The last time I was so overwhelmed by storytelling that I didn’t even notice that the book I was reading was minus a plot, it was 2004 and I was lost in the Sundarbans of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tid
The last time I was so overwhelmed by storytelling that I didn’t even notice that the book I was reading was minus a plot, it was 2004 and I was lost in the Sundarbans of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
That is a longish book, so there was a moment when I surfaced, wondered where all this marvelousness was going, turned to the last page to find out (I’m shameless like that) and discovered: nowhere. The book, it seemed, was simply about its place and the lives of its characters. It had no particular beginning, middle and end, as I had grown up expecting books to have. Like life, The Hungry Tide just is, and though I really wished I knew what would happen to its characters, I was grateful that such mesmerising storytelling existed at all.
Man Tiger by Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring, is exactly like that. A book that is so not dependent on plot that the whole reason for its existence is mentioned in a throw-away fashion in the very first line: “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat, Kyai Jahro was blissfully busy with his fish pond.”
Now, having caught your attention, Kurniawan takes you into the places and lives of his characters so completely that you cannot stop reading for a second, not even for a pee break. (So it’s fortunate that the book is only 172 pages, because frankly, at my age, the kidneys cannot hold out indefinitely.)
Why does Margio kill Anwar Sadat It’s a long and complex story, one that takes us deep into the life of every main character in the book: Margio himself, his mother Nuraeni, his father Komar bin Syueb, his sister Mameh, Anwar Sadat, Mrs Sadat, the three Misses Sadat, Margio’s grandfather, and a tigress, white as a swan, that inhabits the men in Margio’s family, passing on from generation to generation. If the tigress thinks the man in the next generation isn’t worthy of her, she will skip a generation or two, or three, but she will return to the right man of the family should she still be remembered.
The entire village is stunned when Margio kills Anwar Sadat, because Margio is just not a murderer. He’s famously sweet-tempered and lovable and loving, in spite of what Komar put his family through: raping Nuraeni like an animal and beating her to a pulp till she was driven to madness; beating his kids too.
Everyone in the village knows Margio held himself back from violence against Komar only for the sake of his mother. And that even when Margio was most provoked, when Nuraeni’s newborn baby Marian died because Komar had brought on a premature birth by beating his wife, the boy merely threatened to kill Komar — he even ran away to prevent himself from actually murdering him, and returned only after Komar died.
And yet. Margio killed Anwar Sadat — and in what a way! He had no weapon but his teeth — and he bit right through Sadat’s jugular.
The whole thing is inexplicable, even when Margio explains that he has a tiger in his body.
How could Margio, of all people, have done what he did And why was Anwar Sadat Margio’s victim
As he takes us through to the answers, Kurniawan takes us through this little bit of undefined Indonesia: its culture, its climate, its people. Not only Margio and his family and Sadat and his family, but other villagers, their lives and thoughts, and I cannot explain to you how absolutely gorgeous it all is.
In fact, though I really would like to tell you more about what you’ll find in this book, I can’t. Everything is so interconnected that it’s impossible to condense the story into a paragraph or two. Reading it is sort of like being lost in a jungle. You stumble upon clearings, you trip over creepers, you gasp at the beauty of hidden flowers, you get nipped by nettles, you get trapped in the shrubbery between trees — and you’re not scared for a second. You’re simply awed to be on this winding path that seemingly has no end, delighted to be exploring this world.
But you feel these feelings later. When you’re actually reading this book, you’re in it.
Kurniawan tells this story as though it’s a series of spirals. You go back and forth, up and down, in and out of time, so often that you don’t know when you and the character you’re following at this point are. You swoop in, swoop out, do a little twirl, twirl again, swoop back, and go on in this manner, chapter after chapter, each of which deals primarily with one of the characters, but naturally, with the involvement of everyone else. It’s an exhilarating way to read a book (though once again, thank heavens it’s short enough not to drive you crazy), and when I finally put it down, I was as dizzy as a child imitating a whirling dervish.
Despite its name and the tigress that’s moved into Margio, Man Tiger is not an excursion into magic realism. It’s just storytelling about life, and the book is so beautifully translated, so simply told and yet so captivating, that I wish I could read it in the original.
Since I can’t, all I can do now is wait for Kurniawan’s next, and hope it’s translated by the same person.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea