Although Eka Kurniawan was first published in his native Indonesia in 2000, it was only in 2015 that he came to prominence in the English-speaking world with the translation of his first novel, Beauty is a Wound. This, unfortunately, is not eligible for the Man Booker International Prize, having yet to receive a UK publication (though one is scheduled for June thanks to Pushkin Press, meaning that it could well appear on next year’s long list). His UK debut came the same year, however, with his second novel, Man Tiger, translated by Labodalih Sembiring.
Man Tiger is a murder story where there is no mystery regarding the murderer, only the motive. What happened is reveal in the very first sentence:
“On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.”
More details of the killing quickly follow – “The kid bit through his jugular” – but, as to why, no-one can say:
“They knew Margio the teenager and old Anwar Sadat all too well. It would never have occurred to anyone that these two figures would feature in such a tragic drama, no matter how eager Margio was to kill someone, or how detestable the man named Anwar Sadat.”
Kurniawan then moves backwards into Margio’s past as we search for an explanation of his action. The second chapter focuses mainly on the death of his sister, Marian, only a few days after she is born, shortly before the murder. This, however, only raises more questions as it seems Margio’s hatred is largely directed at his father, Komar bin Syueb, whom he blames for her death:
“Margio had been cursing their old man over and again at the nightwatch post, and similar sentiments had been heard elsewhere – that if the chance arose he would kill Komar bin Syueb…. The feeling had become more intense over the days that followed, after their week-old baby sister, Marian, died.”
By Chapter 3 Margio is seven years old and we are following the family as they move to their new house, “a concrete square a few feet on each side,” and from there we travel even further back to Komar’s courtship of his wife Nuraeni. Kurianwan not only handles this complex structure with great dexterity, making the transitions seems natural, he also flits from character to character with the same ease. Chapter 2, for example, begins from Margio’s point of view, but changes to that of his sister Mameh halfway through. Each of the four family members is the focus of the narrative at one point, portraying the complex nature of the relationships which have developed over time. In this way, we learn of the deeply unsympathetic Komar’s early struggles on behalf of his family, and of the origins of his wife’s resentment. It works particularly well with Nuraeni’s sexual awakening later in the novel, when her character, previously rather over-shadowed by the others, bursts into three dimensions as she feels herself come alive again.
Kurianwan’s forensic examination of the chain of events which lead to the murder reveals a psychological explanation for events, but it is juxtaposed with the tiger of the title, a white tiger which is passed down through the generations and coexists with the man whose body she inhabits. Margio believes his grandfather had the tiger and longs for it to be passed on to him:
“His blood was hot and he thought perhaps that Grandpa’s tiger was already inside him. What was needed was a way to bring it out… When he woke up the next morning, a white tiger lay beside him. That was how it began.”
Interestingly the two ‘versions’ of Margio’s motives coexist quite happily. The tiger can be read as a symbol of man’s propensity for violence, a belief Margio uses to disassociate himself from his own actions, or even a longing for a more primitive state in response to the encroachment of the modern world. It is reminiscent of magical realism, before that term was corrupted to include the cute and quirky – a non-rational occurrence believed by all within the world of the novel. In the novel’s final lines the two approaches come together seamlessly.
Man Tiger lacks the impact of a great novel, but it is a very good one, carefully constructed and beautifully rendered. Kurniawan is clearly a talented writer and it would not surprise me to find Beauty is a Wound listed next year. It’s a novel that would not be out of place on the short-list, but will perhaps lose out to the quality of the competition.