Man Tiger starts out with a killer opening line: On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond.
This crime leaves the populace of a small Indonesian fishing village in shock—Margio, barely twenty, is a well known and well-liked kid. Margio has never been prone to violence. Some folks speculate that with the recent deaths of both his little sister and his father, the boy possibly just snapped. But why was Anwar Sadat the target of his violence?
And why did Margio rip his throat out? With his teeth?
When interrogated by the police, Margio confesses without hesitation. But the brutality of his crime is still bewildering. And Margio seems to realise this too: while in his cell, he offers, unprompted: ‘It wasn’t me […] There is a tiger inside my body.’
I was motivated to pick up some of Eka Kurniawan’s work late last year after reading a piece about him in the Jakarta Post, where he was compared favourably to both Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. And with a suggestive title like Man Tiger, I did go in expecting a good dose of ‘magical realism.’ But this isn’t exactly the case: I think Man Tiger is playing things too subtly to be fit cleanly into that box, and it’s probably fairer to Kurniawan if you go into without trying to draw too many laboured comparisons with other, more well-known authors. What Man Tiger is instead is a murder mystery with ambiguous elements, where the focus is less on who done it—because that’s evident—but why it transpired the way it did.
Darting back and forth across time, Kurniawan slowly reveals more and more about the events and dynamics of both Margio’s and Anwar Sadat’s families, and how people can become trapped in cycles of violence and despair. What he also deftly shows us—though almost inconsequential background details—is life in a small Indonesian village in the 1970s. The novel, while short, is remarkably well crafted, with almost seamless temporal jumps across the narrative. The prose here is also worthy of remark, as it’s both efficient and evocative at the same time; never a word wasted. Kurniawan brings up storytelling and oral tradition a number of times in the novel, and the narrative style fits very neatly into that. Since I read the English translation and not the original, I should also give the appropriate thanks to the translator, Labodalih Sembiring, for their admirable work.
I managed to finish Man Tiger in the space of a day, and can easily see why it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And Eka Kurniawan is going on my list of authors to watch out for.