Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mochtar Lubis, Tiger! (1975)

I'm in a tizzy--a tizzy, I tell you!--trying to figure out whether I should call him "Mochtar" or "Lubis."  I'll level with you, people: I still don't totally understand how Indonesian names work.  I've basically just been going with what wikipedia or the introductions to the books themselves say.  I'm pretty sure Pramoedya is meant to be Pramoedya.  And I WAS pretty sure that Lubis was meant to be Lubis, but now I am in doubt, because this copy of Tiger! I read is not internally consistent: he's referred to as "Lubis" in the translator's introduction, but a pull quote on the back and the author bio in the front both call him "Mochtar."  WHAT A MYSTERY.  It may the case that they're just sort of more casual with these things in Indonesia--worth noting that the president-elect is universally referred to by a nickname--but I simply do not know.  I'm just going to alternate between the two when referring to him.

The other thing I'm in a tizzy about is this: the Indonesian title is Harimau! Harimau!--Tiger! Tiger!--and I would be very surprised if this is not an intentional Blake reference.  It would certainly be thematically appropriate.  But EVEN IF THAT'S not the case--what's the DEAL, translator Florence Lamoureux?  Why'dja confiscate Mochtar's second tiger?

Anyway, this novel takes place in the jungle near a village in Sumatra, where seven men have gone to gather supplies, as one does.  Unfortunately, they end up being stalked by a tiger--a real tiger that nonetheless has its allegorical qualities.  One of them, injured, is convinced that the tiger has been sent by Allah to punish them for their sins, and insists that they must all confess.  The story shows the ways that they deal with the situation--or, more broadly, how people deal with extreme duress in general.  The de facto leader of the group, Wak Katok, is a Big Deal, respected in the village, supposed to have magical powers.  But as he proves helpless to handle the situation, his power melts away and his true face reveals itself (in the introduction, Lubis specifically compares the character to Sukarno, of whom he was no fan--hard to blame him, given his imprisonment for criticizing the guy).  In the end, Mochtar strongly advocates a humanistic approach to society and to life in general, strongly informed by an enlightened kind of religion.  He's a bit of an anti-Ayn-Rand, and I admire him a lot.

(This is an aside, but I think it's interesting that I compared one scene in Twilight in Jakarta to a horror movie--and then we have this, the premise of which is very reminiscent of slasher movie--just replace the tiger with a knife-wielding maniac.  Of course, it was written well before this genre became a thing, and Lubis isn't going for cheap thrills here, but I still think there is--or at least OUGHT to be--something interesting there.)

Lest there be any doubt, I like this book a lot--maybe a hair less than Twilight in Jakarta, but the oppressive atmosphere of omnipresent dread is palpable, the characters feel real (in spite of the fact that, in a hundred-twenty-page novel, most of them aren't sketched in with a great deal of detail).  The only thing that didn't quite work for me: there's this business, before the tiger plot begins, where the characters take a break at the house of a rich, important kind of man who spends a lot of time out in the jungle with one of his wives.  Now, he's old and sick and his wife is young and hot, prompting much ribald talk amongst the foragers.  Ultimately, the youngest of them, the nineteen-year-old Buyung, loses his virginity to her, and she tells him about how much she hates her husband, how she's mistreated, &c, and he promises to help her, in spite of being in love with and planning to marry a girl in the village--and then, when they leave, this whole thing is mostly ignored and never resolved in any real way.  There may even be a trace of misogyny here.  It's the only part of the novel that rang false.

Still, quite a good novel.  Are your squishy liberal sensibilities bothered by a novel in which a tiger is hunted, even though it's only partially an actual tiger-tiger?  Well, let's leave the last words--which I strongly endorse--to Mochtar himself, from his introductory note:

Today we view the wild tiger in yet another light.  Considering the animal's endangered status, humans would do well to confine their tiger hunts to those tigers within themselves.  This would have the dual function of serving the cause of human rights and allowing the vanishing tiger in the wilderness to survive.


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