The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

tigerswifeLike many who have read this first novel, written by a young woman still in her twenties, I marvel at the very existence of the The Tiger’s Wife (Random House, 338 pages). How could someone this young have written a narrative this complicated, this full of insights into human nature, this teeming with art—this GOOD? I have read several reviews of the book online and I marvel once again at the caviling, the failure to appreciate the book on the part of some reviewers. Have American readers become so inured to the genre of “domestic literary realism,” this dull, insipid stuff that dominates the publishing world these days—stories of ordinary Americans doing ordinary things, told, for the most part, in flat ordinary language—that they fail to appreciate something with genuine verve and brilliance?

Let us take, e.g., separate sentences, so many of which shine with panache: “Luka was the sixth son of a seventh son, born just shy of being blessed, and this almost-luck sat at his shoulders all his life.” Or separate paragraphs, consisting of lavish detail, as in this description of “the Winter Palace of Emin Pasha. . . a relic of the City’s Ottoman history”:

“The upper floor of the palace was a cigar club for gentlemen, with a card room and bar and library, and an equestrian museum with mounted horses from the pasha’s cavalry, chargers with gilded bridles and the jangling processional saddles of the empire, creaking carriages with polished wheels, rows and rows of pennants bearing the empire’s crescent and star. Downstairs, there was a courtyard garden with arbors of jasmine and palm, a cushioned arcade for outdoor reading, and a pond where a rare white frog was said to live in a skull that had been wedged under the lily pads by some assassin seeking to conceal the identity of his now headless victim. There were portraiture halls with ornate hangings and brass lamps, court tapestries depicting feasts and battles, a small library annex where the young ladies could read, and a tearoom where the pasha’s china and cookbooks and coffee cups were on display.”

The rare white frog, sticking up his head in the midst of the description, is typical; as is that skull, which inserts its eyeless self into the long narrative for just that one brief moment. A page later, in the description of the trophy room, we come upon “the mounted body of a hermaphroditic goat.” Not for nothing does the author, in interviews, acknowledge her debt to Márquez and Bulgakov. Throughout The Tiger’s Wife the reader is swimming in the lavish world of magical realism. I suppose that the waves are too high for some readers, who can’t make it through the ornateness and the exotic splendor—who bog down in the profusion of stories within stories. Me, I love the swim.

Here is a writer who appears already a master at pulling significant detail out of her writerly insides: “he grew accustomed to the way bears died, and the way their skin came away from the body if you cut it right, heavy, blood-filled, but as accommodating as a dress pattern.” You read this and you think, Yes, Téa Obreht has had experience skinning a bear—although she probably never has skinned a bear. She never has practiced medicine or studied to be a doctor, so where does she get all the convincing detail to describe the life of her main character, the doctor Natalia, and the other central character, the doctor grandfather? She has lived in Yugoslavia only for the early years of her life, so how can she be so proficient at describing nature scenes in her native land?

“A greenish stone canal ran up past the campground, and this was the route I took. Green shutters, flower boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full of patching bricks or cement or manure; one or two houses had gutting stations for fish set up, and laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone’s front yard.”

The setting appears to be Yugoslavia in present time, dismembered by the collapse of Socialism and the wars of the nineties. The complexities of a thousand years of bloody Balkan history lurk in the background of the narrative, but the author chooses to write not exactly about Yugoslavia. She writes, rather, about a fictional place very similar to Yugoslavia. Some reviewers have faulted her for the way she fictionalizes Serbia and Bosnia, the way she manipulates historical realities to make them jibe with her narrative. But she has other fish to fry, and that’s fine with me. Her story depends on the realities of a mythological land that resembles what’s left of Yugoslavia; her story is anchored in folk superstition and the gossipy tales peasants tell, which, when repeated over and over, take on a reality of their own.

The NATO bombing of Belgrade (Mar. 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999) is featured in a wonderful description of how it feels to be bombed on the part of civilians, but Belgrade is not mentioned (it is always referred to as “The City”). The doctor Natalia lives in Serbia, but the word never appears in the book. The fictional town of Zdrevkov, where her grandfather goes to die, is apparently on the Croatian coastline. Looking at a map of Yugoslavia, you can trace the mercy mission of Natalia and her fellow doctor and friend Zóra. They cross the border near Belgrade into Croatia (which is always referred to as “the other side”) and drive to a fictional town on the Adriatic Sea.

Why this hedging around with reality? Well, for one thing, if you’re looking for a way to get your (already long) novel totally bogged down, try describing the background facts of Balkan history. Rebecca West had already done this in her monumental Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and how many pages did it take her? She, of course, wrote her book on the eve of WW II, so she never got to the depressing rehash of the same old story—murder, rape, genocide—in the nineties of the twentieth century. Or try explaining the complexities of those recent Yugoslavian wars. Try ironing out the details of all sorts of atrocities and Western interventions in those wars. Just treating the times when NATO bombed various parts of the moribund Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—why they bombed, who the bad guys were and who the good guys, who the war criminals and who the victims—forget about it.

