The problem is that the story has a very confusing historical time frame. For instance, a famous early-nineteenth-century Serbian collector of epic ballads, folk songs, and fairy tales, Vuk Karadjić, is among the balladeers Luka meets on the Mostar bridge. I don’t know what to make of this. It’s as if one were to read a story in which Mark Twain interviews Allen Ginsberg for the San Francisco Examiner.
Far more successfully imagined and told, in my opinion, is Natalia’s grandfather’s story about a man who cannot be killed, which, as the narrator says, ran through all the other stories about him: his days in the military, his great love for his wife, and the years he worked as a surgeon. He first encountered the man in the summer of 1954 when his army battalion got a call from a village where there was much sickness reported. Some people had died already, and others were afraid because they had a terrible cough and blood on their pillows in the morning. Of course, the doctors already knew it was tuberculosis as they made their journey to the village to examine the people.
There they were told about a man called Gavo who had drowned in a pond, and how at his funeral, with the procession following the pallbearers up the churchyard slope to the grave site, he greatly surprised the assembled by sitting up in the coffin in his pressed suit, hat in hand, and asking for a drink of water. The doctors are told that he’s still where the villagers left him, since one startled member of the funeral procession fired two bullets from an army pistol into the back of his head after the pallbearers had dropped the coffin.
The doctors figure they are just covering up a murder and ask to see the body, but the villagers are reluctant to let them do so. They ask the local man who seems to be in charge whether Gavo was sick, but he replies that he was perfectly healthy at the time he drowned. In the end, the two doctors persuade the locals to let them see Gavo, who is lying in a sealed coffin inside a church. Just as they are about to use a crowbar to lift the lid, they hear a voice asking for water, which paralyzes them, coming as it does from inside the coffin. The man, who is still alive after being shut in the coffin for several days, looks to be about thirty at the most, and has a fine head of dark hair and a pleased expression on his face.
As you’d expect, Natalia’s grandfather isn’t buying any of this, and there begins a long and genuinely fascinating tale of a doctor and a man who cannot die and of their sporadic meetings over the next forty years. This figure of the deathless man, which has its origins in Balkan folklore about vampires, is transformed by Obreht into a believable presence in a country that has known so much death and violence in its history. Years pass and the grandfather and Gavran Gailé, as the man is called, meet again in 1971 in a village—Medjugorje in Croatia—where two small children playing by a waterfall had glimpsed the Virgin in the water. The deathless man is there to tend to the ill people coming from hospitals and sanatoriums to swim in the water and be healed. In a scene worthy of Fellini, Olbreht describes the dying men and women side by side with people rejoicing and feasting in honor of the Virgin.
Their last meeting occurs in Sarobor—Mostar—in a hotel dining room with a view of the famous old bridge just as the civil war in Bosnia and the shelling of the town are about to start. Served by an ancient, dignified Muslim waiter with impeccable manners, they share an enormous meal. Although they entered the place separately, they recognized each other and decided to sit together, being the only customers in the place. The grandfather is there for one last look at the town where both his wife and his daughter were born, and the deathless man is there because of the coming bloodshed.
The entire scene, with their leisurely conversation over an exquisitely prepared meal, is not only beautifully written and imagined but immensely moving. It reminds me of a scene in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal, in which the medieval knight returning from the Crusades plays a game of chess with Death, in a country ravaged by the plague. The deathless man consoles the grandfather that all this too will pass, and the doctor gloomily disagrees: “This war never ends,” he tells him. “It was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children’s children.”
All these stories are being recalled by his granddaughter, as she tries to discover more about the circumstances of his death in the small coastal town not far from where she and her friend are vaccinating orphans and worrying about the consumptive, undernourished children of the men digging in the nearby vineyard. The men hope to find the corpse of a relative who died in the war and who, they believe, won’t rest in peace until he’s properly buried. Natalia and Zóra’s hosts are a fisherman and his wife, whose son, a Franciscan monk named Fra Antun, is their contact at the orphanage.
Obreht describes well the ways in which people in a place recently devastated by ethnic conflict steer clear of political and religious subjects in their conversations. It’s obvious that they have all been traumatized by recent events and that their suspicion of outsiders remains. There’s a poignant scene with a sad little boy being inoculated in the orphanage, who unlike his friends is not afraid. Without Obreht having to tell us, we understand that the sight of a needle is no cause for alarm to a child who has probably seen unimaginable horrors.
When Natalia at last finds the clinic where her grandfather died, she understands the reason why it’s not on any map. It’s a shantytown, a cluster of plywood-and-metal shacks inhabited by destitute war veterans and invalids from the Bosnian war, a miserable, unfriendly place where she manages to collect his clothes and his few belongings. Her grandfather made a journey there, she begins to suspect, not only to offer medical help to the invalids, but to meet the deathless man and have one more chat with him.
In some of the most powerful writing in the book, Obreht describes how Natalia spends a night waiting for the deathless man in a graveyard and then trailing through the woods someone who turns out to be Barba Ivan, the fisherman with whom she is staying. Here she evokes both Gothic novels and the ghost stories people tell children, like the one Natalia’s grandmother told her once about a man who had gone into the hills with his sheep and found himself eating a meal in a house full of dead people, to which he had found his way by following a little girl with a white bonnet who turned out not to be a little girl at all.
One comes to realize that The Tiger’s Wife, with its many different stories, is a novel of immense complexity. First, it is an extended elegy for the narrator’s beloved grandfather, a man with a life story entangled in the fate of the country once known as Yugoslavia, who was able to maintain his compassion and decency in time of ethnic hatred and violence; it is also a lament for all those anonymous men, women, and children made homeless in these cruel and senseless wars. Like the Arabian Nights, it is a book about storytelling and its power to enchant as it wards off death and postpones the inevitable.
“When confronted by the extremes of life—whether good or bad,” Obreht writes, “people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.” Not only to understand, I would say, but to experience the sheer beauty of the well-told tale, as she reminds us, again and again, in her truly marvelous and memorable first novel.