Man Tiger (or Lelaki Harimau in its original title) is Eka Kurniawan’s second novel and his second work to be translated into English. Longlisted for 2016 Man Booker International Prize, it concerns the life of the lower class and disintegration of family values caused by complexities in human beings. Here, as in Beauty Is A Wound (Cantik Itu Luka), Kurniawan leans on magical realism—a fact proven by his use of a white tigress resided in the body of a young man—to help embellish his realistic narrative. Unlike his previous book, though, Man Tiger is less complicated and less attention-gripping, to my thinking. It’s rather simple, in its prose style if not in its idea.
The story opens with news of Margio, a young man of 20 years old, committing a murder. The victim is Anwar Sadat, a figure of the village well-known for his promiscuous behavior. But since the first time the reader has been dimly convinced that it’s not the reason Margio sinks his teeth into and rips at the middle-aged man’s jugular to his death. The loose morals of his art-loving neighbor is barely Margio’s concern. He even often helps him at home, doing odd jobs for extra cash just as youngsters usually do. So it’s very obvious that there is no reason at all for him to suddenly kill Anwar Sadat. But he’s done it. Not less shocking, and appalling, is the way he does the killing. It’s not the way any human murderer will choose to end their victim’s life. His reminds everyone of the way a beast, here particularly a tiger, attacks its prey and finishes it off. It especially bewilders Major Sadrah, who has for some time seen Margio carrying an old, rusty samurai sword everywhere, to see the young man eventually puts aside his newly-found Japanese weapon and goes the wild way. So the mystery now revolves around two questions: Why the biting? And why Anwar Sadat, not his father, the one he hates most?
One look at the first pages, which elaborately describe the land and neighborhood of a village that will be the setting of the whole story, and the reader will quickly get that this would be about the lower-class people. The way Kurniawan tells of how the land is found and later how the neighborhood is built on it is not far from harsh criticism focusing on the problems those people often have to deal with: the poor living conditions, the dispute over land ownership, the low incomes, fighting against the wicked capitalists. As the story moves forward, the descriptions are narrowing to the poor conditions of Margio’s family, and this is the point where Kurniawan gets really sharp. Margio’s family is the true embodiment of poverty, of a reality where so many villagers with big dreams coming to big cities only to find themselves trapped in high unemployment and finally have to content themselves with low-income, unskilled jobs. Even worse, they are almost homeless, in a sense, building temporary houses on a disputed land just to have a roof over their heads. And once you live in poverty, there will definitely be a possibility of domestic violence. It’s like something you cannot run away from. And from domestic violence springs another problem: norms deviation and disintegration of family values. People with conventional thoughts will expect faithfulness and familial togetherness. But life is complex and humans are even more so. There is not a certain answer for what’s right and what’s wrong when it has come to this.
Man Tiger is not as extraordinary as Beauty Is A Wound, in my opinion, although it has rather neater narrative. Kurniawan cleverly makes the plot layered in a string of subplots to reveal the mysteries one by one, intending perhaps to present the whole story as some kind of whydunit fiction. It’s so seamless, the way he arranges it all, and very shrewd, too. So shrewd it is that he manages to keep the answer of the why till the end of the story. Admittedly, the element of surprise really works here. It is not, however, a grand creation in its entirety. Perhaps it’s because the premise is somewhat unexceptional: domestic violence spurred by the shattered dreams of prosperity. Or perhaps, it is the development of the premise that prevents it from becoming something more than this. It is pretty boring, too, at the opening, a bit stretching too long for an explanation of everything but the background of Margio’s family, which Kurniawan puts later after the half of the book. And that is not all. If there is one thing which is as bothering, it is the holes I found in some parts. One or two holes at least, and one of them is where Major Sadrah seems to recall seeing Margio carrying a samurai sword some time before the young man kills Anwar Sadat, but then there is no further explanation about the weapon. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or if Kurniawan really forgets about it after all.
Despite it all, Man Tiger is still the work of Eka Kurniawan that I know, with its explicit sex scenes and dark, subtle humor. It’s quite disappointing on the one hand, but also relieving on the other. So it’s pretty hard to decide whether this work is good or not. But it’s definitely not as good as Kurniawan’s first novel.