Two recently translated novels by the Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan—Beauty is a Wound (2015) and Man Tiger (2015)—have captured a significant degree of critical attention. Beauty is a Wound is a sprawling, digressive novel that encompasses the period from the last years of Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation, the decimation of the Indonesian Communist Party in the 1960s, and the early years of the Suharto dictatorship. Its epic scope is a sort of “magic realist”—I use this somewhat misleading term in a highly qualified sense—response to Pramodeya Ananta Toer’s monumental social-realist Buru tetralogy. In contrast, Man Tiger is a tighter, more focused novel that reminds the reader of the narrative structure of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I am not using terms like “digressive” or “focused” in a judgmental sense. In his “Introduction” to Man Tiger, the late Benedict Anderson (2015) uses terms like “evolving style,” “growing discipline” and the contrast between “two” and “three-dimensional” characters to describe the maturation of Kurniawan’s artistic practice from Beauty is a Wound to Man Tiger (xii-xiii). I find these types of value judgments problematic as they imply a progressive teleology of individual artistic growth; instead, I think it’s far more useful to evaluate Kurniawan’s narrative form and style through a consideration of how it molds itself to the different objects of representation in the two texts.
The primary object of representation in Beauty is a Wound is the fictional history of the late colonial period and the post-colonial nation narrated through the lens of a family story. In contrast, overt references to public history are few and far between in Man Tiger; rather, they emerge in fits and starts. Intertwined family stories are foregrounded, but official history seems to take a backseat here. Late colonial history and the period of the war exist in the story as objects of decay—an example is the rusty Japanese samurai sword “eaten away by the salty air” that “couldn’t decapitate the scrawniest chicken” (4-5). The bloody period of the 60s is now relegated to the edges and creases of the Republic’s memory. For instance, early on the narrator says: “Living in a generally more peaceful period in the Republic’s history, in which the business of war was left to the soldiers, made these boys reckless” (9). Further on, after the protagonist Margio brutally murders Anwar Sadat—the incident that is the flashpoint for the gradual unraveling of the plot—we come across the following segment: “Joni Simbolon dragged Margio off to the subdistrict military headquarters. This always happened before a suspect was sent off to the police station. It provided the soldiers with some much-needed fun in a republic no longer at war” (34). These laconic references to the “business of war” being left to soldiers and the “much-needed fun” during a period of relative calm [and also references to re-runs of films like the 1976 blockbuster Cintaku de Kampus Biru] locate the novel in the latter years of the Suharto regime. Furthermore, these statements also reveal that after the brutal suppression of Communists and suspected Communists in the 1960s and early 70’s followed by the invasion of East Timor, violence at the level of the everyday in the novelistic present is nothing but war continued by other means.
What I am implying by this unfaithful inversion of the Clausewitzian formula above is that Man Tiger is not primarily about the broader historical sweep of the colonial and post-colonial project of nation-making and of subsequent state violence as in the Buru Tetralogy or Beauty is a Wound. Instead, its focus is on the infiltration of violence and terror into the minutiae of everyday life and the way in which the domain of the intimate explodes like a battlefield. While brutal, dehumanizing battles rage on in the domain of the domestic, the violence and terror of the past lingers on like ruins and decaying matter, and briefly bob to the surface only to sink back again into the background. As in Beauty is a Wound, Man Tiger explores this intertwined relationship between the public and the domestic by focusing on the conjoined history of two families: that of Komar bin Syueb and his wife Nuraeni, and of Anwar Sadat and his wife Kasia. Margio is Komar’s son and his beloved, Maharani, is Sadat’s youngest daughter. Throughout the novel we are led to believe that Margio harbors murderous feelings towards his father, Komar, who often brutalizes Nuraeni, his daughter Mameh and Margio (especially when he was younger). However, the novel opens with gory and visceral descriptions of the aftermath of the murder of Anwar Sadat by Margio, a crime seemingly without motive. It is also revealed that Margio harbors a white tigress inside him. Through dexterous manipulations of temporal and perspectival shifts (as Anderson emphasizes, without the use of flashbacks) in the different chapters through which the “first pages are almost simultaneous with the last” (Anderson xiii), Kurniawan reveals that Anwar Sadat sexually exploited Nuraeni. His brutal murder with his “half-severed neck” and “clods of flesh scattered all over the floor, like spilled spaghetti sauce” (31), is the son/tigress’s revenge for the physically abused mother. The last lines of the text clarify this:
“Marry my mother and she’ll be happy.”
Anwar Sadat shook his head nervously, and his reply came out brokenly.
“That’s impossible, you know I have a wife and daughters.” Something in his face said the proposition was absurd, making what he said next redundant. “Besides, I don’t love your mother.”
