The Tiger’s Wife
Tea Obreht is the Orange Prize winner this year and is 26 years old. What can you say to such precociousness?
Yugoslavia and the Non-Aligned Movement; Tito and Nehru; these were so much a part of my growing up years. And then of course, the break up happened and we watched it with the growing realization that we were probably wrong all along. That ethnic identity that comes along with myriad languages and religions will always triumph over a manufactured secular one. It made us look inward at our own manufactured one and wonder and question.
And then twenty years after that civil war comes a book that uses as its setting, this strangely familiar Balkan land. It’s a tale, or rather, many tales, that can come only from old cultures with a rich storytelling history. It can seem exotic and elaborate and fantastic to many (as many reviews testify). But for someone who comes from the land of O.V.Vijayan’s Khazak, they sound eerily familiar.
Nathalie is a doctor of indeterminate nationality in the Balkans and her tale is of her grandfather’s – another doctor who grows up in the Yugoslavia of Tito and war-ridden Europe. So here are Nathalie and her grandfather, people of science, negotiating wartime conflicts with family and cultures brimming with myths that science has no answers for. There is the deathless man who Nathalie’s grandfather encounters over and over again, never-changing, never-dying, ready to lead the real dying to the next world. The grandfather refuses to believe him and his stories but even his rational scientific mind can't help but believe.
The tiger’s wife is a deaf-mute Muslim girl who befriends a wandering tiger, let out of a zoo by wartime bombing. And in the process, she incurs the wrath of a superstitious, scared village and a butcher of a husband. Nathalie’s grandfather is a little boy who is fascinated by the tiger and the girl’s friendship with him. And it leaves a lifetime impression and fascination with the animal, long after the girl is dead and the tiger moves away.
There are interesting side stories. That of Luka the butcher, a butcher by profession and a butcher to his young deaf-mute wife. There is Darisa the bear, a hunter with a passion for taxidermy, finally encountering a hunt he cannot win.
And there is Nathalie herself, who while dispensing rational medicine to villages in need, buys into the myths of the villagers without necessarily being consumed by them.
The narrative moves back and forth across time and characters and can prove disorienting at times. But it’s a classic storyteller’s tale and Tea Obreht proves a worthy Sheherzade.
And in the process of the telling these fables, we catch glimpses into the monstrosity of war and conflict that tear neighbours apart. “..the pieces that made up our country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. Previously shared things – landmarks, writers, scientists, histories – had to be doled out according to their new owners. That Nobel Prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure….All his life, he had been part of the whole – not just part of it, but made up of it. He had not been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent of another.” – The tragedy that is Yugoslavia is brought intensely alive without making too big a deal of it.
It’s a lovely little book, made all the more poignant with the nostalgia that comes with it. Tea Obreht is the latest in a long line of fabulists that start from the Mahabharat, runs through O.V.Vijayan, Marquez, Rushdie and Mitchell. A find.