'Indonesia is a country that comes from blood'

Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan's reverse whodunnit mixes murder mystery with family drama and myth and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize

Eka Kurniawan made literary history this year as the first Indonesian author nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

But Man Tiger, the novel that won him a coveted spot on the list, was almost not to be.

"I wanted to write this narrative journalistic novel on a murder in my hometown Pangandaran, but I got a little bit lazy and gave up," says the 40-year-old with a laugh over the telephone from Jakarta, where he now lives.

First published in Bahasa Indonesia in 2004 as Lelaki Harimau and translated into English 11 years later, Man Tiger starts with a man, who believes a female tiger spirit has taken up residence in his body, killing his neighbour by gnawing through his jugular.

Inspiration struck when Eka was on a trip back home from Gadjah Mada University in the late 1990s. A brutal murder had just shaken up his small town in West Java.

"I was very excited to write the story at first, but I discovered I didn't have the stamina to talk to people in the field and find out all the details about the murder, so I dropped it," he recalls.

Eka Kurniawan (above) says the inspiration for Man Tiger came from a conversation with a friend about mystical white tigers.
Eka Kurniawan (above) says the inspiration for Man Tiger came from a conversation with a friend about mystical white tigers. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"Later, something strange happened to a friend. I picked up the idea for this crime novel again and added something extra."

Eka had been lounging around in a boarding house in Yogyakarta, when he heard loud thumps coming from his friend's room. His uncle, the friend nonchalantly told Eka, had sent him a tiger and he had tripped over it as it lay in his room.

Eka, who is married with a daughter, says: "I didn't see anything, but we started talking about stories of mystical white tigers we heard about and how some people in villages still believe a white tiger will appear when danger is coming."

And so he merged murder and mystical beast and came up with Man Tiger. It is a slim, but richly detailed novel that mixes a murder mystery with family drama and myth.

The reverse whodunnit reveals both murderer and murdered in the first sentence, then traces the motive by following two families weighed down by different problems - from an abusive, loveless marriage to a strict father's wandering eye.

"It's a lot about the psychology behind murder. What makes a man kill?" says Eka. "Traditional crime fiction is always chasing after the murderer, but I wanted to reveal him first. Sometimes the motive is more important than who did it. That's where the real story is."

Indonesia runs through his blood and his books, which weave in bits and pieces of his country's mythology and history, both real and reimagined.

Eka Kurniawan (above) says the inspiration for Man Tiger came from a conversation with a friend about mystical white tigers.
Man Tiger.

Eka was weaned on stories in his early years. His grandmother narrated fairy tales and the history of her village to him, while a storyteller on the radio brought him legends from all over West Java.

As he grew older, he began to see in Indonesia not just the richness of its culture and beliefs, but a history of violence and bloodshed too. And his books - brutal in their depictions of both gore and sex - reflect that.

His debut novel Beauty Is A Wound - published in Indonesia in 2002 and translated into English last year - is a sprawling look at the end of Dutch colonialism, the Japanese occupation in Indonesia, the thorny topic of communist massacres in the 1960s that left more than 500,000 dead, and former president Suharto's reign after.

Through it all, a family saga plays out, anchored by the beautiful Dewi Ayu, who "rose from her grave after being dead for 21 years".

Rape and death haunt its pages, dogging Dewi and her daughters through the years. And ghosts - of killers and victims - wander through the story, some thirsting for redemption and others for vengeance.

"We are a country that comes from blood. When I read about Indonesia's history, it is a life full of violence, full of political war crimes, full of corruption and greed," says Eka. "So when I write books about Indonesia, I cannot say I will not write about violence."

When it comes to the international book scene, Indonesian literature has long been in the shadow of Asian greats China and Japan.

But Eka is being touted as the archipelago's brightest literary star, with some hailing him as the successor to fellow countryman Pramoedya Ananta Toer.

Pramoedya, who died in 2006, was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature, but never won.

Indonesia's literary scene has grown more vibrant, says Eka, but more can be done. For starters, it must be the greatest supporter of its literature.

He says: "There is ignorance sometimes, that people can find good literature here. And now, we have so many young writers in Indonesia, but there is still a big problem. We have 250 million people, but our books may have only 10,000 copies printed."

The problem is compounded by the fact that some villages still have patchy access to books.

When Eka was growing up, Pangandaran did not have a proper bookshop or library.

His father, who taught English part-time, would come home with books from the school's tiny collection. Vendors on bicycles would occasionally pedal past with reading materials.

These small snatches of stories left a deep impression on Eka, who wrote his first book - a collection of short stories titled Corat-coret Di Toilet (Graffiti In The Toilet) - in 2000 and never thought his work would take off outside Indonesia.

He "had goosebumps" when he heard he had been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.

He did not win, but says: "I never even expected my books to be translated, so even that was great but weird."

It took Man Tiger and Beauty Is A Wound more than a decade to reach English-language readers, and thumbing through the translations still throws him for a loop.

Laughing, Eka says: "I'm a different person now, so it was so weird to read them again. I felt like, 'Oh my god, I want to rewrite them again. These belong to my youth'."

• Man Tiger (Verso Books, 2015, $32.38) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Indonesia is a country that comes from blood'. Subscribe