Tea Obreht-The tiger's wife
The Tiger's Wife
There have been many years when I did not read even one critically acclaimed new novel. There were, for example, the several years of my "modern fiction sucks" rebellion, when, done to death with the best-selling fare and, unfortunately, too young and lazy to strike out on my own, I read scarcely any fiction at all, and when I did read fiction, it was primarily in the form of novels rescued from yard sales, attics, and second-hand bookstores. Strangely, I returned to novels and short stories through my deepening interest in history. Sometimes, I came to believe, people dealt with their present obliquely, in fantasies, what-ifs, and fictions in the highest form of that word--fabrications of realities. Thus, Dickens can speak of his England as he makes claim to revolutionary France and Umberto Eco can delve into the making, motivations, and meaning of conspiracies and conspiracy theorists in Foucault's Pendulum, and Eco's concern is thoroughly contemporary and present.
This year I have read a number of the books receiving accolades in the press, including Teju Cole's Open City and a thorough rereading of John LeCarre. That they are receiving accolades is incidental to my reading them. It is a serendipitous meeting of my interests and the wider, book-purchasing public's interests. In all likelihood, it is a temporary condition. I am on sabbatical from my university studies, which brings me free time and freedom from the communal focus on "higher" studies, more "important" literature. This sabbatical allows for grazing. Much of my reading remains focused on real events and real people: union battles in West Virginia, the financial shenanigans of the railroads in America, the Holocaust, the Congo and Rwanda. However, there is time for fiction, too.
The most recent novel in my collection is Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. It is a remarkable book. It is a story of enlightenment and magic, of rational men and women in an irrational world of horror and healing. Men and women live with the "knowledge" provided by the old myths and realities in a world that is no longer formed by them. The Balkan country of the novel--one assumes it is a fictionalized Yugoslavia from the content of the history revealed through the stories of a young girl and her grandfather--is broken into pieces, moving away from its former unity into shards based on last names and refashioned, exclusivist memories of alterity and belonging.
"The war had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old 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. And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal" (161).
Nothing will return to normal. There will be the creation of a new normal, based on new myths and realities, haunted by uncertainty, by a sense of its own provisionality--the unfinished nature of violence and becoming, the continuous work of remembering and reintegrating.
The Tiger's Wife is the story of a young doctor, her doctor grandfather in whose home she was raised, and the magical stories, the irrational truths, the grandfather shares, and fails to share, with his granddaughter. The young doctor has gone to an orphanage in what is now not her country with medicine and a plan to immunize these children of the war. Her grandfather is dying of cancer, a secret he shares only with her, not with his beloved wife or his daughter, and, as the young doctor approaches the new border, she learns that he has died, not at home, but in an unknown village to which he had gone, her grandmother says, to see her. His death is wrong, for the grandmother was informed late and the superstitions that govern the soul's transition could not be obeyed. His belongings did not arrive with his body. Everything has gone awry, and yet the young doctor continues with her redemptive mission, for it is not a mission of mercy, but an act of affirmation, of seeking, of demanding reconciliation. Demanding the possibility of reconciliation, even in a moment that seems to belong between wars rather than after one.
The grandmother worries because the superstitions, the mythical farewell passage of the soul through the physical remnants of its life, cannot be fulfilled under the strange circumstances of the grandfather's death. The young doctor recalls rituals shared with the grandfather: the tigers at the zoo, a copy of The Jungle Book, an elephant walking the city streets during the war, and his encounters with the deathless man. She remembers the tension between them, the tension between generations--one generation with the memory of a whole country, the other with a knowledge of the shattering of a nation and its peoples. At the house near the orphanage where she stays with the mother and father of a priest, gypsies are searching for the body of a cousin they buried during the war. They dig holes among the vines, believing that once they find the body and take it away to a burial ground it likes better, their children will be cured of illness. In this same village, the sole subject of art is a rather stupid dog, painted by adults and by children, a watercolor and crayon icon.
