Eka Kurniawan — Man Tiger (2004)
Setting: A poo rural community in post-colonial Indonesia.
What it’s about: A mysterious murder is gradually explained through the often violent dramas of two families.
Man Tiger has been labelled as a supernatural novel in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but you feel Kurniawan is at his most passionate with the pastoral descriptions of the community. Almost more in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, the pivotal murder is almost more of an excuse to tell the story of the society that gave birth to it.
The most powerful moments are thoroughly domestic, and the worst suffering that inflicted by family members upon each other, particularly the physical and emotional domestic violence of the father of the killer with the tiger inside, Margio. A key moment in the formation of Margio is when they move from a shack to a new town, the father promising them a new and better life:
The had reached the outskirts of town, an avenue of beautiful houses. They had yet to see their new home, but at this welcome sight, at the glistening coloured fences embellished with ornate ironwork, bright lights, and mailboxes, Margio started to get excited…But instead of stopping here they turned into an alley so narrow the cart almost couldn’t get through…The cart trundled more slowly than ever, more shakily, past densely packed shacks and untended gardens, all previously hidden by the bright houses they had passed.”
They arrive at a house that “a fallen coconut could flatten” which “looked somber and smelled of death, damp and misery”.
Also powerful: the stoic resistance of Margio’s mother, Nuraeni, to domestic violence. When her husband’s attempts to renovate the house fail, she takes over the concrete garden and starts planting flowers. At first, they bloom into a wonderful garden, “putting any flower shop to shame”, but Nuraeni has a different, bitter vision, telling her daughter that the flowers are for her funeral, allowing the greenery to take over and spoil their home:
The yard, which they had imagined a beautiful garden adorning their little house, was now a jungle, with blooms popping up every which way…The garden became indistinguishable from dense undergrowth, and Margio started to call it a wilderness. The leaves either withered or jostled each other for life…Within two years, no one could see the facade of the house; it as covered entirely by shimmering green leaves…Dead plants fertilised the soil, and the rest thrived.”
As in the garden, so in love and in humanity, raw nature refuses to be controlled, and wildness lurks, ready to overtake the thin layer of civil order.
This is a circular novel grand in its scope despite being limited in geography. Its remains rooted within the life of two families in their small community, but the camera pans broadly within this small panorama, viewing the same period of events from different angles, so that by the end we view the violent murder that it starts with from a completely new perspective.
Read it for: The extremely subtle evocation of the violence that lies deep in humanity, and particularly in Indonesia — the scars of which the book makes only vague allusions: the Japanese occupation, a war of independence of the Netherlands, which was then followed by a brutal genocide of left-wing people.
The best books from Indonesia: Eka Kurniawan is touted as the heir to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but I found his tetralogy about an Indonesian nobleman and journalist under Dutch colonialism prosaic and one-dimensional, almost like a Tintin story.
Read it if you liked: Salman Rushdie, Adolfo Bioy Casares, John McGahern.