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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.

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.

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