First Page Impressions – Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan

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Indonesian edition of Lelaki Harimau

Pity us Indonesian bibliophiles! Books at bookstores are plastic-mummified to such vacuumed perfection that it is impossible to flick through novels and get a feel for the writing before buying. Word of mouth, an author’s popularity, and plot blurbs are all well and good. Yet they do nothing to capture an author’s prose.

Perhaps luck was on my side the other day. Or perhaps the blue moon peeked through. Insert other hoary phrases here. Very recently, I found some unwrapped books at a mall bookstore and had fun snooping the contents. But I’m writing this to talk about the first page of one specific novel: Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan.

Eka Kurniawan is one of the brightest stars of contemporary Indonesian literature. Lelaki Harimau has been translated to English, Italian, French, and German. Meanwhile, his other famous novel Cantik itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound) has been freshly published in English by the New York based New Directions Publishing to critical acclaim. Seeing his popularity, some predict he will equal Pramoedya Ananta Toer in being the most readily available Indonesian writer internationally. Belying Kurniawan’s place in Indonesia’s literary establishment is his age. Born in 1975, he is very young for his accomplishments.

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English Edition of Beauty is a Wound

It is with shame that I’ll admit: I only learned about Kurniawan’s works and existence quite recently, sometime this year, prior to the English publication of Cantik itu Luka. Out of curiosity, I bought a plastic-wrapped Cantik itu Luka and it has languished on my bookshelf ever since.

Seeing an unbound copy of Lelaki Harimau, I thought ‘why not? I don’t even know what his writing is actually like’ and proceeded to read the first page. Boy, what an experience.

One word: cacophonous. The first sentence alone battered me with an avalanche of words. It was sensory overload. Kurniawan’s sentence structure is long, elaborate, and stuffed with excessive commas. If it sounds a bit Henry James, it’s only in structure. Kurniawan is no realist and there is nothing dry and Victoriana about his writing. Kurniawan’s style is lush and baroque almost to excess. It’s also lyrical, although the writer’s aim clearly isn’t “prettiness” as the writing is deliberately juxtaposed with bawdy, vulgar diction. The overall effect is raucous and transporting.

If there is one author and work Kurniawan is giving a wink to here, it’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The first sentence of Lelaki Harimau is obviously a send-up of One Hundred Years of Solitude’s opening line. A death, a pivot on said death, and poetic description.

This is a writer who demands your attention. You don’t write like this unless you want attention.

The first page of Lelaki Harimau both repulsed and attracted me. Kurniawan is clearly ambitious and the cynical part of me thinks his writing screams “Give me a prize! NOW” For all the highbrow name I’ve given this blog, I’m more interested in good old-fashioned storytelling than literary experimentation. I was repulsed from reading the second page because the novel’s effect is just too much, too dizzying. It’s not what you want when you are just casually strolling by.

Yet I am also intrigued. Does Kurniawan’s ambition match his skills? More importantly, something about Kurniawan’s prose serves as a metaphor for Indonesia itself. Kurniawan’s prose is, as I mentioned, cacophonous, luxuriant, sensuous, excessive. Indonesia is a country that is brash, colorful, loud, lush, abundant, unsubtle, beautiful. You need to focus if you want to take everything in or it’s just a battery of sensory overload.

My attraction is obviously stronger than my apprehension as Cantik itu Luka is moving up on the priority reading list. I just need to make sure I have a clear, focused mind before I attempt it.

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6 thoughts on “First Page Impressions – Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger) by Eka Kurniawan

    1. Oh, I do know about the sample option on Amazon (and I woefully underuse it to my own detriment), but I like being able to open the books that interest me right there and then. My complaints are a bit churlish, I know.

      Do write a review on Man Tiger! I’d love to know what you think! I’m trying of fitting Cantik itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound) on my December reading list.

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  1. Oh, how frustrating to not be able to look inside the cellophane shut pages! I think looking for samples on a kindle or nook as Booker Talk suggested is a great idea. If you have one. 😉

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  2. My policy when I’m at any of Gramedia shops: buy the works of Indonesian literary writers without holding back. Two books per month. 🙂

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