Man Tiger (Eka Kurniawan, 2015)

Eka Kurniawan tells a story of a great rage

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015
Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

The Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan reverts to old folk beliefs in the novel ‘Man Tiger’. It covers not only a psychological drama but also many layers of his native culture.

One day the young Margio jumps to his neighbor Anwar Sadat and bites him in his throat. The victim is quickly bled. When one finds Anwar Sadat in south Java, a Batik cloth is spread over him.

Chronology of a crime

The act of violence, which is at the end of a long process, is already known from the first sentence. But how did it happen? How did Margio, who was considered to be quiet and polite, had let himself be carried away to such an act? This is what the Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan explains in his two hundred high-voltage pages: It is the story of an anger that has grown over the years and  can no longer to be overcome. The author spews the rage through the narrator, who knows the thoughts and feelings of all involved figures and therefore understands the motives for their actions. Or is it perhaps a narrator – Ma Maah, the village councilor who knows all the stories of the environment? She has a short appearance in the novel, and the realistic, precise and sensitive portrayal of an especially female inner world in the novel that seems to comes uncontrollably from the narrator. All of this is ultimately attributable to the 40-year-old Eka Kurniawan, whose psychological perception and linguistic expressiveness is quite extraordinary.

As pointedly as he describes the thinking and experience of his characters, he also so confidently structures his story, which approaches Margio’s violence  circularly and inconspicuously. He describes how, over the years, Margio developed a great hatred for his violent father. Like his once beautiful mother, who after only a few years of marriage, became a shadow of old herself. How she becomes pregnant in the house of Anwar Sadat, but the baby is lost shortly after birth. In a choreographed step by step sequence, the circumstances under which Anwar Sadat came to his death are clarified. In doing so, the author succeeds in revealing the crucial impulse for Margio’s attack forcefully in the very last sentences of the novel.

Margio declares that he has not committed the murder on his own, but the tiger who lives in him.

Kurniawan based his character on Man Tigers who are still alive in his Western Javanese homeland. In Margio’s family, for example, many men were married to an imaginary tiger next to their bourgeois marriage. Margio accepts him from his grandfather and gives his name for the first time in the prayer house. There the animal lays next to him and then slips into his body. This union can be read as folk mythology, but also as a metaphor for a psychological process. It is the depiction of an incarnation which canot be divorced from danger: what if a man cannot restrain the wild power of his tiger?

Almost as blasphemous is the fact that Kurniawan wrote how Margio and the Tiger were merged inside an Islamic prayer house. In fact, the author often underscores the Islamic village day, which not only covers the muezzins’ call and regular prayers, but also beer at the snack bar and sex in the cocoa shop. However, these injections by Kurniawan are not only simple provocations. Rather, he tries to free up cultural depths, which celebrate joyful life under the Islamic surface.

Tigers, ghosts, Hindu gods

For example, the statue of the Sunda King Siliwangi, who once retired with his people into the forest because his son had converted to Islam, is prominent in the village. They all turned into tigers when they lived in the forest. There are also are pagan spirits roaming the minarets in the village, on the land and on the water, which are as familiar to Margo as the figures of Hindu mythology. Hinduism had existed in Java for a thousand years before Islam entered during the fifteenth century. Although a Muslim, Margio compares himself through his inner tiger to the Hindu God Krishna, who could also turn from anger into the giant Brahala.

Fortunately, there have been more translations for Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, “Beauty Is a Wound”, this 2017. “Man Tiger” will no doubt follow suit. It is strongly recommended for reading: The novel has historical depth, is cleverly composed and also grotesquely funny. The English translation conveys this adeptly. The novel is a masterpiece.  Imagine, how this used to be hidden in a small publishing house!

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

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