Monday, 12 October 2015

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

A wry, affecting tale set in a small town on the Indonesian coast, Man Tiger tells the story of two interlinked and tormented families and of Margio, a young man ordinary in all particulars except that he conceals within himself a supernatural female white tiger. The inequities and betrayals of family life coalesce around and torment this magical being. An explosive act of violence follows, and its mysterious cause is unraveled as events progress toward a heartbreaking revelation.
Goodreads description

Most stories about murder focus on the question who did it. This short novel (192 pages) has a different approach. We are told who did it in the opening sentence: On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kayai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fishpond;  the question the book answers (in its last sentence) is why. Set in Indonesia, the book is filled with the beliefs of the country's rural communities and as a result everyone seems to accept Margio's explanation that the white tigress inside him (inherited from his grandfather) caused him to tear at the throat of the father of his girlfriend. So the question evolves further to why did the tigress explode in violence. 

The violence of the murder - the young man literally nearly bites the older man's head off - is decribed graphically and may not be to every reader's taste. But this is contrasted to the ordinariness of Margio, who is not naturally a violent man, and helps the reader share the locals' acceptance that something supernatural took over Margio and made him behave in such an extraordinary way. 

But the book is not without psychological motivation. With different chapters telling and retelling incidents in Margio's life and those of his family from the perspective of different characters, we come to understand the boiling anger that the young man identifies as the tigress. 

This style of writing might seem at times repetitious and tangential, but it reminds me of the oral storytelling tradition and I am sure that Kurniawan is drawing from the Indonesian tradition in this and in so doing is creating something new and surprising. This is the first Indonesian magic realism that I have read and it would appear that this is a region (and an author) worth watching. 

I received a free copy from the publisher in return for a fair review


Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

Thanks for this review of this book, which I found through your facebook group. Do you see the magical realist elements operating here in ways that are different than, say, better known writers of MR, or is what this author doing in line with what we've been discussing about the tradition? Fred Vargas flirts with MR in her procedurals, but I'm not sure she really engages with the unreal. So, I guess what I'm asking is whether you think Kurniawan is doing something new, or continuing with something older in their use of MR? Thanks again.

Zoe Brooks said...

I think what is interesting about the book is that it merges two usually distinct traditions. These traditions are psychological magic realism, which is a Western form of MR, with MR which integrates traditional beliefs.

Interesting it is something I seem to be seeing mostly in crime MR. I am thinking of Mia Couto, Colin Cotterell's detective series and most recently in The Invisible Guardian

Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

Great. Thanks. So, by "psychological MR" do you mean writers like Aimee Bender and Silko or are you thinking of someone else? I'm not quite sure I understand that term. And can Silko even be considered "western" as she is Native American? I'm curious about these distinctions. Thanks again!

Zoe Brooks said...

The term psychological MR is my own. I use it for those novels in which the magic is used to make manifest the psychological state of a character or characters. For example in Andrea Lochen's "Imaginary Things", a young boy's fears appear to his mother as dinosaurs and in Graham Joyce's "Tooth Fairy", the fairy is a manifestation of a teenage boy's evolving obsessions and complexes. The MR is often ambiguous.

For me this is one of the most interesting of the evolving forms of MR. I am fascinated by Jungian theory which it fits with beautifully. It doesn't have to have an indigenous cultural reference as evidenced by the two examples I have given, but it does deal with archetypes.

The Pig's Ear said...

Plae ignore The Pig's Ear - that's a blog about ongoing renovations to my house! Glenda Guest

Partly read this book - will finish it when the person who tore it from my hands returns it! My understanding is that the tiger is a metaphor (all MR is metaphor in some way) for the internal disturbance and imbalance of the boy. in this way, it is legit MR - and that's an excellent term, Zoe, as it is indeed psychological. It has a feel of The Life of Pi, in some ways, which also had a tiger as a psychological manifestation
And I too feel that the oral tradition of storytelling is invoked here, but not far enough in to be able to comment on how, yet. And, those Latin American writers who brought MR to the reading world often based their stories in their oral tradition. Read Men of Maize by Asturias - here's a straight cut and paste from Wiki because it saves me from typing!

'Men of Maize (Spanish: Hombres de maíz) is a 1949 novel by Guatemalan Nobel Prize in Literature winner Miguel Ángel Asturias. The novel is usually considered to be Asturias's masterpiece, yet remains one of the least understood novels produced by Asturias.[1] The title Hombres de maíz refers to the Maya Indians' belief that their flesh was made of corn.[2] Its title originates in the Popol Vuh, one of the sacred books of the Maya... Asturias's book explores the magical world of indigenous communities, a subject which the author was both passionate and knowledgeable of. The novel draws on traditional legend, but the story is of Asturias's own creation.'