This is not to say that the war is not involved in Natalia’s story. The war and its consequences are everywhere. Here is the author on the breakup of Yugoslavia: “Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. . . The Nobel Prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs” (161). This same sense of surrealism also prevailed in the minds of people right after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “we’re not quite us anymore; we’re somebody else now.” With Russians that sense of unreality was exacerbated by what might have been notices posted all over what had only recently been an inveterate atheistic country: “By the way, we were wrong. There is a God after all, and you can have him back now. Enjoy.”

The grandfather’s take on Balkan wars is instructive: “This war never ends. It was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children’s children.” Téa Obreht accomplishes what appears to be something like an acrobat’s trick. She puts aside one thousand years of Balkan history and writes a book of magical realism, which book, however, is still firmly based in Balkan folklore, and which book constantly takes fleeting glances back at Balkan history.

The two main characters in The Tiger’s Wife are mythical rather than realistic: the deathless man and the tiger’s wife. Both of them come, at least obliquely, out of folklore. Natalia’s grandfather, one of the main realistic characters—and a finely delineated, highly sympathetic man of probity—is a medical doctor now, whose life is steeped in science and rationality. But he has grown up in a small village where superstition counts for everything. You have that mindset pounded into your head as a child, and you have a cat in hell’s chance of ever ridding yourself of it.

The peasants believe firmly in folkloric characters such as the witch Baba Roga, with “her skull-and-bones hut on its one chicken leg.” How far back in Slavic folklore are to be found the origins of this character? In Russian folklore she is Baba Yaga and her hut has not lost one of its chicken legs. On the same page the wood demon (леший in Russian) shows up. The villagers of Galina (the word is a woman’s name in Russia) are storytellers, as is the author of this novel. Everyone is all eyes in the village, watching incessantly from windows and doorways. And then all tongues, blathering around, gossiping, making up stories. They gossip and their gossip is transformed, folklore-style, into what for them is truth. They come to believe in the fantasies of their own superstitious souls—they believe that a woman could marry a tiger, that a man could be immortal.

Pagan superstition runs the narrative in this book. “Like everyone in the village [Galina], he [the blacksmith] had faith in the rituals of superstition. He gave money to beggars before traveling, put pennies in the shrines of the Virgin at crossroads [see below: syncretism], spat on his children when they were born. But, unlike his fellow villagers, he was renowned for having a deficit. He had been born in a lean year, without a ducat under his pillow. To make matters worse, an estranged aunt had once allegedly lifted him from his crib and praised heaven for what a beautiful baby, what a gorgeous, fat, blessed, rosy child he was—and had sealed, forever, his destiny to be impoverished, crippled, struck down and taken by the devil at some unexpected time, in some terrifying way.” Note that word “allegedly.” Maybe the aunt is a fiction, maybe she never committed this outrageous act of praise, but she is in the village SAID to have done it. Words have magical force. Once the story is created, then repeated incessantly, the idea of the “allegedly” is gone, and that is enough to seal the doom of the poor blacksmith—who accidentally shoots himself in the head in the midst of the tiger hunt.

Right smack in the middle of this crazy pagan world is grandfather as a young boy in that village. Educated later as a medical doctor, he steeps his life in scientific logic, but deep down in his soul, one part of him still believes in the myth of the tiger’s wife, the woman he befriended as a child. He fights valiantly against accepting the story of the deathless man—whom he has personally encountered several times in his life. But in the end, when he knows he is dying of cancer, he goes off in search of that deathless man—who is also what they call a mora, a kind of psychopomp who cares for dead souls for forty days, then guides them to the other world.

The best stories in the book involve these two mythic characters, the tiger’s wife and the deathless man. There is the wonderful description of grandfather’s first encounter with the latter. This comes subsequent to an attempted murder. The deathless man is not only immortal, but he also has the ability to see the deaths of others. Making the mistake of telling a peasant in a village that he will soon die, the deathless man is assaulted, drowned. Then, at his own funeral, he sits up in the coffin and asks for water. Whereupon he is shot in the back of the head (58-62). When grandfather comes upon him in the church, still in that coffin, the deathless man, of course, having been drowned and shot, is still not dead.

Téa Obreht has a wonderful way of weaving descriptions of such mythic proportions into the realistic narrative. At one point the deathless man tells of how the wandering souls of the dead sometimes get lost, cannot find their way home again, and “begin to fill up with malice and fear,” which extends to their loved ones. Grandfather’s wife believes thoroughly in such superstition, insisting that the family observe the proper customs for assuring that (1) his soul does not take offense and (2) properly finds its way to the next world. American readers may have difficulty believing that even educated Serbians are so enveloped in superstition, but anyone who has studied the Slavic world realizes that this is the way things are. Of the many educated Russians I know, many with the equivalent of the Ph.D., seldom do I find one who, e.g., does not believe in the evil eye, or in omens.

We are two thousand years into the era of Christianity, but pagan superstition is still paramount all over the world. The Slavs, it sometimes appears, value pagan beliefs as much or more than Christian beliefs, but the most common practice is to blend the two. In the Balkans as well as in Russia syncretism (this dual belief) is rife. For example, when Natalia arrives at the town on the Adriatic, she comes upon a group of fellow Serbians who are digging in a vineyard. It turns out that they are searching for the body of one of their countrymen, the cousin of one Duré. During the recent wars Duré had to abandon his dead cousin, whom he buried in this vineyard. Now some old conjure woman has informed him that the cousin’s ghost is dissatisfied and vengeful; the spectre is spreading disease over the whole family.