That was when the tiger came out of Margio, white as a swan. (172)
In a review of the novel, Eric Williams (2016) writes that to describe Man Tiger as “magic realist” is misleading because it presupposes a Eurocentric separation of the domains of the “natural” and the “supernatural.” Such a separation does not exist in the Javanese oral folkloric tradition that Kurniawan playfully draws from. Williams argues that:
The growing western inclination to regard the belief in the supernatural…as a grounds for refusal of recognition as serious art…is simply the continuation of neo-colonialism by other means. It is precisely Kurniawan’s sly and largely self-satirising deployment of the supernatural that allows his texts to operate nomadically, crossing across cultural boundaries and acquire new and more subversive meanings through their migrations. Thereby demonstrating that the occult can deconstruct and subvert power structures as effectively as the profanely political or the mundanely material.
Instead of magic realism, Williams proposes that Man Tiger should be read instead as an attempt to folklorize the hard boiled noir narrative where by “Transposing vigilante Feminist justice to a (female) supernatural creature operating through the passive body of a male marionette enables Kurniawan to artfully camouflage a purely secular crime story of a homicidal Femme Fatale as a mere folkloric entertainment concerning ‘everyday’ magical spirits.” This suggestion, to my mind, is an excellent one as Man Tiger both uses and subverts the codes of the hard-boiled noir novel. If we follow Anderson’s account, reading “bad” translations of the Nick Carter series and “horror and action comics” were Kurniawan’s staples as a young adolescent—an observation that finds a near-autobiographical echo within the diegetic space of Man Tiger: “They (the young Margio and his friends) read Enny Arrow’s mimeographed pornographic novels or the sexcapades of Nick Carter. Dime novels and comic books were banned at school, and no one dared to talk at their desks about comics like The Blind Man from the Haunted Cave or the one called Panji the Skull…” (24-5). It is possible, and I am speculating here, that the playful subversion of the narrative frameworks of noir and pulp fiction by Kurniawan in Man Tiger can be traced back to the internalization of their sensationalist codes during such adolescent escapades.
While Williams’s points about the tiger (or, more appropriately, tigress) as a displaced, folkloric form of the “femme fatale” of noir and a sort of “Jungian anima that inhabits nearly all of the male descendants of Margio’s patrilineal family, generation to generation” are quite provocative, he does not mention the direct link established in the novel between the inter-generational transmission of tigers and its connection to storytelling. This link is established explicitly in the section about Ma Muah, the village “granny,” and its resident storyteller. Ma Muah first narrates the story of the inherited tigers to Margio and the other children in the latter’s grandfather’s village:
She (Ma Muah) was always ready with a new story. She didn’t have to make anything up, she would say; they were all true. Like the tigresses, many stories were passed between successive storytellers across the generations. But some were about the present and understood only by the chosen ones, and of course Ma Muah was the chosen granny. (41)
Both storytelling and the “tigresses” are ways in which the community imagines itself a continuing subject through time. These inherited tigresses are “protective” and sustains and nourishes this collective in the face of catastrophic historical traumas. Notice how the larger backdrop of colonial/post-colonial history surreptitiously makes its appearance here again, immersing itself into the warp and woof of the community’s memory through the act of storytelling:
He had often heard of his grandfather’s prowess, and that of elders in other hamlets: how they resisted Dutch efforts to abduct the best young men for forced labor in the Land of Deli. Bullets had no effect on them, nor did the samurai swords of the Japanese, who came later, and if they got angry, their white tigresses came out from their bodies to attack. They even expelled the gangs of Darul Islam guerrillas roaming the jungle. Ma Muah said that this was all because of the elders’ elemental friendship with the tigresses, who became family through wedlock. (42)
While these tigresses were generally protective and helped the community imagine forms of continuity and survival, if “a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged” (41). These sentences echo again during the closure, but the important question here is why the tigress bypasses Komar and is inherited by Margio? Williams answers only part of the puzzle: “…the men of this clan are selected as potential instruments of vengeance for the sexual and domestic abuse of women. Significantly, Margio’s abusive father Komar bin Syueb is the only male who is passed over.” My wager though is that the other reason for which Komar is bypassed is his utter failure to communicate his experiences to his wife Nuraeni. Instead of sharing experiences, he responds to Nuraeni’s growing coldness in the dehumanizing language he seems to know best—that of violence and sexual abuse. The life-affirming and durable potential of storytelling, the novel seems to suggest, metamorphoses into the deathly and terrifying visage of stunted and derailed communication as we track the increasing physical and mental brutality that characterizes the relationship of Komar and Nuraeni.
