Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan
“The idea came to him all of a sudden, as a burst of light in his brain. He spoke of hosting something inside his body, something other than guts and entrails. It poured out and steered him, encouraged him to kill.”
This is vicious stuff. Eka Kurniawan’s Indonesia is poverty-stricken, violent, and spiritually hungry. His English-language translation debut, “Man Tiger”, is a perfect introduction to his style and his mythic likings. This is the tale of two neighboring families – one in dire poverty and the other of affluence – and how their relationship brings about a murder. It is set along the coast where much time is spent on a soccer field, in bars, and in the jungle. We follow the young man, Margio, through these places as he avoids his abusive father at home. His father, frustrated with lot in life, takes it out on his wife and children. His wife, Margio’s mother, is having an affair with the affluent neighbor, Anwar Sadat. Now, this all sounds like a domestic melodrama, however, Margio soon learns that he has inherited a female tiger spirit from his family lineage and if he is not careful with his emotions, the spirit could overwhelm him.
For the majority of its 172 pages, the novel works at critiquing Indonesia’s social ills. Nearly forty percent of Indonesians live near the poverty line and twenty-eight million people live below it. Margio’s father, Komar, is one of the novel’s most vile characters, an abusive, tragic figure, trapped by his lot in life. Angwar Sadat, the affluent neighbor, is opportunistic and selfish, yet he is a loving family man. Kurniawan is as interested in these shades of human behavior – as an extensions of economic levels – as he is exploring spirituality.
Diving deeper than family drama, deeper than poverty, “Man Tiger” reaches into Indonesia’s past, seeking its myths and legends to mine the human experience. Margio’s loneliness, his angst, and his despair are all heightened by the volatile spirit within him. Devolving into animalistic tendencies and caving to apathy are fears that eat the soul. All of this weighs heavy on the teenaged Margio as he watches his family and his neighbor’s family intertwine and degrade. Having been passed down from generation to generation, the tiger spirit can be read as a dormant rage; a longing to break from the systemic troubles that feel so much like a cage. But in the world of man, something truly wild is always punished.
“Man Tiger” or “Lelaki Harimau” is the first Indonesian novel to be considered for the Man Booker International Prize. It was long-listed in 2016. It is a novel that should both make English-language readers intrigued by what is coming out of South-East Asia right now as well as the want to devour anything Kurniawan produces.