I love a good opening sentence; a sentence which surprises, intrigues and with just a few words draws the reader into the story. Eka Kurniawan’s novel, Man Tiger, opens with such a sentence: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.” Enough to reel me into this tale of love, revenge and hate; a story of past injustices and present inequalities, a crime novel investigating not who-did it but why.
Although barely longer than 170 pages, Kurniawan’s novel is epic in scale, both in its emotional ambition and its attempt to present a panoramic view of Indonesian provincial society encapsulated in the nameless seaside town in which the story plays out with the precision of a Greek tragedy.
Kurniawan takes great care in in establishing the setting of his story in the first chapter. The gruesome murder is his trigger to paint a picture of the town, replete with a cocao plantation and closed brick factory, a drink stall on the edge of soccer pitch and a mosque. A place where we can catch glimpses of Indonesia’s colonial past – a rusted Samurai sword the Japanese occupying forces left behind, the old Dutch colonial mansion – and where life has returned to normality after the brutal anti-communist purges of the 1960s that established the so-called “New Order” regime under President Suharto. It is a backwater where the annual visit by the circus and the occasionally open air cinema put on by a herbal tonic company provide the highlights in an otherwise uneventful public life.
After this widescreen opening, Kurniawan closes in on the main characters and in a series of flashback leading up to the murder unveils the backstory that led to the shocking, violent act that opened the book. The novel turns into a tale of two families whose fates tragically intertwine as the plot travels back in time and comes full circle to end with the murder that marked its beginning.
There is the family of Anwar Sadat, wannabe artist and womaniser, who married well and by virtue of being a landowner is a man of independent means. In contrast, Margio’s family, which lives next door, is poor and ruled over with an iron fist by his father, the local barber, Komar bin Suyeb.
Margio is well-known in the small town community and to everyone appears as the most unlikely of perpetrators – a kindly young man who excels in the local boar hunts but is not prone to violence. As the novel progresses and Kurniawan homes in on the character, a more complex emotional picture emerges, though. There is the barely suppressed rage against his abusive father, his protective feelings for his mother and sister and his longstanding connection with Anwar Sadat’s family.
His deed baffles the town folk, particularly as he not only killed Anwar but killed him in a particularly brutal manner by biting through his throat. As it turns out, Margio is not just an average young man from a difficult background, his body also plays host to a tigress, “white as a swan, vicious as an ajak.” Margio is, quite literally, a man possessed.
The way Kurniawan weaves this mythical aspect of his character into the plot has quickly earned him the label of magical realist and it is not difficult to see why. The tiger is introduced without breaking the otherwise realistic narrative style – it is not a myth or legend but lived reality handed down through generations.
I have often found the magical realism tag problematic, particularly now after having lived in Vietnam – a country where the worship of ancestors and the latest iPhone happily co-exist. The problem with magical realism tends to be that it turns the lived reality of people for whom the presence of the supernatural in ordinary life represents normality into something exotic. There is a danger that it universalises a European point-of-view where fantasy and what is perceived as real world are neatly separated.
Kurniawan’s considerable skill as a writer lies in the fact that he can both describe his world in rich sensory detail and avoid a certain folksiness that mars the lesser books in the magical realist tradition. The accessibility of his novel as a universal tale is based in parts on the ambivalence with which the “tigress” is presented. Like all good images it allows for multiple readings. It can be seen as both part of the realistic narrative and as a metaphor, it is culture-specific but doesn’t require a deep understanding of Indonesian mythology for it to work in the context of the novel. And, it is a strong, unique image that breathes life into the hackneyed notion that under the thin veneer of normality, there always lurks the potential for violence.
The “white tigress” enriches but doesn’t dominate this enthralling story of how a combination of powerlessness, entitlement and desire sets its protagonists on an inescapable path towards self-destruction.
Eka Kurniawan. Man Tiger (Translated from the Bahasa Indonesian by Lelaki Harimau), Verso