The harimau or weretiger is an integral part of S E Asian folklore. Weretigers can be guardian spirits or demons — they reportedly inhabit villages where they live as ordinary people by day and become tigers by night. Kurniawan&’s novel, Man Tiger, is about a weretiger — or at any rate it opens with a murder. Margio has killed Anwar Sadat, and from that beginning the details unravel. The gruesome nature of the murder — a harmless young boy has bitten through his victim&’s jugular vein — makes it a talking point. Though the whodunit part is clear, the reason why is not and thereby hangs a tale.
Unlike Beauty like a Wound, Man Tiger is a slim novel; reviewers have in fact recommended that it be finished in one sitting. Certainly Kurniawan’s translator makes it easy reading. This is a story of village life, land problems and love in rural Indonesia documented through Margio&’s family. His father the barber, his beauitiful abused mother Nuraeni, his sister and a grassroots kind of life battling with leaks in the floorboars, a profusion of jacarandas and general unhappiness. As it is told, it sounds like a folk tale infidelities, longings, ambitions, though barring the overgrown flower jungle, there really are no touches of magical realism. This is a world set after the Japanese invasions. One peopled by rusted samurai swords and free film screenings on the part of herbal tonic companies.
Nor can it be called a murder mystery because there is no mystery to the murder; the title gives away the whole story more or less. At least in its Indonesian original harimau is a dead giveaway. However, it is not really a story about supernatural inhabitation, though a tigress white as a swan materialises and takes possession of Margio&’s heart. She was apparently his grandfather&’s spirit and as such traditions go, was passed down to the grandson, over the barber father’s head. But that is barely a page or two. Man Tiger is really about the building of anger through the permutations of frustrated relationships and a boy’s inability to defend those he loves.
From the story of one family it splits into the story of two and that is where all the complications begin. Anwar Sadat is the cheerful lecher and failed artist married to an aristocratic midwife. As compared to Margio&’s father, he is unfailingly kind and polite yet he is the one who arouses Margio&’s wrath and stirs the tiger. If it were not Indonesian, the white tiger could be taken as a metaphor for the rage slumbering inside the boy which is finally awakened after his father’s death. He is aware that the rage is within him, even though he does a stint in a circus to learn how to deal with actual tigers.
Kurniawan&’s Marquez style continues to be evocative; Indonesians compare him to their own communist social realist Pramoedya Ananta Toer however, adding layers to the description and intertwining the lives of the villagers. To this is added touches of lyricism in descriptions of the night sky, not to mention gory descriptions of torn flesh like chunks of tofu which are very pulp fiction in their nature.
What finally happens to Margio we never discover. The book ends where it begins — at the point of murder.
the reviewer is a freelance contributor