We don’t have to agree with Walter Benjamin’s (1968) melancholic ruminations on the gradual disappearance of storytelling in Europe to draw from his basic point that this art-form is predicated on the “ability to exchange experiences” (83). The storyteller, Benjamin continues, “takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others…(and)…makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale” (87). The roots of the terrible decay in Komar and Nuraeni’s relationship can be traced back to this inability to exchange experiences. As a young girl betrothed to Komar, who has gone away to the city for a year, Nuraeni anxiously waits for his letters. Days, weeks and months agonizingly pass by without a word from Komar. Nuraeni’s despair slowly metamorphoses into an “icy will” and she begins to banish “nostalgia” and “soft sentiments” (99-100). What began potentially as a tender love story slowly mutates into a cold hatred on Nuraeni’s part as she is ignored repeatedly by Komar. Komar further subjects this relationship to a “slow death” (103) by treating Nuraeni as a utilitarian thing subjecting her to repeated physical and sexual assaults after their marriage.
Later in the narrative, we get a brief glimpse of this early period from Komar’s perspective after he realizes that the third child in Nuraeni’s womb (the sickly Marian who dies a few days after she is born) has been fathered by someone else:
The day of the wedding arrived, and he could see how unenthusiastic his bride was. He had never written the letter she had pined for, and never apologized. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to write nonsense on a pink sheet of paper scented with talc, but rather that he truly didn’t know what to write about. There was nothing interesting about a life under the shade of a tree waiting for customers worried about their unsightly hair (Komar is a barber). But the woman is mine, he thought. Marriage makes her mine, and she is meant for me. If she isn’t there for me when I want her, I have a right to be angry. (133)
While this segment begins with a measure of sympathy for Komar’s predicament (“he truly didn’t know what to write about”), it slowly begins to oscillate towards the only language that he knows: that of violence and terror. This consciousness of the inability to communicate, the failure to exchange experience, is short-circuited and re-routed into the language of ownership of property. For Komar, Nuraeni is merely an object he possesses to be used and abused as he sees fit. Even when Komar thinks his wife has gone mad because of her habit of speaking to utensils, he “never let that thought deter him when it came to plundering her flesh” (106).
How does Nuraeni respond to this inability to exchange experiences? Products of marital rapes, her two children with Komar—Margio and Mameh—bring her no joy, although she becomes closer to them as time goes by. When she lives in a ramshackle godown for eight years, she hardly communicates with anyone in her family. Speaking to the utensils—her “constant companions since the day of her marriage” (105), and things that do not reciprocate her speeches—becomes her mode of survival. But the true dimensions of her rage become evident after the family moves to House 131. After Komar buys the decrepit house from Ma Rabiah and his projects to beautify its appearance fail, Nuraeni begins to plant flowers in the yard. Like the protective tigress which Margio has to forcibly confine “behind a cage door” (54) to suppress his uncontrollable rage against Komar, the beautiful flowers planted by Nuraeni soon begin to mutate into something monstrous.
Here it would be useful to pause and reflect on the paradoxical plasticity and mutability of non-human metaphors in Man Tiger. The white tigress is in general imagined as a protector, but cannot be restrained when it is enraged. Contiguously, the “luxuriant growth” (112) of the flowers in the garden lulls Margio and others into thinking that Nuraeni has finally found a mode of release and a source of joy. But the garden soon metamorphoses into a “botanical bedlam” (136). In fact, as Nuraeni’s true intentions are slowly revealed, the garden becomes a topos for a form of “plant horror” (Meeker and Szabari 2012). In “The Language of Flowers,” (1985) Georges Bataille overturns the naturalized associations of beauty associated with flowers. Stench and putrefaction, Bataille argues, surround flowers as they wither and decay. Furthermore, if flowers bloom following an ascending movement from low to high, this same perspective can be reversed when we consider that their roots also grow underground and are nourished by decaying matter. Flowers rot like corpses, but the repulsive horror of decay also becomes the nourishment for new life. Furthermore, what Meeker and Szabari write about plant ontology could also be applied to the depiction of flowers in Man Tiger:
…plants appeared to represent life in excess, since their growth was understood as unlimited by morphology. In the absence of a defined shape, ontological plants grow endlessly, in a proliferation of organless bodies, with associations of mystical excess. (34)
This horror associated with the paradoxical association of beauty with putrefaction, the “proliferation of organless bodies” and “life in excess” accurately depicts the portrayal of Nuraeni’s flower garden in Man Tiger. Consider the following passages:
…The plants became lush with the arrival of the monsoon season, and some began to bud. Colors appeared amid the jungle of green, and like his father, Margio spied on Nuraeni, hoping to see her cheerful at the luxuriant growth in her garden.
