GABY RUSLI WRITES (in an ongoing series of Indonesian classics) – Every person has a personal ‘tiger’ within them, whether it’s a vice, a trauma or an immoral act that we bury inside of us . We spend our lives trying to control this tiger. Some manage to tame their tigers, while others are defeated by them. Mochtar Lubis proven through his classic work, Tiger! Tiger! (1991) that surrendering to the tiger within ourselves will only bring us downfall.
Tiger! Tiger! tells the story of seven men who worked as collectors of dammar, a job gathering a type of tree resin used for varnish obtained from the endemic trees of the Sumatran jungle. These people found themselves stalked by a Sumatran tiger who sought to ravage them one by one. Feeling helpless and fearful of dying an agonizing death, they turn to protective talismans and confessions of their past wrongdoings, hoping the tiger will spare them. The idea that the tiger was sent by God to punish them causes each of them to go mad and turn against each other.
Lubis’ story was inspired by a close encounter with a real tiger after finding a well-built but abandoned hut in the deep jungles of Sumatra. One of Lubis’ most popular works was Twilight in Jakarta (1963) (see book review), a story exposing the nepotistic and highly corrupt elite and passive scholars of Indonesian society. He was the first Indonesian and one of only three (so far) to be awarded the prestigious Magsaysay Award for Journalism and Literature. Lubis later returned the award in protest when he was on the left Pramoedya Ananta Toer also received the prestigious commendation.
Set in the immersive setting of the Sumatran jungle where a ferocious tiger roams, Tiger! Tiger! triggers deep self-reflection in its readers. Lubis conveys many ideas through his work, but the most apparent is his psychological approach to human nature. In its physical and spiritual form, the wild animal symbolizes life’s trials and tribulations while simultaneously representing its deepest fears and regrets.
When the first of the seven men is attacked, he repents of his sins. He also reveals the sins of another man in the group without any warning. Others begin to think about their personal offenses, wondering if and when their sins will be exposed. This creates a toxic dynamic where everyone is trying to fend for themselves. To have one’s vulnerabilities exposed so openly and without choice in the matter is a disconcerting and menacing concept indeed.
Mochtar Lubis condemns the charismatic leader archetype visible in politicians and shamans, who are both authority figures in Indonesia. His prose emphasizes that black magic, charisma, or both will not protect against imminent danger, despite the illusions of safety exuded by authority figures. Lubis reminds superstitious believers of the fragility of such methods of protection, much like how a ruler such as Soekarno, the first president of Indonesia after gaining independence from the Dutch, could not use his glorified and feared aura of charisma and mystery to become the leader Indonesia needed. Instead, Soekarno was known for making decisions against the best interests of the Indonesian people.
You must read Tiger! Tiger! with an open mind. Without it, the book will only be misunderstood as a fictional and exotic tale of a lush oriental landscape. Such a powerful story was meant to be one man’s critique of the multi-faceted identity of his nation and people. The reader does not have to share the same values as Lubis to understand his intentions and celebrate his work. After all, it is through the exchange of different opinions that societies advance towards the future.
Book reviewer, Gaby Rusli, is an international relations graduate from LMU and an environmentalist with a passion for Indonesian and South Asian political affairs.
Edited by Book Review Editor Ella Kelleher.