Eka Kurniawan; Trans. Labodalih Sembiring

He brutally murders a neighbor by biting chunks out of his neck and jugular vein. When confronted, Margio calmly declares:

“It wasn’t me . . . There is a tiger inside my body.”

With those words, Eka Kurniawan introduces us to Margio, his young protagonist in Man Tiger. A white tigress possesses Margio’s body. This same white tigress possessed the body of his grandfather before he died. And if you find that difficult to believe, know that Mameh, Margio’s sister, witnesses the tiger exiting and entering her brother’s body and occasionally catches glimpses of the tiger’s eyes peering at her through her brother’s eyes.

The novel is set in a small Indonesian village where supernatural and fantastical happenings are woven into the fabric of everyday life and where belief in their existence is ubiquitous. The fantastical presents as a normal occurrence. Margio doesn’t question the existence of the tiger possessing his body. He only wants to learn how to control it.

We know Margio killed his neighbor. We know how he did it. But we have to wait until the end of the novel to find out why he did it. After the graphic and grisly description of the murder, Kurniawan takes us back in time where we learn about Margio and his family. There are constant shifts in time with flashbacks and flash forwards. Margio’s father is an abusive, vicious tyrant who beats his wife and children without restraint. Margio’s mother, once young, beautiful, and vibrant is now an empty, withered shell of her former self. She reacts to the trauma by withdrawing into herself, preferring to chat with pots and pans rather than with people. Margio spends much of his time trying to ease life for his brutally abused mother and fantasizing about murdering his father.

The novel is replete with examples of lack of restraint. A garden grows so abundantly that it resembles a jungle and consumes the outside of the house. A young girl ponders the possibility that there is an actual woman growing inside her, causing her body to fill out in ways she can’t control. The dead are apparently incapable of containment within their graves. The boundaries separating human from animal are blurred. Marital rape and domestic violence are socially sanctioned. Not even the neighbors intervene when they hear the screams of Margio’s mother as she is being raped, battered, and bruised. Their callous indifference to the atrocities makes them partially culpable for the ensuing savagery.

This is a highly imaginative and compelling read, but it is not without its flaws. The structure seems rambling and haphazard. The novel meanders down paths and back stories of characters, some of whom bear little significance to the main plot. The digressions are disconcerting because one is never quite sure of their relevance.

This is a story about the impact of poverty, desperation, and violence. It paints a vivid portrait of the exploitation and brutality inflicted on women and children. The portrayal of a young man who finally reaches a breaking point and allows the emergence of the tiger within to perpetrate a horrific act of retaliatory violence is profoundly illustrative. It serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a people pushed repeatedly to the brink of endurance without recourse or social support to alleviate their suffering. Blinded by their rage, they may eventually snap. The ensuing barbaric acts may be understandable because of the extent of their suffering. But that does not detract from the horror.

Recommended but with a word of caution because of its explicit rendering of sexual assault, domestic violence, exploitation of women, and the rampant brutality against women and children.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review