside him, waiting to burst out…

This initial interest in the violence of the act soon gives way to the backstory, however.  Kurniawan takes us back to Margio’s youth, where we first encounter the symbolic heart of the novel, a female white tiger.  Margio hears about this rural superstition, an inherited spirit, from his grandfather, who later bequeaths the spirit to Margio (skipping over the father).  Perhaps the reason for this is that Margio’s father is not a nice man at all…

The backstory then takes us further into the past, now looking at the start of Margio’s parents marriage.  What follows is a story of neglect and abuse, with the wife seeking fulfilment elsewhere.  At this point, there is a subtle shift in emphasis; what started as a baffling murder case slowly evolves into a complex social entanglement.  The true focus of the novel is on a doomed marriage which will have tragic, far-reaching consequences.

One way of reading Man Tiger would be as a commentary on Indonesian society.  Kurniawan paints a bleak picture of the rural situation, showing bored kids messing around before leaving to find work elsewhere.  He also looks at arranged marriages in a predominantly Muslim region and the complex relationship between men and women.  It’s true that the men show the objects of their affection plenty of respect during the courtship; however, after the wedding this behaviour is replaced by domination and beatings…

This is just one of the similarities with the themes of Beauty is a Wound, and others which stand out are the exaggerated beauty of the women, the rural setting and the supernatural touches:

“They would never forget that evening, because it was the first time they touched.  In the dark, sat on a plank bench, they held hands.  Not squeezing, just holding, and that was enough to make them sizzle as if a fire had been lit in their bellies.  That night they went home and both dreamt of being bitten by a snake.” (p.94)

In my review of the earlier book, I touched on the Gabriel García Márquez influences, and Man Tiger also shows hints of the Colombian writer’s work.  The opening line, for example, is reminiscent of the way García Márquez started some of his works (Chronicle of a Death Foretold is one which instantly comes to mind…).

Another area where there is a link between the two book is in the way the story is constructed.  Each chapter seems to take the reader further into the past, and even within the chapter, we seem to be travelling backwards, always starting with consequences before looking for causes.  This was something I noticed several times while reading Beauty is a Wound, but it’s even clearer here.  The only criticism I would level at the writer is that, for me, the ending then comes as an anti-climax.  The novel cleverly comes full circle, but having already told us everything, the book seems to run out of gas just before the finish line…

Still, Man Tiger is an accomplished novel, well written with excellent work by Sembiring.  The story flows along nicely, and it’s never less than a pleasure to read (well, with the possible exception of the gory jugular scenes…).  There’s also an introduction by writer Benedict Anderson, in which the case is made for Kurniawan’s development as a writer between Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger.

While for me the earlier book is the better one, a far more ambitious work, in some ways I agree.  As Anderson says, in this novel Kurniawan’s writing is more controlled, with less exaggeration, and the use of the supernatural is restricted and telling, giving it a larger impact when it arrives.  A good example of this is Margio’s explanation of his crime:

“It wasn’t me,” he said calmly and without guilt.  “There is a tiger inside my body.” (p.35)

Metaphorical or not, Kurniawan weaves his tale so skillfully that we believe every word…

7 thoughts on “‘Man Tiger’ by Eka Kurniawan (Review)

  1. As a semi-retired prof of comparative literature, I have to commend you on your honest and sincere reviews. I do enjoy them and it helps me decide whether a book is worth reading. I was in Bali this year for the first and only time probably, but still can’t decide whether to read this writer. I am a person who has to shut her eyes at the violence in movies a lot, so don’t know if I could take the gore, though I would like to know more about the people of Indonesia.

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    1. Violeta – Thanks for the kind words🙂 Kurniawan’s work is definitely worth a try; however, the little Indonesian literature I’ve read recently (six books from five different writers) is all rooted in the country’s traumatic recent history. As a result, you will find a lot of disturbing scenes…

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  2. As an Indonesian, I feel so ashamed not to know any of Eka Kurniawan’s works. I really need to include one of his novels as my priority reading on 2016. Thanks for the review though..

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