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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Man Tiger: Eki Kurniawan

Guest Post 
By Aleksandra Skiba

Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin. 

An encounter with a tiger is fraught with potential danger, even if the striped predator appears only on the border of dream and reality. The ephemeral and elusive animal can also leave bloody traces as experienced by the characters in Indonesian author Eki Kurniawan’s book ManTiger.

Written in 2004, the novel is deeply saturated with emotions and secrets and reads like a crime story, but if it really has to be defined it can only be described as à rebours. This is because right at the beginning of the book Anwar Sadat's murder by Margio becomes a hot topic of conversation in the village. The news about Margio's deed, a friendly 20-year-old man in love, shocks a small society. 

The graphic depiction of the brutal murder is horrifying; it's this graphic depiction that makes Eki Kurniawan’s writing resemble the pulp fiction genre but that is a clever, deliberate poly. The Javanese writer mixes literary conventions, drawing inspiration from popular fiction, Mahabharata, oral storytelling or theatre wayang, jumping from cheap sensation to literal depiction, from lyricism to fantasies and dreams.

The narrative deserves particular attention because of the underlying universalism of the characters. There are four members of the family who like gods or heroes from myths or Javanian Shadow Theater, present their intentions by acts.  The dialogue is almost absent from the narrative, and if there is any interaction between the characters it happens mostly because of a strong sense of duty that brings these indoors enemies together and they increasingly resemble mythic characters.

Every member of the family creates their own world – with better or worse results – to find a way to channel negative emotions. Therefore, the need to express pain and anger presents itself as a mother’s deliberately abandoned garden or a symbolic white female tiger that personifies the son’s determination and uncontrolled explosion.

The tradition and local customs are, next to family relationship, also a strong barrier on the island. However, these problems touch mostly inequalities of village society. What is tolerated in a rich playboy can be deprecated in a poor woman; so Nuareni, the unhappy wife, can’t alter her fate and defy societal norms openly.

Although the Nuareni and Komar bin Syueb’s arranged marriage isn’t doomed to fail, it does because of the impossibility to their circumstances to behave less conventionally, the rigid social expectations and their growing poverty which doesn’t allow them to break walls of initial shyness and lack of confidence. 

This is when good intentions are abandoned and the violence starts to be a constant element of their life.

The inequality visible in the family and in the social relationships builds the readers’ attitude to characters and from the beginning evokes sympathy for the victims. The author enables the other side to fight against this opinion but the reasoning is weak and unconvincing. The principle of classical tragedy is preserved in this case too so the real evil stays evil without place, for explanations from popular psychology literature. 

Man Tiger is an acclaimed book and won the Financial Times and Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices awards and was nominated for The Man Booker International Prize in 2016 – a first for an Indonesian author. We can only hope that such recognition will lead to more translations of his work in English and Polish.

Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin. She has contributed to this blog occasionally. Her earlier posts are:

Rediscovering a Poet
Goetel & Gandhi
To look for something and find another

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