What do I like about this book? First, it is extraordinarily well written and constructed, so that reading it is not a labor, but nor is it wholly predictable, like some mysteries and spy thrillers that one can put down unfinished secure that the end is known and continuing to read is only a way to eat time or to illustrate one's commitment to completing tasks. There is no compelling reason to read a novel, save enjoyment, and a novel that makes one think without providing pleasure is a failure. The Tiger's Wife is thought-provoking and enjoyable, the best of all possibilities.
The Tiger's Wife does not cheat its readers by rendering characters in unmodified cliches, the cardboard cut-out men and women of romance, whether that romance is rendered as a western, a spy thriller, a mystery, or a social whirl. Her adolescents are not all conscience-torn opponents of war, nor fiery prophets of national Armageddon. They take advantage of the excuse of war to justify their rebellions, their peccadilloes, and their desires, but they have not really thought that far, nor that deeply, into things. War is a vast uncertainty that undermines their sense of the secure, the sure--in short, a future that is real, imaginable, inhabitable--and, at the same time, beyond them, the responsibility of older men, other men and women. It is not their war at all, though they will die in it, and they will strive to reckon with it as older, not always wiser, men and women.
The Tiger's Wife does not convey the reality of war through military figures, battles, or a bomb-strewn countryside. It does not have to. In the post-war world, the evidence of the war, memories of the war, are not confined to battlefields, sanitized of any civilian presence, to soldiers, or to academics debating the morality of one side or the other. Children are killed by unexploded ordinance. The veterans of all sides have physical wounds they cannot hide. The continuing tension between the wartime opponents is present in the world in various ways. The landscape of the country, its borders and its cities, its cultural enclaves and its resort communities hungry for foreign tourists, have all changed, are all affected by the war and its echo. This is not simple. This is not the more acceptable, though more cinematically dramatic, face of war as battle, blood, and bombs. War has a longer life than that, a continuing resonance in the lives, the geography, the hopes and the fears of those it has affected.
Related to both of the above points is the refusal of Obreht to participate in the ethnic division-creation that shattered Yugoslavia and led to such horrific crimes on all sides of the related conflicts. The struggle, and necessity, to live as a human being, despite the willingness of others to define and diminish by assigning ethnic categories to other human beings, is an important one, and to incorporate this sense of ethnic identity in the place of national identity would be discordant with the grandfather's character and history, and defeat the granddaughter's self-righteous stubbornness in the face of her country's sins. The ethnic divisions, these morally and physically dangerous identities, matter because other people, on all sides of the new borders, make them matter. They will continue to breed death so long as that is true. Some reviewers have objected to Obreht's neglect of ethnic identifiers: she does not say this character is Serbian, this one Croatian, etc. I would ask, why are the ethnic identifiers of such importance to the reader? What vital information would be conveyed were the reader to be told explicitly: My Serbian grandfather married a Croatian woman, my grandmother, and I identified more with him than her, making me Serbian, too. Would a wounded Croatian soldier be more wounded, more angry, than a wounded Serbian soldier? Would a raped woman be more or less raped as a Croatian, a Serbian, a Muslim, a Jew? I question our desire for, our need for, these ethnic labels as conveyors of truth, when they are, so often and so chillingly, elements in extremely fanciful, murderous, and destructive lies.
Tea Obreht is a young writer. Unfortunately, many young writers are damaged by the publishing industry which demands product for the market, regardless of the rhythms and demands of the writer and their craft. A first novel hailed with such praise as has been The Tiger's Wife puts the writer at a great disadvantage: the next must be equal or better to it, and this successive effort will be measured, as art must be measured, on an obscure and subjective scale. Having illustrated they have talent, writers in their second novel are professionals for whom the grace given to a debut is no longer tendered and are additionally judged by a production schedule that has nothing to do with art, but everything to do with business. Think of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Arundhati Roy's apparent choice to abandon fiction altogether after The God of Small Things, and the 40 years that passed between Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man and Juneteenth. It is to be hoped that Obreht will succeed in future efforts, and that readers will have the grace to address them on their own terms, without looking for another tiger or mourning the 'genius' of her debut.