Upon the publication of Man Tiger, which was longlisted for The Man Booker International prize in 2016, Eka Kurniawan was described as “a powerful new voice on the global literary stage.” This seems a wholly apt description.
The book tells the coming-of-age story of Margio, a typical young man living with his family in a small town on the coast of Indonesia. We are first introduced to Margio as the inheritor of his family’s long legacy: the spiritual marriage between his body and the tigress that lives in his bloodline and is passed down from generation to generation. We learn that, for some unexplained reason, when Margio’s grandfather dies, the tiger passes not to Margio’s father, but to Margio himself, skipping a link in the chain. The strange, imaginative, unwinding narrative that takes us backward in time, from the moment the narrative opens in violence, to the moment it closes at the exact same point in time, serves to explain why the tiger has skipped the father.
Part of what makes this novel wonderful is that it is so unexpected. The story begins with a shocking bang, and then goes ever backward in time in order to fill in the necessary information about the two families at the heart of this intense drama, so that when we return to the present, and indeed the very last page of the book, the justification for Margio’s initial actions, for the release of the tiger, doesn’t just make sense, it becomes a heartbreaking necessity.
I will say that, though the book is described as being part of the “magical realism” genre (and Kurniawan is now known for writing in this style), there was much less of it than I had anticipated. There is of course some, given the fact that the main character has a tigress living inside of him that can be released at any given moment, but aside from that initial folk story at the beginning, and its return at the end, the novel reads generally like contemporary Indonesian fiction. Ultimately, I think the tiger is less a primary function of magical realism and more of a metaphor for the fierceness with which we protect the ones we love.
I also appreciated the unique take on certain symbols in this one, like the garden. Kurniawan upsets–or disrupts–some of the conventional ways in which western readers, in particular, might read common themes and symbols, in order to explain the particular circumstances of this family in this time and this place. In all honesty, this is the kind of book that reminds me of how important, and how fun, it is to read non-western literature in translation.
“The white tiled floor with its streaks of red blood resembled the national flag. And still standing there was Margio, his face a mask of gore, nearly unrecognizable.”
“Only men marry tigers . . . but not all the tigers are female.”
“She hadn’t left him. The tigress was there, a part of him, the two of them inseparable until death.”
“Nothing was more embarrassing for a girl older than twelve than not knowing who would be her husband.”
“The mistakes were all his. He had carved out his own sorry life for himself.”