Book Review: Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

May 04, 2020

Trans. by Labodalih Sembiring
Verso Books, 2015

In translation | Fiction | Independent publishing

*content warning: sexual assault, violence, abuse*

I almost didn’t finish Man Tiger. It was painful to read and hugely disappointing compared to the exciting blurb and the promise of supernatural elements which remain unfulfilled.

Set in a small Indonesian village, Man Tiger opens with the murder of a local man who’s killed when a teenage boy – Margio – bites through the veins in his neck. The description of the murder is excitingly gruesome and visceral and the crime genre and generic ‘who dunnit’ structure are inverted as the perpetrator is revealed at the outset. We learn that Margio has the spirit of a tiger inside him and his motivations for the murder remain unclear, providing intrigue. Kurniawan then takes us backwards, exposing a set of social circumstances and events, including the poverty and domestic violence suffered by Margio's family, that lead to the murder. The opening of the book suggests innovation and is conceptually promising but the execution is unsatisfactory and at times infuriating. 

Man Tiger, from Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, adopts a writing style that nods to folktale and oral storytelling traditions, composed of omniscient narration and limited dialogue. Publication of different storytelling traditions is important but the folklore tone is overused in Man Tiger and it leaves no space for character depth and makes for monotonous reading. Characters and events are archetypal and clichéd to the point that the book's ending and final revelation about Margio's motivation to murder are totally expected, leaving nothing to propel the reading forward.

As a feminist, this was painful to read. Whilst I acknowledge that my reading is from a Western standpoint - and that there are social, cultural and religious differences between my standpoint and the social positioning of these characters - women, female sexuality, violence against women and rape are approached without sensitivity or nuance.

As Kurniawan plunges deeper into backstory, the novel becomes the story of Margio's mother - Nuraeni - who enters into an arranged marriage at a young age and is victim to domestic abuse and rape. Nuraeni is conciliated in ways that are enraging. We are told that she happily becomes an unpaid housemaid for her wealthy neighbours because it means less time spent at home and at risk of abuse. The trauma of her marital rape is miraculously assuaged when she is taken as a lover by her neighbour, despite the fact that his pursuit of her is also problematic. She experiences an unwavering happiness when she becomes pregnant by her neighbour, even in the face of severe beatings from her husband whilst she is pregnant. The complexities of her experience, emotions and desires are neglected.

Worse than the events that are inflicted on the novel's central female character is the language used to describe women's sexuality and bodies. There is an insistence on symbolising young women's virtue by their 'unripe' breasts; a woman's beauty and body are portrayed as her most important qualities, and they even trump her rape trauma: Nuraeni's 'beautiful calves' are foregrounded in the description of her rape and her new lover notices that she 'had preserved her body despite everything'. Of course, the complexities of translation are at play here, but I assume the English word choices express Kurniawan’s intended tone on these topics.

All agency and power is afforded to the male characters in this novel, and whilst this is probably intended as a reflection of patriarchal cultures, the novel could have challenged patriarchal power by showcasing some of women’s power, or it could have at least made male power less omnipotent: Nuraeni's male lover even has the power to restore her youth and make her breasts firmer with his touch!

Man Tiger has received high praise and was longlisted for the Booker International Prize 2016, possibly due to controlled use of literary devices, its scattered representations of Indonesian culture - which could have been explored more - and its representation of social issues such as domestic violence, poverty, class difference and the effects of colonialism. However, the novel fails to challenge these issues or provide radical political comment and because it was too difficult to get past the misogyny and monotony I cannot provide the same praise.

Finally, if, like me, you are drawn to this novel by the supernatural elements and the concept of a tiger’s spirit inhabiting the protagonist, you will be disappointed. The tiger makes an appearance only once, and whilst the exploration of spirituality and tradition being passed through generations was interesting, the concept is abandoned as the novel turns its attention to family drama.


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