July Issue 2012

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 12 years ago

By the early 1990s, it looked as if European history had embarked on a bold new path. The Berlin Wall had come down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later. In response, some claimed that the ‘end of history’ had arrived; others looked forward to putting the tortuous legacy of the Second World War to rest.

Unfortunately, there was one part of Europe, the former Yugoslavia, that refused to follow the script. The agonising break-up of a state that had once prided itself on being a bridge between the capitalist West and the Communist East became the first post-Communist tragedy.

Shocking accounts of ethnic cleansing, population resettlement, genocide, sieges and destructive nationalism were an unsettling reminder that all the circumstances that had made the European twentieth century so violent could be quickly resurrected. The memory of past wars paralysed European leaders who watched helplessly as the Balkans was dismembered. An increasingly united European Union had hoped for a new dawn; instead, it was confronted with carnage on a scale unprecedented since the Second World War.

Violence always poses very specific problems for fiction writers: How to characterise its history, its potency, its consequences? As we have seen in the case of contemporary Pakistan, the challenge of writing about violence can give rise to all sorts of different styles of literature. One approach is to adapt mythological tales and intertwine these with a wider narrative. It is this approach that Téa Obreht adopts in her exciting first novel.

It is hard to say exactly what The Tiger’s Wife is really about. There are multiple stories that fade in and out of view. The central narrative thread is the story of Natalia, who is the narrator and the main protagonist. She is a medical student and her journey to an unnamed town ‘across the border’ to dispense medicines and treatment gives the book its contemporary backbone.

This apparently straightforward task of delivering basic medical care is complicated by the fact that Natalia’s beloved grandfather — who was also a doctor — has just died. She is searching for him and, above all, searching through his memories. She wants to piece together the world in which her grandfather grew up.

She begins by remembering her own experiences with her grandfather. There were trips to the zoo, good-natured fights, the story of the mysterious elephant, and the secret of his cancer. She then pieces together anecdotes from his earlier life. Of the myriad incidents, two stories stand out and provide robust subplots.

The first is the tale of the tiger that flees the zoo in contemporary Yugoslavia and reappears in her grandfather’s native village. Obreht uses the tiger to recount her grandfather’s experiences as a child in a rural village in the Balkans. The tiger becomes a metaphor for both the promise of the outside world, and the waves of conquest that have marked the modern history of the region.

The second story involves the ‘deathless man’ — a mysterious figure who cheats death and reappears in her grandfather’s life at key symbolic moments. This deathless man has a faintly religious quality to him, probably because he was adapted from an old Slavic folktale. One might characterise him as a strange cross between a saint and the Grim Reaper.

Whatever his exact status, he provides a vehicle for Obreht’s treatment of one of the novel’s most prominent themes: Death. Throughout the book there are undead spirits, skeletons, resurrections and gruesome murders. But, if the omnipresence of death is not in doubt, the author chooses to emphasise its magical and mythological aspects. Individual deaths are vividly painted but given an unreal glow, while the collective violence of the wars that shook the Balkans in the 1990s is always kept at arm’s length.

Obreht has recognised her debt to the American author, Toni Morrison, and the Colombian author, Gabriel García-Márquez. The influence of their saturated ‘magical realist’ styles is clearly visible here. But she manages to avoid an entirely derivative style, primarily through her unswerving commitment to plot. Obreht is a gifted storyteller and her carefully-spun fables of exotic tigers, embittered butchers and dreaming minstrels have an irresistible energy.

There are inevitably some questions about whether the whole narrative hangs together. The book’s ending does not quite deliver on the promise of the preceding chapters. It doesn’t hurtle forward at the same pace as, for example, Zadie Smith’s debut novel White Teeth, which displayed a similar raw talent.

Still, the ambition is there. Obreht has chosen a very large canvas — the entire modern history of the Balkans — on which to paint her colourful cast of characters, and she mostly succeeds in bringing them to life. If anything, it is the secondary characters who shine the brightest. In her portrayal of the inhabitants of a rural village she depicts simultaneously the narrow-mindedness of village life, as well as its supernatural foundations.

The porous boundary between fantasy and reality — and the speed with which fiction can become fact — is another major theme in The Tiger’s Wife. The chronicle of the village butcher, who, in his younger days, had been a talented musician on the gusla, has all the shimmering heartbreak and drama of a story from the One Thousand and One Nights. And, of course, the deathless man literally straddles the real and imagined, occupying a transient, other-worldly space.

Obreht also delights in blurring chronologies. People and events appear and disappear through time. The only constant is war. It seems to hang over everything. In 1940, the villagers worry about the German invasion during the Second World War. In 1990, the inhabitants of an unnamed city — almost certainly based on Belgrade — fret about a war being fought against their ‘own’ people.

This is a bold first novel. It is full of life, and there is an immense amount of talent on display. Of course, it still needs to be brought fully under control. Sometimes it is as if the author — who left the disintegrating Yugoslavia when she was eight years old — has tried to condense all of her memories into one single story that threatens to explode from the pages of the book.

Incidentally, Obreht was the youngest ever winner of the Orange Prize. What will she produce after the dazzling success of The Tiger’s Wife? The question is moot, but you can be sure that she is someone to watch.

This book review was originally published in the July issue under the headline “A Magical Tale.”