Book review: Eka Kurniawan’s second novel Man Tiger is arresting and lyrical
The Indonesian author of Beauty Is a Wound takes a story of murder and relates it through a distinctly Javanese sensibility
by Eka Kurniawan
Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan’s first novel Beauty Is a Wound has already been compared to Gabriel García Márquez and Salman Rushdie – it is long, it recounts the history of an “exotic” country and it is studded with supernatural happenings, so never mind that Kurniawan is bawdy where García Márquez is plangent, or that his occasional direct addresses to the reader owe more to oral storytelling than to postmodernism. Such lofty comparisons might threaten to obscure the writing itself. It is lucky, then, that his books so far are so distinct and memorable.
Where Beauty Is a Wound is sprawlingly expansive, Man Tiger is slender and taut, with the central supernatural element given relatively little page time and the nation’s history collapsed into oblique glimpses: the rusting samurai swords left behind from the Japanese colonial period and the increase in “private” violence, an apparent symptom of living in “a republic no longer at war”.
Kurniawan himself has described Beauty Is a Wound as three books merged into one: part family saga, part national history, part fantasia. Man Tiger could be called a crime novel, though one in which we know the identity of the perpetrator from the very first sentence. Anwar Sadat, a charming lecher and failed artist, has been murdered by the young Margio, a skilled hunter who is sweet and polite, but has “something inside him”. This being a distinctly Javanese take on the hard-boiled genre, that “something” turns out to be not a buried secret or repressed trauma, but a tigress: white as a swan, a possessing spirit-cum-second-wife, passed down from father to son.
In Beauty Is a Wound, the supernatural exists alongside realist historical accounts and sociopolitical critique, presented as an equally valid representational mode. The white tigress in Man Tiger can more easily and fruitfully be read as symbolic – of Margio’s rage-shot Oedipal desire, having been denied even an imagined outlet in a mother so broken down by her husband’s beatings. Yet at the same time it exists as a living animal, utterly real, accepted by the Javanese as matter-of-fact.
This tangibility is a key feature of the book, whose richly textured descriptions interweave each aspect of the village and its surroundings with the lives of its inhabitants. Imagery, lyrical and arresting, is another great strength: “The night tumbled upon them, buoying the stars and hanging up a severed moon.” Kurniawan’s writing demonstrates an affinity with literary heavyweights such as, yes, García Márquez and Dostoevsky, as well as Indonesia’s own social-realist master Pramoedya Ananta Toer, to whom domestic fans have dubbed him an heir. Most intriguing, though, is the influence of the home-grown pulp fiction that was popular when he was growing up in West Java, visible in the luridly gory descriptions of Man Tiger’s central murder and elevated by a series of arresting similes: the lump of flesh like a piece of tofu, the blood-streaked floor that resembles the national flag.
There is also the influence of Indonesian storytelling traditions, derived from classical Indian epics such as the Ramayana, and of Wayang puppet theatre. In Beauty Is a Wound, this results in digressive stories with a large cast of colourful characters. Refreshingly, Kurniawan puts value on literature as entertainment, and his books are certainly that. Man Tiger is particularly effective in deploying some of the classic techniques of the crime genre while subverting others – not only is there no “whodunnit”, the destabilising effect is not caused by the murder itself (violence is very much a part of life), but by the lack of presaging omens.
Indonesia’s recent guest-of-honour spot at the Frankfurt book fair showcased a dizzying array of literary talent, from Leila Chudori’s love-and-exile epic Home to Intan Paramaditha’s Angela Carter -esque horror. Alongside their melding of local and international contexts, Indonesian writers’ penchant for working with multiple forms makes for some thrilling originality. The Indonesian wave is heading in our direction, and I for one will be diving in.