The only way to appease the ghost of the cousin is to find the corpse, dig it up and give it a proper burial. Certain pagan incantations (also provided by the conjure woman) must be read over the remains. As the diggers clean the bones, they intone these ancient chants. Meanwhile, the local Catholic priest tosses a censer about, censing the pagan ritual with Christian incense (more syncretism). The diggers also take care to break the thigh bones, thereby insuring that the ghost can’t walk about and return to haunt them. Later the remains of the heart (or what is a symbolic representation of the heart) have to be buried at a crossroads, where the mora-psychopomp can come to retrieve them, care for them for the requisite forty days, and then transport them to the other world. Natalia the doctor keeps watch in the night at the crossroads, and when a figure appears to dig up the jar with the “heart” she too—despite her education in science—half believes that this is the deathless man whom her grandfather has told her about.

“Even before he handed me the jar I had admitted to myself that my desire to bury the heart on behalf of his family had nothing to do with good faith, or good medicine, or any kind of spiritual generosity. It had to do with the mora, the man who came out of the darkness to dig up jars, and who was probably just someone from the village playing a practical joke—but who was, nevertheless, gathering souls at a crossroads sixty kilometers from where my grandfather had died, a ferry ride from the island of the Virgin of the Waters. . . Or it would be the deathless man, tall and wearing his coat, coming down through the fields of long grass above the town—smiling, always smiling—and then I would sit, without breathing, in some bush or under some tree while he dug up the jar, probably whistling to himself, and when he had it in his hand, I would come out and ask him about my grandfather.”

All of this narrative line—concerning death and the deathless man and fear of the dead—has its foundation in the ancient and atavistic fear of the dead worldwide, endemic in human society from time out of mind—and by no means extirpated when the Enlightenment came along.

As the author tells us, there are two stories “that run like secret rivers” through grandfather’s life, and through the whole book: the story of the tiger’s wife and the story of the deathless man. The tiger’s wife shows up early on (p.4), when grandfather tells little Natalia, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” It’s as if the whole story is conjured up out of the imagination of a four-year-old girl who goes with her grandfather to see the tigers at the zoo. It is based on tales told her by her beloved grandfather, and an event at the zoo sparks the tale: the day she and grandfather saw a tiger maul the arm of a careless employee.

The main story line of the novel is supplemented by tales of minor characters, as if the author just had so many resplendent stories to tell that she could not resist getting them all into the book. Some readers have complained of the superfluous accessories, but I love reading all the different side narratives. About the butcher in the village, about the apothecary who is a secret Muslim. About Mića the Cleaver, he who distributes cadavers to the medical students. Another tale, that of Dariša the Bear, begins with a story that is not true, as do so many of the stories told throughout the book. Without the untrue tales, the fantastications, the novel would be much shorter, and much less intriguing. A subtheme of the novel is storytelling, the power of words.

The tiger’s wife (while in love with a tiger) is legally married to the butcher Luka, a kind of weird intellectual in the midst of pagan superstition, who, despite his education, takes up wife beating.

I find it interesting how we get this description of violence wreaked upon a woman from the point of view of the abuser. How many American woman writers could/would write it this way? Then again, one of the book’s few weak points—and it is glaring—is the treatment of the title character. We have a book called The Tiger’s Wife, which suggests that she is the central character, but it turns out that she is not. Not really. A big problem is that she is consistently portrayed as a vague, unrounded figure. We see absolutely none of the action from her point of view. We never even learn her real name. We have no idea what she is all about, who she really is inside. In showing this deaf-mute character to us the author as if makes us, the readers, deaf and mute in our perception of her. She does not speak to us.

The other main mythic character, the deathless man—in contrast to the tiger’s wife—is vibrantly alive and accessible. The tiger’s wife exists only as a piece of village folklore. The village gossip tells tales, invents her—she is a creature of mythmaking, storytelling, not a real person. She is said to have been impregnated by the tiger. As if aware that this narrative line would take the book too far off into fantasy, the author does not follow it to its logical conclusion: the birth of a half human/ half tiger. The fetus dies with the tiger’s wife when the apothecary poisons her. Given the limitations of this vaguely delineated character, I think that the book could have done with a different title.

To me the main character of the novel is the grandfather. He is the only real person who has encountered both the mythical deathless man and the mythical tiger’s wife. All of the narrative proceeds with constant sideways and backwards glances at the grandfather, who—despite his concourse with chimerical creatures—is thoroughly based in the reality of everyday Balkan life. “All along my grandfather had hoped for a miracle but expected disaster.” What better way to express the feelings of a denizen of the Balkans?

The Tiger’s Wife has so many good sentences, good paragraphs, so many good stories within stories about stories. What more could a lover of literary art ask of a book?

U.R. Bowie, author of Hard Mother: A Novel in Lectures and Dreams, 2016

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