Thursday, August 04, 2011

Deathless in wartime: fantasy and reality in The Tiger's Wife

[Did a shorter version of this review for The Hindu]

Around sixty pages into Tea Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, a young doctor in a Balkan village in the 1950s encounters a Deathless Man. Gavran Gaile is sitting up in his coffin, two bullet-holes in the back of his head, somewhat thirsty but not much worse for wear, and the terrified villagers think he’s a vampire. But he isn’t, he patiently explains to the doctor – it’s just that he cannot die. Before departing in the night, he even offers some proof.

When they next chance to meet, more than 15 years later, Gavran will tell the doctor about the reason for his unusual condition. And there will be one final encounter, at a time when the doctor is very old and nearing his own death.

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of literary realism, but by the time I had finished Obreht’s book I was no longer sure there was anything supernatural about the story. For one thing, the Deathless Man interludes come to us second-hand; the book’s narrator Natalia, the doctor’s granddaughter, has heard these stories from him, and there’s no particular reason for the reader to take them at face value. They can be read as allegory, or even as wish-fulfilment (the three meetings take place at key stages in the doctor’s life when the spectre of death is all around him).

But there’s another sense in which fantasy and hard reality become indistinguishable in this story: The Tiger’s Wife is set in a region with such a war-fractured history – countries break up, then reorganise themselves with new borders and new names – that real life quickly acquires a surreal tinge. In times of war, we are reminded, all recognisable rules and patterns vanish; anything is believable. Armed with makeshift axes, little children play games of “Us vs the Ottomans”. A cannon-ball wedged into the wall of a monastery, with the plaster and paint creating a spidery pattern around it, is something you look at, shrug and walk on. A tiger sauntering through the ruins of a city can seem like nothing out of the ordinary – even if you don’t know that the animal escaped when a nearby zoo wall was destroyed by a stray bomb. Young people even twist the situation to their advantage. “When your parents said get your ass to school, it was all right to say there’s a war on and go down to the riverbank instead. When they caught you sneaking into the house at three in the morning, your hair reeking of smoke, the fact that there was a war on prevented them from staving your head in.” Making up stories – about yourself and about others – is one way of coping.

The book’s anchoring narrative has Natalia, a doctor herself, travelling with a friend named Zora to a seaside village across a freshly created border; they are visiting an orphanage to provide inoculations, and her description of the journey suggests how war has ravaged not just the land but also individual psyches.
We had an old map, which we kept in the car years after it had become completely inaccurate. We had used the map on every road trip we had ever taken, and it showed in the marker scribbling all over it: the crossed-out areas we were supposed to avoid on our way to some medical conference or other, the stick man holding crudely drawn skis on a mountain resort we had loved that was no longer a part of our country.
Natalia herself is part of a post-war generation for whom every major adult choice is “based on circumstances that were no longer part of our daily lives [...] Major decisions trended toward the assumption that the war and its immediate effects would always be around.” Shifting definitions of “us” and “them” will run through her story. “Twelve years ago, before the war,” she writes, “the people of Brejevina had been our people.” But now she and Zora are in this village to sanitize children orphaned by their own soldiers.

Early in the journey, Natalia receives news of her grandfather’s death, and this provides the pretext for two narratives that punctuate the present-day story. The first is about the Deathless Man. The other, gleaned from an old man living in her grandfather’s village, is a tale from his boyhood days – the story of a tiger that made its way to the village, and of the bond it may have formed with a deaf-mute girl who became ostracised by the other villagers. Other stories about other people – with names out of fairy-tale and myth, such as Darius the Bear and Luka the butcher – coalesce around these three main narratives, and the one minor flaw of the book, I felt, was that Obreht occasionally gets carried away with these side-characters. That apart, her storytelling is riveting.

You don’t need in-depth knowledge of Balkan politics to understand this book – there’s something deliberately abstract about the narrative, with Natalia’s frequent references to “the City” (possibly Belgrade) where she grew up. (In any case, the characters themselves are often more disoriented than any reader can be.) This could be a portrait of just about any war-torn region, its people searching desperately for meaning in meaninglessness, turning to faith and superstition – even deciding that the cause of their family’s misfortune is that a long-dead relative wasn’t buried in the customary way and that his body must be dug up and subjected to the proper rites.

The Tiger’s Wife works on different levels. Some passages have the surface appeal of magic realism, but it can also be read as a fragmented biography of a man whose name we never learn. What do the story of the “tiger’s wife” and the story of the deathless man add up to tell us about Natalia’s grandfather? What effect did they have on the building of his character and the more practical aspects of his daily life, such as his marriage to a woman from a different religion (whose family still lives on the other side of the border)? Or could they be red herrings, with the "real" story occupying the gap between the hyper-dramatic narratives?
Ultimately, this book is also an exploration of mortality and of how storytelling itself can make people immortal – how legends come into being, how old family yarns become embellished as the decades go by. Consider this passage about a young man with possibly homosexual leanings. “He was too eager to strip naked and bathe with other young men in the mountain lake above the pasture – although no one will ever accuse the other young men of his generation of being too eager to bathe with him. This may be because the young men of Luka’s generation are the fathers of the men telling these stories.” In two sentences, Obreht makes a pointed comment on the reductive, self-serving ways in which personal histories get written, and on the many undocumented things that might so easily slip through the cracks – especially when chronicling lives that were lived in “interesting times”.


  1. You are on a roll! :-) For the first time I'm having trouble keeping pace with your book reviews. Not that I complain... great going!

  2. indisch: thanks. My reading tends to happen in spurts these days - long dry periods followed by plenty of activity.

    Two more book reviews coming up in the next 4-5 days, btw (basically a few of the reviews I've written over the past month are all being published around the same time, so I can put them up now).

  3. Happy to have read this post. I have to admit I was a bit suspicious of the news that the Orange Prize winner was the "youngest ever recipient" - her age touted as some sort of honour badge! Check this rant, if you haven't already
    But your review makes me think there might be more to the book than the writer's tender age :)

  4. Hello Jai,
    Very nice review! I just read this book too and thought it pretty engaging.
    You have a nice blog here :)

    Best wishes,

  5. Manreet: just read that rant. I feel for Fowler - she was clearly traumatised by the book - but I think it's fair to say my standards for good literature aren't as high as hers!

    Nivedita: thank you!