Written by a young Indonesian academic best known for his collections of short stories, Man Tiger has recently caught the attention of the global literary community, having been nominated for the Man Book Prize (long list) and recently winning the Financial Times/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices 2016 Award. This level of recognition is an achievement in itself for Indonesian literature, which is not widely recognised on the international stage.
The story is set in an unnamed sleepy coastal village on the west coast of Java, probably somewhat like the Tasikmalaya area where the author was himself born. It is the 1980s although there is a time-out-of-time feel to the place to such an extent that it comes as a surprise when, well into the story, we realise that the narrative is happening in relatively recent times. Day-to-day life for the villagers has probably changed little over centuries, with the addition of new technologies like TV, motorised transport and cinema. Many of the ancient superstitions and beliefs we encounter still play a central role in daily life.
Man Tiger is a mystery about a murder, but does not unfold in the usual ‘whodunnit’ style. We know the identities of both murderer and victim from the opening pages; no one is in any doubt of the dreadful facts of the case. Anwar Sadat (the absurdity of name is never mentioned) has been savaged to death by his young neighbour, Margio. The mystery lies in understanding what has driven the young man to commit such a savage act on a neighbour with whom he appeared to be on good terms. In a series of flashbacks, the complex interactions of the two families and the dysfunctional relationship of Margio’s parents, slowly reveal the psychological pressures that finally broke him. But there is one other aspect that further muddies the waters: we learn that Margio believes he is possessed by the protective spirit of a female white tiger, as have other members of his family before him.
Indonesian novels can be challenging to the western reader. They rarely tell a direct story, preferring to weave a meandering route of diversion and dead end through the narrative in the ancient tradition of oral storytelling. They also are heavily influenced by the dramatic conventions of the wayang theatre, as well as being steeped in the world of Hindu-Buddhist legend and ancient spirits, surprising in a staunchly Islamic community.
Man Tiger demonstrates all of these characteristics, and left our group feeling somewhat ambivalent. Those who were more familiar with Indonesia enjoyed the book, with the rest feeling rather disconnected from the main characters. The tiger motif did not work for some, though others saw it as an allegory of Margio’s psychosis, expressed in the terms of a naïve and superstitious rustic community. Some loved the elegant vignette-style prose that was able to use a few brush strokes to tell the story, like the short story format for which Kurniawan is best known, while others thought the brevity of the book left characters undeveloped or events contrived. The translation was generally applauded, however, for making this very Indonesian book accessible to a western audience. Everyone also agreed that the descriptions of village life and the colourful local characters who peopled the background of the story were beautifully and lyrically drawn, opening a fascinating window on life in rural Java.
Book Group #1