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The Weird Beauty of the Well-Told Tale

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Private Collection/Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Art Library
George Stubbs: Portrait of the Royal Tiger, circa 1770

The Tiger’s Wife, by a twenty-five-year-old Serbian who came to the US in 1997 at the age of twelve, has been praised—rightly in my view—as a remarkable first novel. Téa Obreht is an extraordinarily talented writer, skilled at combining different types of narrative—from objective depiction of events to stories mixing the fabulous and the real—in a way that brings to mind the novels of Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel García Márquez, and Milorad Pavić, the Serbian author of Dictionary of the Khazars.

What makes The Tiger’s Wife so special is that it has nothing to do with the typical immigrant memoir or the thinly disguised autobiographical novel. Obreht, who was seven when she left Belgrade in 1992 with her mother and her grandparents to escape the wars in Yugoslavia, and who lived both in Cyprus and in Cairo before coming to the US, writes about events in her homeland that she did not experience firsthand and about a cast of fictional characters. Her novel takes place in an unnamed country in the Balkans, in towns and villages with names that cannot be found on any map and with geography so confusing that even a native of the region will have a hard time trying to guess where some of the key events are taking place. I imagine it’s the kind of disorientation the Czechs experience reading Kafka’s opaque allusions to their country in his novels and stories.

Yet it is clear that Obreht is writing about Yugoslavia before and after the wars in the 1990s, which split the country into seven independent states. Once the book is translated in her former homeland, I expect that readers there will be of two minds about her decision to withhold the names of ethnic groups, national leaders, and well-known war criminals whose actions were decisive in the conflict. It most likely struck her that this was material that requires a lot of background and explanation, which would clog the narrative and prevent her from writing the kind of novel she wanted. By obscuring the geography of the region and alluding to historical events only obliquely, The Tiger’s Wife intentionally blurs the demarcation between the real and the imaginary. Poised between reality and myth, it uses two separate narrative techniques, that of the novel and that of the folktale, one immersed in historical time, the other sealed off from any particular time.

At its most concrete, the novel tells the story of a young woman doctor, Natalia Stefanović, who sets out with another woman doctor, Zóra, from the capital city of the nameless country on a volunteer mission to an orphanage over the border in a small seaside town on the coast, where they will inoculate children orphaned by paramilitaries in the recent war. She’s informed by her grandmother, over the phone, that her beloved grandfather has died mysteriously in a clinic said to be not far from her destination.

How he ended up in such an unlikely place neither of them knows, though the granddaughter has suspected for some time that he was dying of cancer and that he had chosen not to tell his wife and family about it. A highly regarded doctor who served in the national army for many years and worked in a famous university hospital in what Obreht calls the City (unmistakably Belgrade), he was forced to retire early, with the rise of ethnic nationalism in the 1990s, since he continued to regard himself as a Yugoslav. “All his life,” she says of her grandfather, “he had been part of the whole—not just part of it, but made up of it. He had been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent of another.” In other words, like millions of others, he found the country he identified with about to become extinct.

On the long drive to the coast with her friend Zóra, through what is now the country of their former enemies, Natalia is beset by memories of her grandfather, particularly of their ritual visits to the zoo when she was little, and the stories he told her about growing up as an orphan in a small, snowbound village tucked away in the mountains. In one of her earliest memories, the two of them are going to the zoo to see the tigers. The Belgrade zoo is in the old Turkish fortress on a hill overlooking the point where the River Sava flows into the Danube.

The grandfather tells his granddaughter that he once knew a girl who loved tigers so much that she almost became one herself, and little Natalia believes he’s talking about her or telling her a fairy tale. Then something horrible happens: as they and a small group of people cluster around its cage, a tiger grabs and rips off the arm of a zookeeper who has been sweeping the area between the cage and the outer railing. This sudden, violent event, described in vivid, realistic detail, foreshadows one of the main storylines of the book, the tale of another tiger and a woman who secretly befriended him.

That other tiger escaped from the same zoo during the Nazi bombing of Belgrade in April 1941. Terrified by the planes flying overhead, the bombs falling, the sound of bears bellowing in other parts of the zoo, the tiger frantically paces his cage, finally gathers his strength, and slips out through a gap in the wall he has been eyeing for a long time. He is not the only escaped animal that day. “Years later,” the narrator says,

they would write about wolves running down the street, a polar bear standing in the river. They would write about how flights of parrots were seen for weeks above the city, how a prominent engineer and his family lived an entire month off a zebra carcass.

