Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife is the debut novel of American writer Téa Obreht. It was published in 2010 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a British imprint of Orion Books, and in 2011 by Random House in America.

The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country, in the present and half-a-century ago, and features a young doctor's relationship with her grandfather and the stories he tells her, primarily about the 'deathless man' who meets him several times in different places and never changes, and a deaf-mute girl from his childhood village who befriends a tiger that has escaped from a zoo. It was largely written while she was at Cornell, and excerpted in The New Yorker in June 2009. Asked to summarize it by a university journalist, Obreht replied, "It's a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who's a doctor. It's a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans."

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In the surreal and yet all-too-real opening scene of Emir Kusturica's 1995 film Underground, the Nazis bomb Belgrade zoo, causing the panicked animals to run for their lives. And it is during this same raid that the tiger of Téa Obreht's debut novel escapes to the hills above the fictional village of Galina.

This was 60 years ago, the narrator Natalia tells us, but the complicated story of what happened to the tiger and the people of Galina lives on. It's now rekindled by the death of Natalia's beloved grandfather. He was a native of Galina and just a boy when the tiger appeared. The key to her grandfather's life and death "lies between two stories: the story of the tiger's wife, and the story of the deathless man".

Natalia has followed in her grandfather's steps and become a doctor in "the City". On hearing of his death, she takes us on a labyrinthine journey to investigate. He has been her constant companion – their weekly visit to the city zoo was a ritual. A humanist schooled in the old tradition, he remained loyal to his patients even after he was expelled from the university for political reasons. He never parted with his copy of The Jungle Book, not even when a mysterious stranger dubbed "the deathless man" won it in a bet to prove his immortality to the rational doctor.

The deathless man is presented as a key piece in the puzzle, along with the bear-man, the tormented butcher-musician, his long-suffering and deaf Muslim wife who becomes the tiger's wife for reasons too complicated to explain here, and a whole menagerie of other rural Balkan curiosities whose stories are embroidered by a collective genius of superstition. The brilliant black comedy and matryoshka-style narrative are among the novel's great joys. But they are also one of the problems: after meeting innumerable exotic characters, it dawned on me that the back-stories stand in for a story, and style stands in for emotion.

Obreht's imagination is seductively extravagant and prone to folkloric hyperbole, and this makes parts of the novel read like a picaresque romp through some enchanted Balkan kingdom, rife with magic, murder and mayhem. Who cares, it's all a fable about a war – no, several wars – in some unnamed land. No real places or persons are named: Tito is "the Marshall", Belgrade is "the City", and we are in "a Balkan country still scarred by war".

But there is a sorrow that sometimes undercuts the flights of fancy, and this saves The Tiger's Wife from being a freak show. Obreht's – and Natalia's – real journey is back in time, and the real investigation here is of the difficult times, violent death and crippled afterlife of that mythical place once called Yugoslavia. The puzzle is Yugoslavia itself. The zoo was bombed again in Natalia's own time, the 1990s. The wolves ate their cubs, and the tiger, called Zbogom or Farewell, ate his own legs: a powerful metaphor for Serbia-Yugoslavia devouring her own children.

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Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar’s 400-year-old bridge.

None of these appear in Téa Obreht’s first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” yet in its pages she brings their historic and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor.

A metaphor for the author’s achievement can be found in her tale of Luka, a dreamy, brooding butcher’s son from a mountain village called Galina. A decade after World War I, Luka leaves Galina and walks 300 miles to the river port of Sarobor, where he hopes to master the gusla, a single-stringed Balkan folk instrument. Arriving there, he finds that gusla music is nearly forgotten, overtaken by rollicking modern tunes played by lusty, boisterous bands. Still, he seeks out old men who know the traditional songs, falls under the spell of the “throbbing wail of their voices winding through tales remembered or invented” and acquires their art. Although his gift is for lyrics rather than music, “there are those who say that any man who heard Luka play the gusla, even in wordless melody, was immediately moved to tears.” When a woman asks why he doesn’t prefer an instrument with a greater number of strings, he responds, “Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories.”

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Tea Obreht's swirling first novel, "The Tiger's Wife," draws us beneath the clotted tragedies in the Balkans to deliver the kind of truth that histories can't touch. Born in Belgrade in 1985 - no, that's not a typo - she captures the thirst for consecration that a century of war has left in that bloody part of the world. It's a novel of enormous ambitions that manages in its modest length to contain the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, Turks and Ottomans, science and superstition.

The story, which demands a luxurious stretch of concentration, works on two levels that initially seem unrelated but eventually wind around each other evocatively. In the present day, the narrator is a young doctor named Natalia, who travels 400 miles on a "goodwill mission" to inoculate orphans at a monastery in a town now separated from her home by a new border. Just as she arrives, she gets word that her beloved grandfather, also a physician, has died while coming to help her. His death is not a surprise - she alone knew he had cancer - but the circumstances strike her as odd.

Obreht has lived in the United States since she was 12, but she creates a vivid sense of this war-torn region (we're never told exactly where all this is taking place). Her thoughtful narrator must navigate the land mines - literal and political - that still blot the countryside. Natalia's world is a steampunk mingling of modern technology and traditional tools - cellphones and antibiotics alongside picks and poultices.

But what confounds her medical work at the monks' orphanage is a conflict of values, which touches on the novel's most interesting theme. While Natalia administers vaccines, a group of ragged people is digging in a vineyard behind the monastery. They're not gardening; they're looking for the body of a cousin abandoned 12 years ago during the war. One of the men is convinced that if they can properly rebury this relative, the sickness affecting their village will abate. Natalia, of course, would rather these superstitious men allow her to examine and treat their children, but she also appreciates their need to recover and sanctify the remains of the dead. Indeed, she now feels the same obligation.

This activity in the present is only the novel's skeleton; the meat of the book is supplied by the lyrical stories Natalia remembers from her grandfather. These tales take place in a time of isolated villages inhabited by craftsman, traveling peddlers and healers. That "The Tiger's Wife" never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic - its agile play with tragic material and with us - because, despite Natalia and her grandfather's devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.

Two semi-mythical characters dominate her grandfather's reminiscences, stories flecked with macabre humor that sound at times like Balkan versions of Isaac Bashevis Singer. One is "the deathless man," the nephew of Death himself, who came originally to heal but eventually to carry the souls of the deceased to the other side. Again and again, her grandfather crossed paths with this mournful but congenial man, whose story he never allowed himself to fully believe.

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