A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in terrified thrall. But for one boy (Natalia’s grandfather), the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book.
Natalia is a doctor. She visits orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandtather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery.
From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realises he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Books, and then to the story of the tiger’s wife.
Back in the weekend before Orange Prize winner was announced, I was in the middle of The Tiger’s Wife and 50 pages on I like it so far, then suddenly I came to the bit when the deathless man jumped out of the coffin with two bullets lodged at the back of his brain, asking for a glass of water… and then I thought, oh no, oh no.. don’t go there, I can’t take this, I can’t take this… and I have given up trying to read it.
Since then the book has won the prize and I persevered and finish it today. It wasn’t as smooth sailing as I thought it would be. Most certainly The Tiger’s Wife is a book that divides opinion. Quite similar with Midnight’s Children in some ways, it employs symbols and technique of fables that tells a harsh reality obliquely. I must say I have never been good in interpreting the obscure and prefer my novels crisp and say it like it is. So this book does in many ways baffles and befuddles me but I found myself making notes of my favourite quotes and when the quotes came, it came with full blown realisation and impact that takes my breath away. Coming from a 25-year-old, it is talent.
On post-war generation:
For years, we had fought to show nonchalance in the face of war, and now that it was suddenly over, over without having touched us in the City, indignation was surfacing. Everything was a cause, a dignified labour. We fought through biology and organic chemistry; We fought , above all, to show that we deserved to be there, to defeat emerging newspaper projections that declared the City’s power war generation destined for failure. We were 17, furious at every because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand – conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinion on, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone – had been at the centre of everything. it had forced us to make choices based on circumstances that were now no longer a part of our daily lives, and we kept it close, a heavy birthright for which we were only too eager to pay. – 151 page.
On fear and pain:
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate, and that, when they’re gone, we’re left with the concept, but not the true memory – why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once? – page 166
On death and belief of crossroads and wandering spirit:
I feel a little ashamed of making light of the dead. I say: “Why do you gather them if they are going to him (deathless man’s uncle) anyway?”
“Because for him it makes things easier. Knowing that they are safe. Knowing that they are coming (at the crossroads). Sometimes, when they wander, they do not find their way home again, and become lost after the 40 days have passed. Then it is difficult to find them, and they begin to fill up with malice and fear, and this malice extends to the living, to their loved ones.” – page 185
On war on unraveling..
All through the war, my grandfather has been living in hope. The year before the bombing. Zora had managed to threaten and plead him into addressing the National council of Doctors about recasting past relationships, resuming hospital collaboration across the new borders. But now, in the country’s last hour, it was clear to him, as it was to me, that the cease-fire had provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace.
When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent – it has a hope of finality. When the right is about unraveling – when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event – there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progrssion of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the right is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it. – 281 page
On religious tolerance
What can I tell yo about that? What is there to say? I married your grandmother in a church, but I would still have married her if her family had asked me to be married by a hodza. What does it hurt me to say happy Eid to her, once a year – when she is perfectly happy to light a candle for my dead in the church? I was raised Orthodox; on principle, I would have had your mother Christened Catholic to spare her a full dunking in that filthy water they keep in the baptismal tureens. In practice, I didn’t have her christened at all. My name, your name, her name. In the end, all you want is someone to long for you when it comes time to put you in the ground. – 282 pages
Reading the novel introduces me to some Balkan cuisine, which has its origin from the Ottoman rule. During the meal of Natalia grandfather with the Deathless man, these are what they ate:
Ajvar and aijvar is relish, made principally from red bell peppers, with eggplant, garlic and chili pepper. Ajvar originates in the Serbian cuisine, and was therefore long known as “Serbian salad” or “Serbian vegetable caviar”. Depending on the capsaicin content in bell peppers and the amount of added chili peppers, it can be sweet, piquant (the most common), or very hot. Ajvar can be consumed as a bread spread, a side dish, or as a salad.
Other times, the story falls into a long sentences of lull and dreamy fable. Once I get past the deathless man and what it represents, I enjoy the story of Luka and Amanda, which ended up tragically about the tiger’s wife. However there are still a long moment of disinterest and lull for me as I picked the book up, plonked it back to my bag and picked it up a hundred times, backtrack to find my track, read a few chapters and could only recall a few memorable scenes. The 336 pages feel like 700.
If I take a step back and disregard my many ho-hums about the book, Téa Obreht is indeed talented. No question about that. She is like a modern Scheherazade. She could string one story after another in one breath and she writes fluidly and beautifully.
I ended the book with a feeling of loss of a war torn country, the mortality and the hidden land mines, the foreboding feeling of land and people who are scarred by the tragedy of war but a little regret of not thoroughly enjoying the ride.
Hardback. [336 pages][Balkan, fictional village of Gilana][The 1990’s to contemporary][Finished at 24 June 2011].
About the Writer:
Téa Obreht has an interestingly chequered and troubled early life. Téa Obreht’s own roots sprawl across the Balkans. Her grandfather Stefan, on whom the protagonist is based, was a Slovene who worked his way out of poverty to become the leading aviation engineer in Yugoslavia, married a Bosnian Muslim Zahida and settled in Belgrade. In 1991, when Obreht was six, fighting broke out between Serbia and Croatia – the first round of hostilities in the breakdown of Yugoslavia.
She said: “My family often did not want to involve their kids in an understanding of what the conflict was going to be about – there was still a hope that it wouldn’t break out.
“But it had already bled into the consciousness of a lot of kids, so there began to be a lot of ‘What kind of name is your name?’ at school.”
Her given surname is Bajraktarevic, after her absent Bosnian Muslim father. Surnames meant a lot in the Balkans. Her grandfather’s father had the German name Obreht and for this, during the Second World War, he was shot.
Worried that a family of such lineage could be shattered in the new war, Stefan moved them to Cairo in 1992, where she learned to speak English, but even there, through her grandmother Zahida, Obreht still felt the violence in Bosnia. She said: “It hits her the hardest of everybody – she was the one with the big family. News filtered in of cousins who died and she had a difficult time.”
Her grandparents returned to Belgrade in 1997, while she and her mother moved to a new life in the USA. Her grandfather died in 2006 and on his deathbed he asked her to write under his name Obreht.
She was the youngest author on The New Yorker’s Top 20 writers under 40 list. She lives in Ithaca, New York.