Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

If a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged.
— Eka Kurniawan, Man Tiger

What is beautiful about storytelling is that it can dive so quickly into the mystical, the otherworldly, while still managing to root deeply in the human experience. That's what Eka Kurniawan accomplished in his short novel, Man Tiger, which hones in on a young man, Margio, living with a female white tiger inside of him, who has murdered a man in his village and we don't know why.

The magical powers of the white tiger are part of Javanese Indonesia mystical history, but, as captivating as that premise alone is, the white tiger is more on the periphery of the story than at its core. In fact, Kurniawan focuses most on Margio's family and the village. We grow to understand Margio's love for his grandfather, and violence felt toward his father. We learn of his sisters, one living and one dead. We learn of his young love, and their heartache. But mostly, we learn about his mother, promised to a husband at age 12, who faced violence and rape in her own home, who spent her time talking to the stove and the oven as her only confidants, whose wedding ring was sold to buy the house they occupied, who fell in love with someone new, who began to breath new life and carry new life. 

There is also the story of the woman who sold all her property at low rates to those who had for many years owned only the homes on the land, including Margio's family. This woman, after sale very wealthy, went on to spend her money in spurious ways to prevent her spoiled children from stealing from her, and died eating the soil of the very land that shaped the story of her life so absolutely. There is the farmer who herded the boys in the village to hunt the wild boars. There are the villagers near the train tracks that organize rooster fights. There are Margio's neighbors, the three beautiful daughters, the midwife mother and the artistic father.

There is the man whose jugular was bitten by Margio, and his white tiger.

Benedict Anderson, in the introduction, comments on Kurniawan's unique writing style and his evolution - the beauty of his prose, the vastness of his vocabulary, the pervasive voice of the storyteller and its three-dimensional qualities, and the disciplined use of the supernatural. But critics also commented on the fact that such a short novel felt sometimes routine or exhaustive in places.

It's true that, even in such a short novel, some descriptions seem lengthy, but, in ways, it reads like an oral history, best in one sitting, at the edge of suspense. Kurniawan, one of the few modern Indonesian authors being translated and disseminated around the world today, writes a story that begs to be read, with a fierceness of those only possessed by the white tiger, whose writing may come to be revered in the literature kingdom. There is the hunt, the slow read, the silent approach, and then he goes in for the kill.