This striking novel set in the lush hinterlands of Indonesia was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Kurniawan draws readers into a richly complex tale with the very first sentence. “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat...” The killer and the victim are identified beyond doubt, yet a riveting mystery is deftly built up.
Why would a good-natured and popular young man kill his harmless middle-aged neighbour, that too in an unimaginably gruesome manner, by biting through his neck?
Yet there are eye-witnesses, and the victim’s mauled body stands testimony to the brutal attack. When the story begins, Margio has already admitted to the killing and surrendered.
The killer, Margio, is a popular 20-year-old who drank, smoked weed and made out in shacks in the cocoa planation along with other village boys. Like a helpful son to his neighbour Anwar Sadat, Margio was much in demand for his prowess during wild boar hunts. “While some of his friends got into fights, he wouldn’t lay a finger on anyone.”
Just before killing Anwar Sadat, Margio gave clear, ominous signals of his intentions. “Right now, I’m afraid I’m really going to kill someone,” he told a friend over drinks, shortly before attacking his victim. “But of course nobody who hadn’t been there would believe these words came from Margio. He was the sweetest and most polite of his peers.” When Margio went to Anwar Sadat’s house on that fateful day, he didn’t even carry a knife or a cleaver or a rope with which to commit the murder.
“Who could predict he might end a man’s life with a bite?” Colourful and bustling rural Indonesia is brought to vivid life by the author. Cacao plantations are criss-crossed by paddy fields, ponds, and peanut gardens. Clouds of mosquitoes take charge over the swamps and ponds, and Major Sadra’s ancient motorcycle loudly traverses the mud roads of the villages. An old Panasonic radio is the greatest asset in Agus Sofyan’s tea shack, where the villagers enjoy listening to soccer commentary or dangdut or other types of pop music. This half-dead machine with its insides hanging out in a messy tangle from an open top “could make enough noise to be heard booming at half the soccer field’s distance.”
Soon, darker and mysterious facets of this cheerfully chaotic world emerge. Margio’s abused mother Nuraeni expresses her stifled sorrows and desires through her lush garden, which soon overwhelms the house itself with brilliant flowers of every hue.
Margio’s Grandpa “would take the boy to a rivulet he called the Kingdom of Genies” and talk of spirits, and of tigresses, whom many men in the hamlet called their own.
“Some married one, while others inherited a tigress, passed down through the generations.” Little Margio wonders when their family tigress, which has belonged to them from the times of distant ancestors, will choose to belong to him.
Deftly sketched minor characters with their own quirks further enliven the setting. Occasionally they lighten the mood as the mystery builds up. They also add to the mounting tension by casually dropping significant clues. The worst these easy-going and peaceful villagers do is gamble on pigeon races and cock fights, or hunt down wild boar. Margio’s harsh private world is a stark contrast. As the story inexorably flows in a flashback towards Anwar Sadat’s killing, we learn that Margio did, after all, have this latent murderous streak. He ran away from home because, as he confessed to his sister Mameh, he was afraid that he might really kill his father someday. The news of his father’s death brought him back home at last. Everyone noticed how happy Margio was, but they thought it natural, for his father was well known to have been very harsh with Margio and his gentle mother, Nuraeni.
From their conversations we learn early on that Margio took Anwar Sadat’s daughter Maharani to a film show the night before he killed her father. Maharani cut short her vacation and suddenly left next morning for her college in the city without giving any reason, refusing to talk to her father.
The mystery revolves around the strange and terrible, yet protective tigress ruling Margio’s inner world. “It was bigger than a clouded leopard, bigger than the ones people saw at the zoo or circus or in schoolbooks. If a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged... The tigress was there, a part of him, the two of them inseparable until death.”
A heady and memorable blend of magic realism, murder mystery and a deeply sensitive and sympathetic exploration of what drives a gentle soul to kill, this is a beautifully crafted and memorable read.