People in the city must have seen him following the bombardment, Natalia speculates, but perhaps he was anything but a tiger to them, most likely just a momentary hallucination. He feeds on bodies of the dead from the bombing and scavenges what he can, eventually reaching the hills above the village, where the grandfather, then a young boy, had been taken in by the local midwife, after his own mother died in childbirth and his father from illness not long after. Driven by hunger, the tiger terrorizes the population while living and hunting in the nearby woods and making nightly visits to a smokehouse belonging to the local butcher, where he is befriended by the butcher’s deaf-mute wife.

As Natalia’s grandfather discovers, the young woman, who will eventually be known as “tiger’s wife,” and whose husband beats her regularly and brutally when he is drunk, feeds the tiger on the sly when the butcher drops off to sleep. One night the boy sneaks out of the house to spy on them and, hiding under a tarpaulin, encounters the tiger:

Something in the darkness moved, and the butcher’s hooks, hanging in rows along the rafters, clinked against one another, and my grandfather knew that it was the tiger. The tiger was walking. He could not make out the individual footfalls, the great velvet paws landing, one in front of the other; just the overall sound of it, a soft, traveling thump. He tried to quiet his own breathing, but found that he couldn’t. He was panting under the tarp and the tarp kept drawing in around him, rustling insanely, pointing him out. He could feel the tiger just beside him, through the wooden planks, the big, red heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs, the weight of it groaning through the floor.

There’s plenty more to the story about the village and the tiger, much of it wonderful with its mix of the real and the fantastic. The grandfather, who had been given a small, battered copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book that helps him to identify the huge beast, is the one through whose eyes we see the unfolding of this tragic story. A child pretty much left to fend for himself, he is at that age when everything important about life has already been deeply felt but not yet understood. Like the mute woman and the tiger, he, too, is in a place where he does not belong.

Unlike Kipling’s animal stories, this tale about the tiger is not for children. It takes place among people for whom wars and their accompanying savageries have been a constant reality over the centuries, and has a grim, pitiless quality without happy outcomes or stirring moral lessons. Someone once said that unlike a man in a store who explains to a child how a toy works, the folktale needs no such explanation. It only asks that we surrender to the story being told and take a journey into what are some of the darkest regions conceived by the human imagination.

Obreht’s additional characters and subplots to the story of her grandfather and the tiger, which she elaborates over several chapters, are like a colorful tapestry hanging in some imaginary palace. Not all of it works, in my view. The lengthy digression on the youth of the husband of the deaf-mute woman, plus the life stories of the bear hunter who comes to the village to hunt the tiger and the local pharmacist with a secret life, although necessary to the plot, are too long and feel contrived at times.

For example, there is the story about the butcher Luka, who in his youth supposedly wanted to be a musician, and went to learn how to play the ancient one-string gusle in the streets of Sarobor—Mostar. There he fell in love with a Muslim girl, who didn’t want anything to do with men and whom he didn’t try to convince otherwise, since he had himself long realized that he didn’t want anything to do with women. Nevertheless, their friendship grew “on song and philosophical debate, on stories and pointless arguments about poetry and history,” we are told, until they began to plan their marriage and the young woman agreed to confine herself to the house as is the custom.

Luka dresses up each evening and drops by her house where he eats and drinks with her father, who deduces that an offer of marriage will soon be made and resigns himself that he will have a butcher as a son-in-law rather than a lesbian for a daughter. The two are about to marry, but then the girl begins to realize what she is in for and begins to change her mind, confining herself to bed, developing a fever, and eventually becoming seriously ill. Following visits by several doctors who can do nothing, a miracle worker appears from another part of the country and cures her, while she falls in love with him. The father, whose other daughter is a deaf-mute, in desperation dresses her in her sister’s wedding clothes and offers her in place of the originally intended bride. The poor butcher doesn’t discover the deceit until he lifts the veil in the ceremonial gesture of seeing his wife for the first time and looks at a complete stranger.

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