Book Review – The Tiger’s Wife
A tiger comes stalking a village in the Balkans. It comes through the city same night German bombs destroy a zoo, passing signs the World War II has arrived: mangled bodies, wrecked cars, bullet holes, craters from bombs, a miasma of burning oil, burning hair, burning flesh, chaos in which sirens blare, fires crackle, and gutted houses come crumbling down, caving either inward or outward but still crushing men, women and children, leaving those who survive the shower of stone to walk through clouds and choke dust. The cat, to the people in the village of Galina, was a veritable curse.
Filled with dreamlike imagery and metaphor, The Tiger’s Wife draws on myth, superstitions, and folkloric characters, with smartly embroidered maxims as ballast; it reads like a collection of short stories stitched together, all told by narrator and protagonist Natalia Stefanovi, giving it an air of oral literature. Natalia is a young doctor on her way to a mercy mission when she receives terrible news that her grandfather had died. Her grandfather, a man who carried around a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book everywhere, was a boy in Galina when the tiger came to the village, after escaping from a zoo during World War II. He also knew personally the young girl who lived with the butcher in his village, the deaf-mute, who the villagers would later call the tiger’s wife. And on top of that, he always asserted to have met a deathless man, during his rounds as a doctor, years later on. To the deathless man he owes a “small debt”, he had said. Not his life (not really) but his precious copy of The Jungle Book.
So when he dies in some small remote village, Brejevina, a long distance away from his home across the border, and of all things, The Jungle Book, the debt he allegedly owed to the deathless man is gone. His granddaughter immediately gets suspicious. She starts an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death, hunting down clues to better understand his past life. What she ends up discovering is a world skewed facts and superstitions, and she launches herself, headfirst, into this mystical world.
A man who supposedly cannot die, the deathless man bears the air of the devil, of Lucifer coming to town, in the classic 1967 novel, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. In that book the devil is an outgoing and unnerving man, and he disrupts everything from politics and venal politicians to discussions about Pontius Pilate in bars. The Tiger’s Wife’s deathless man is similar: smart, humorous, suave, formidable – and oh so deliciously convincing. He is without a doubt the most memorable character in the novel and has the distinction of reeling off bone-chilling lines, always calculating and cool in the most harrowing scenes. The link between the deathless man – and he has a name – Gavin Gaille, and Natalia’s grandfather is secured when Gaille steals away a butcher’s fiancée-to-be, and sets in motion a chain of events that see him cursed and the butcher marrying the woman’s sister instead. Gavin Gaille and Natalia’s grandfather after their first touchy encounter, would meet several more times over the course of the grandfather’s life, but he always appears when someone is about to die, and carrying his signature coffee cup. He is a confessed reaper, Natalia’s grandfather finds out; Gaille really cannot die. In fact, on their first encounter the deathless man is shot several times and buried, but literally rises from the grave, and brushes himself off, only to finally attempt t drown himself that same night, in a bid to prove to the “good ld doctor” that he won’t ever stop breathing, it is a bet that he of course wins, and the payout is a copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The grandfather and Gaille’s ‘chance’ encounters are scary, comical and, expectedly, tension-filled.
Death is a topic that pervades the novel, it is perhaps best captured by an account of the Slavic belief concerning the 40 days of soul. The belongings for the first forty days are precious; hence Natalia’s interest in finding her grandfather’s book, a quest that leaves her hunting Death.
Obreht stacks metaphor upon metaphor in her novel. She lets implications resonate so that when the bombs explode, excavating the belly of the earth between homes, or leaving a chasm in roads, the splashing soil, damaged tar, and death toll are not the highlights. It is not the mines which rip into bodies and the shredded legs, arms, heads that she wishes to emphasize, but the cultural and political breakaways that ensue, the herding of survivors into separate sides – this side and that side, “us and them”.
Obreht, through Natalia, recounts after the war that “landmarks, writers, scientists, histories [are] to be doled out according to their new owners. That Nobel Prize-winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure. And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal”. (But normal may be having a meal of John Dory with a deathless man, watching the blue lights from explosives wash over the city with a widening, deadly, refulgent light).
Breezing through people and/or mediums – superstitions, especially – The Tiger’s Wife will be endearing to all for its wonderful writing and austere moral of finding peace. A story with many twists and turns, branches which feed from magical realism and science, The Tiger’s Wife is also not without its deeply braided primarily and secondarily Scandinavian roots. And roots loosely defined are things that overtime “can crack foundations, snap water lines, and lifts sidewalks”, which is exactly how The Tiger’s Wife comes across metaphorically – steeped in history, profound, and powerfully reaching. Her tiger leaps, not quite over canyons but a generation gap, wars, and a country split in two, more by people than by bombs, more by intolerance than by assault rifles, and more by pride than by the impossibility of reconciliation.
When the tiger arrives in the village, he is pulled by the smells of the people and food. The people of Galina had never seen a tiger; only a little boy who keeps a copy of The Jungle Book has. And so when they see his “big-cat paw prints…his exhausted and square-shouldered walk” they think him a veritable demon, a malicious curse, a portending sign, precursory to the rabid Germans who will come soon to wipe them out, decimate them. The tiger though, ostensibly, is of more concern, even though he makes his residence the mountainside above the village, keeping his distance, troubling no one. But they cannot have that. So they plot how he’ll die: one bullet between the eyes and his skin saved for a taxidermist called The Bear. It will be the lucky Blacksmith who gets to kill him, however. They foist on him this honour, of course. Under duress, it is the Blacksmith who must go up the mountain, along with two other men including the butcher, the husband of the woman who will mysteriously ‘tame’ the tiger – the tiger’s wife. He must climb the mountainside, carrying the town’s only gun. He must fight the Demon with an Ottoman and, hopefully, return. But he does not come back. Instead, he is immortalized by his surviving friends, in a tale in which he supposedly fought with bravery to the last, when really it was an encounter that didn’t really start before it was over and his eyes were filled up with darkness and blood.
Part of what makes this book and its writing so enthralling is that nothing is allowed to lastingly overpower the other. It is as much a story about death as it is a story about life; about love as much as it is about loss of love; about science, although fantastical characters abound. Sculpted from gifted hands, masterful storytelling, it is as solid as an effort can be for a debut.
Tea Obreht grew up in Yugoslavia, Cyprus and Egypt. But she now presently lives in the USA. She first appeared on the radar of ‘Writers to Watch’ when she won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and was the youngest member, at 26, on a list, put out by The New Yorker, of notable young fiction writers, titled “20 under 40”.