The Weird Beauty of the Well-Told Tale

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,…

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