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.

Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

He could not imagine that the world of the emotions had infiltrated the atmosphere of his home, which he vigilantly strove to keep one of stern purity and immaculate innocence.

Why do you pretend to be pious around your family when you’re a pool of depravity?

Published in Arabic in 1956 and released in English in 1990, Palace Walk is the first book in Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy. The trilogy follows one family in Cairo over the span of decades, but Palace Walk takes place over the course of about a year at the end of World War One.

Palace Walk centers on the household of the merchant al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, which consists of his wife Amina, their daughters Khadija and Aisha, sons Fahmy and Kamal, Yasin, the son of his first wife, and the maid Umm Hanafi. Yasin still lives with the family despite having graduated and obtaining and a job, following in his father’s philandering footsteps but without his restraint. While the two younger boys, the dedicated and Romantic Fahmy and the carefree Kamal still attend school. The women, obedient Amina, homely and intelligent Khadija, and beautiful but vain Aisha, remain secluded within the house. Much of the story is driven by the contradictions within the character of al-Sayyid Ahmad. At home he is a severe, domineering overlord who forbids the women from leaving the walls except for Amina’s infrequent visits to her mother. The family’s rhythms are dictated by the presence of the father, though, and he spends most evenings out with his friends, laughing, singing, drinking, and womanizing.

The children are measured in contrast to their father and, to a lesser extent, mother. For the girls, this is a physical contrast–their eyes and their noses; for the boys, it is a more fundamental comparison–to what extent do their physiques match their father and to what extent did they inherit his appetites. However, at least in his mind, Fahmy and Yasin are fundamentally flawed, taking on aspects of his desires without taste or responsibility. Kamal, the youngest, is the exception to this rule, not because he is without fault, but because he is not yet fully developed and so looks upon the actions of his elders with confusion and wonder.

Palace Walk is a tightly-knit family story, so the bulk of the narrative consists of quiet domestic tension, particularly on the part of the long-suffering Amina, as well as marriage and infidelity. I found these scenes moving for all their quietude, but what elevates Palace Walk into a masterpiece is how Mahfouz sets it across the end of World War One, juxtaposing the family’s agitation for independence from their father with the Egyptian protests in favor of independence from Britain.

News about the strike, acts of sabotage, and the battles had filled him with a hope and admiration, but it was a totally different matter for any of these deeds to be performed by a son of his. His children were meant to be a breed apart, outside the framework of history.

al-Sayyid insists that his authoritarian regime at home is designed to protect his family, but this ambition proves impossible.

Throughout the story Mahfouz does an excellent job of evoking sympathy for women and children even while not making al-Sayyid without redeeming characteristics. Despite the importance of the father, it is clear that Kamal has a particular importance for the story. It is through his eyes that one asks why the girls fall away from the story after they marry. He is untouched by the rancor and violence that surrounds the protests, and being struck by the prominence of his character, I was prompted to look ahead to find out that Kamal is indeed a main character in the second two novels. His innocence, transcending even that of Amina, stands out.

I want to reserve final judgement on Palace Walk until I read the other two books, but this was an excellent start. The story is beautiful and moving, and Mahfouz ratchets up the tension until a shocking conclusion.

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Earlier today I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s Man Tiger, a magical-realistic murder story set in an unnamed Indonesian town. Next up is Rina Frank’s 2006 novel Every House Needs a Balcony.