It turned out that the plants were too healthy. The yard, which they had imagined a beautiful garden adorning their little house, was now a jungle, with blooms popping out every which way. Months passed and the allamanda began to soar, its highest tips slithering over the roof, its bright yellow flowers contrasting sharply with the blue sky, enchanting butterflies. The jasmine by the kitchen wall was a glimmer of white against a dark-green background, like stars in a night sky. Everything spread rapidly, like the dense golden dewdrops that had grown into a solid fence.
The garden became indistinguishable from dense undergrowth, and Margio started to call it a wilderness. The leaves either withered or jostled each other for light. Komar realized his assumptions about what Nuraeni was doing were quite wrong, and he treated the plants with his old disgust. Returning from the barbershop, he’d let the wheels of his bicycle squash some golden dewdrops, or hurl the bike onto a rose bush. The mistreatment killed some of the plants, and others withered, adding to the chaos. Within two years, no one could see the facades of the house; it was covered entirely by shimmering green leaves. When guests came, they had to ask where the front door was. Dead plants fertilized the soil, and the remainder thrived. (112-13)
Similar to how the life-affirming quality of storytelling (conjoined with the protective role of the tigers) mutates into something truly malign and horrifying in the text, the beauty and vitality of Nuraeni’s flower garden exaggerates “the tragicomic oppositions indicated in the course of this death-drama, endlessly played out between earth and sky…” (Bataille, 13). This “botanical bedlam” nourished by the “depth of bitterness” (113) in Nuraeni becomes a home for foxes, caterpillars, snakes and thieves.
Contrast this with the care that Nuraeni bestows on Anwar Sadat’s garden (Nuraeni is employed as a housekeeper by Kasia): “Nuraeni wouldn’t let the flowers in the yard wilt either, quite unlike her own flower jungle…” (119). Indeed, Anwar Sadat’s amorous advances and their subsequent, albeit brief, moments of intimacy briefly enables her to bloom like a flower, resulting in her third pregnancy. It was as if this unborn child “were her long-awaited firstborn, and she would be filled with tears anticipating the day she would bring it into the world, to hear its cry, to see it grow, and she knew she would love it” (130). But this child—the sickly Marian—unacknowledged both by Komar or Anwar Sadat during her brief life, dies soon after she is born. The only time that Nuraeni plucks the flowers from her garden is after Marian’s death:
Only once did Mameh see Nuraeni plucking flowers, not long after Marian died. She was singing strange ballads, which Mameh didn’t recognize. Perhaps they dated back to the time when her mother was still a girl. These melancholy songs flowed, while her fingers tweaked each flower carefully and placed it in her basket. It was as if plucking the flowers were the same as killing them, and her sorrow for them as great as the void left by the baby. (114)
Tenderness, melancholia, horror at stemming the flow of life and disgust—the representation of flowers in Man Tiger, like that of the tigress who is both alluringly beautiful and terrifyingly sublime, seems to oscillate ambivalently between a plethora of affective associations.
Thus, the mutable nature of the non-human elements in the text initiate a series of correspondences that reveals the mutual imbrication of the dimensions of the public and the intimate in Man Tiger. While a more conventional sense of historical allegory seems to be the default generic mode in Beauty is a Wound, Man Tiger explores the latent everyday violence of the post-Suharto era through a series of poetic correspondences. In one such correspondence, Mameh reflects on Nuraneni’s garden and realizes what her mother’s intentions were: “Nuraeni hoped to make the house as ugly as possible, as much a ruin as she had said it would be on the first day they arrived” (113). This reference to “ruin” corresponds to the rusty Japanese Samurai sword that couldn’t even decapitate the scrawniest chicken. The domestic as ruin, the violence of the past as decaying and rusty matter; in such brief flashes, Man Tiger reveals the torn, fragmented parts of a body politic that somehow cannot add up to a whole.
*This is a slightly edited version of an essay that first appeared in Critique (Vol. 4, Issue 1), 2016. Pgs. 42-45.
Anderson, Benedict. “Introduction.” Man Tiger: a Novel. London, New York: Verso, 2015. v-xiii.
Bataille, Georges. “The Language of Flowers” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Trans. Allan Stoekl, Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie Jr. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 1985. 10-15.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” Illuminations. Ed.Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Shocken Books, 1968. 69-82.
Kurniawan, Eka. Beauty is a Wound. Trans. Annie Tucker. New York: New Directions, 2015.
–.Man Tiger: a Novel. Trans. Labodalih Sembiring. London, New York: Verso, 2015.
Meeker, Natania and Antonia Szabari. “From Century of the Pods to the Century of the Plants: Plant Horror, Politics and Vegetal Ontology.” Discourse (Vol. 34, No. 1), Winter 2012, 32-58.
Williams, Eric. “Review: Man Tiger Strikes!” insideIndonesia.org, 4 April 2016.