Man Tiger – Eka Kurniawan

Man Tiger is the slim second novel by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan that has been met with very good, albeit not superlative reviews. (Usually I don’t read reviews before writing my recaps, but have been hunting around to find what language Man Tiger was originally written in, only to find some people frustrated by the book’s unevenness, with some complaints about rote elements.)

The story opens with news of a gruesome murder. Margio, an young man with a female White Tiger living inside him, has killed Anwar Sadat, the father of his girlfriend, by biting his head nearly clean off. Like any good crime story, Kurniawan takes the reader back in time and builds up to the event in question, without answering if the murder is justified.

Man Tiger is, at its heart, the story of two families living in one unnamed Indonesian village at the intersection of modern convenience and traditional techniques. The first, primary, family is that of Margio, including his abusive father Komar bin Syueb, mother Nuraeni, and sister Mameh; the second is that of the victim, the lecherous artist Anwar Sadat, including his wife and three daughters, the youngest of whom is Margio’s girlfriend Maharani. Anwar Sadat’s family, through the wife Kasia, is one of the wealthiest in town, being descended from the original settlers of the place; Margio comes from one of the poorest, who live in a dilapidated house in danger of falling down. Despite the inchoate romance between Margio and Maharani, the relationship between the families begins as one of domestic labor and privilege.

Margio inherits the eponymous female white tiger that lives inside him from his grandfather and the narrative skips back and forth between the years of struggle and abuse leading up to the events and the weeks or months immediately before it while Margio seeks to control the tiger rather than be dominated by it. It is in these perilous days that he embraces his desire to kill his father who has spent years–Margio’s entire life–abusing his mother. The story makes it clear that both children are born of rape.

What really stood out is that there are symbols of Suharto and the Indonesian government, but at no point do these feature prominently in the narrative except to perhaps suggest that some of the hardships faced by Margio’s family are the result of these forces. Instead, the conflict comes from intimate and familiar sources.

I liked Man Tiger a lot, and its tightly woven structure means that it is a quick read, but, ultimately, I must agree that it is uneven. There are rote elements that are at home in either crime fiction or Latin American magical realism, but the latter is, in my opinion, not fully realized. The tiger comes to symbolize and enable Margio’s simmering hatred of his father, but is also used as a short-hand rather than really engaging with his struggle, even if it is taken literally by the Javanese.

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Next up, I am reading Nina Frank’s novel Every House Needs a Balcony about a family of Rumanian-Jewish immigrants in Tel Aviv.

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