The Bottom Line: 'Man Tiger' By Eka Kurniawan

Eka Kurniawan's "Man Tiger," along with "Beauty Is a Wound," heralds a powerful Indonesian literary voice to watch out for.
Verso Books

Man Tiger, the title of one of Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan’s two novels to hit American shelves this fall, could be read as something of a misnomer. The tiger, a supernatural white giant of a cat, is a female, even described as “girlish” at one point. But she’s part of a pair: the man and the tiger. The man is Margio, a village boy who inherits the tiger, a mystical spirit wife, from his beloved grandfather. He and the tiger are separate, but also one; soon after she comes to him, she makes her home inside his body, only emerging in rare moments.

As readers learn in the very first pages, one of those moments turns out to be one of grotesque carnage. Margio, in an apparent moment of rage, murders his older neighbor, Anwar Sadat -- no, not the late Egyptian ruler, just a local mediocre artist and ladies’ man with a comfortable home and happy family. Rather than using a weapon, he tears through Sadat’s jugular with his own teeth.

Quickly, Margio explains, with a calm at odds with the brutality of his offense, that it was the tiger within him that drove his actions.

Whether this absolves Margio, or could possibly be true, doesn’t interest Kurniawan. The novel quickly jumps back, to unravel the tormented past of Margio’s family, as well as its relationship with Sadat’s. Margio has long threatened to kill the man who’s made the life of his family hellish, including his father, Komar, a violently abusive man who mistreated his mother Nuraeni, his sister Mameh, and his baby sister Marian, who only lived for a week. But at the Sadat home, where Margio and Nuraeni began to take on household work for extra food and money, they also found the simple comfort of being in a calm, welcoming space. Margio and one of the daughters, Maharani, became childhood sweethearts.

The horrifying crime that opens the novel seems increasingly inexplicable as the novel winds on, especially as Margio sees his family’s tiger as a blessing, a helpmate and companion, not a Mr. Hyde-esque alter ego tormenting him with its outbursts. Why kill Anwar Sadat, so suddenly, while he never follows through on killing his own father, who has caused so much harm to the family? Man Tiger unravels this mystery slowly, and then all at once.

Kurniawan’s prose holds an often-leashed power much like the tiger inside Margio; he can stun with a single sentence, like the crackling opening line of the novel or its heart-thudding concluding one. At other points, the writing plods, seeming overly explanatory and workmanlike. The retreading of Margio’s life, before returning to the days surrounding the events in question, can feel obligatory, but the glimpses back into his parents’ courtship days and marital power struggles remain grimly comical high points. As with any good suspense novel, too, the urgent need to know what led to Margio's shocking act pulls the reader propulsively toward the conclusion.

The Bottom Line:

Man Tiger’s uneven execution can make even portions of a slim novel seem rote, but, at its best, the explosive prose and provocative employment of fantastical elements will startle any reader.

What other reviewers think:

The New York Times: "Like a good crime novel, Man Tiger works best when read in a single sitting, and its propulsive suspense is all the more remarkable because Kurniawan reveals both victim and murderer in the first sentence."

The Guardian: "Man Tiger is slender and taut, with the central supernatural element given relatively little page time and the nation’s history collapsed into oblique glimpses."

Who wrote it?

Eka Kurniawan has been called “one of the few influential writers in Indonesia.” His novel Beauty Is a Wound was also published in September by New Directions Publishing, which joined forces with Verso to bring the books to America. He has also written two short story collections and a graphic novel.

Who will read it?

Readers who love fables that blend realism with hints of the fantastical.

Opening lines:

“On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond. A scent of brine wafted through the coconut palms, the sea moaned at a high pitch, and a gentle wind ruffled the algae, coral trees and lantanas.”

Notable passage:

“The tigress had come to him, lying beside him on the surau’s warm rug, while the universe outside froze. As his grandfather had said, the tigress was as white as a swan or a cloud or cotton wool. How unbelievably happy he was, for the tigress was more than anything he had ever owned. He thought about how she would hunt with him, helping to corral the wild pigs that ruined the rice fields, and, if he ever got slack when one or two boars charged, she would protect him from the worst. It had never occurred to Margio that the tigress would turn up on such a damn cold morning, surrendering herself to him like a girl. Look how the tigress lay down, still licking the tips of her paws, tongue flickering. For a moment she seemed like a giant domestic cat, grandly aristocratic and huge. Margio looked deep into her face, so lovely to him, and the boy fell profoundly in love.”

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

The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

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