Book review

Lyrical, bawdy, experimental, political: There aren’t enough adjectives for this novel

A young man within whom lurks a white tigress. No, really.

Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger (2015) is almost a literary child of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). However, this does not mean that it lacks originality. Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016, Man Tiger is as much a crime novel as it is social critique.

Like Kurniawan’s first novel, Beauty is a Wound (2002), Man Tiger is set in an unnamed Indonesian township near the Indian Ocean. The central protagonist of the novel is Margio, a young man possessed by a white tigress. The tigress, “white as a swan and vicious as an ajak”, is an inheritance from Margio’s grandfather. The first line of the novel introduces the central event of the narrative. It reads: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.” In five neat chapters, the novel takes its readers on a quest, re-living the events that lead to the crime and introducing the characters that are variedly involved in it.

Time has stopped

One of the most compelling things about the novel is its engagement with time. The first chapter opens in the present day; the subsequent chapters take the reader back to Margio’s childhood and further back to his parents’ days of courtship; and the final chapter returns to the present. However, it is rarely as simple as that. Time in the novel expands and contracts, the past flows into the present and the present often harks back to the past. At one point, the novel announces, “Time has stopped.” Time, like memory, flows but never in a perfectly linear fashion.

Repetition or repeated emphasis is another way in which the novel engages with time. The narrator takes the reader back to the past, traces the events that led to the present, and emphasises the present by repetition. Time stops when Margio kills Anwar Sadat, the central event of the present that is constantly emphasised.

A repository of culture

The purpose of taking the reader back and forth in time is also to present a picture of the cultural milieu in which Kurniawan’s characters are embedded. In this regard, the motif of mythology and story-telling is especially significant. Benedict Anderson, in the “Introduction” to the novel, writes that Kurniawan established an early connection to literature through the stories of his grandmother and an old lady of his village. One can see the influence of these stories and village histories in both Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger.

The story of the white tigress, the narrator of Man Tiger informs us, is one of the “many stories [that were] passed between successive storytellers across the generations.” Culture, as defined by the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, is a collective memory bank of people’s experiences in history. These experiences are narrated and transmitted across generations through personal and collective stories. It is often through these multiple narratives that people perceive their identities in a culture. Kurniawan’s novel is one such narrative; it is a repository of the culture of a small Indonesian township.

Social critique

However, Man Tiger does not present an idealised picture of this culture. Far from it. It lays bare the atrocities that are encoded in society; atrocities that more often than not find a meeting point in the marginalised figures of women in the narrative. The crime itself is a result of oppressive societal codes. Kurniawan shows how the crime not only interlinks two tormented families but also tears them apart. As individuals who uncritically adhere to the codes, the characters in the novel become accomplices in the crime that Margio commits.

One can also read Margio’s crime as an act of rebellion against the encoded norms. This reading is especially valid if one considers the white tigress as a spirit of rebellion, which it was when Margio’s grandfather was possessed by it. The narrator tells us that Margio had heard stories of his grandfather’s prowess and how his elders had resisted the Dutch efforts to abduct young men for forced labour. This passing comment gives a political context to the novel and allows the reader to see Margio as a hero.

Man Tiger is a short and stunning piece of work, the credit for which goes to both the author and the translator, Labodalih Sembiring. The novel does contain brutal and violent scenes of sexual assault and marital rape. If you feel triggered by such scenes, perhaps this novel is not for you.

Man Tiger, Eka Kurniawan, translated from the Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring, Speaking Tiger.

Nidhi Mahajan is a postgraduate student of English Literature at the University of Delhi.

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