Sam Jordison finds much fantastical in an Orange Prize nominee.
In the introduction to the SF Masterworks edition of Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, Adam Roberts writes:
“If you want to tell a war story, why not tell a story about a real war? What is gained in moving the participants of your tale into interstellar space? The dangers are obvious enough – that such treatment removes us from the intensity of actual experience into a kind of fantastical escapism. What are the advantages? One way of answering would be to point the questioner at Joe Haldeman’s Forever War…”
Swap interstellar space for bizzarro fantasy about immortals with magic coffee cups, and about tigers, and you could ask the same questions – and give the same answer about Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife [Purchase]. Like Haldeman, Obreht knows that stepping outside reality, and reflecting back on it metaphorically, can sometimes give the clearest, brightest image. Haldeman wrote one of the defining novels about the Vietnam war. There’s every chance that Obreht’s much-feted debut will earn a similar reputation as a psychological record of the conflagration that tore through the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995.
The novel opens, as it means to go on, with a superstitious story. This time it’s about the “forty days of the soul” — the time the soul spends rummaging around “the places of its past” after death forces it to leave the body. The issue has come up because Natalia, the narrator, learns that her grandfather has died in mysterious circumstances “alone, on a trip away from home”. Her grandmother heard about the death two days after it happened and feels she has been “robbed of his full forty days.” Natalia is a doctor, currently “across the border”, taking medicine to an orphanage in old “enemy” territory. Natalia’s grandfather told his wife that he was on the way to visit Natalia when he died, since he was worried about the trip she was making. But Natalia isn’t sure about that. And since she doesn’t even know where the location of the clinic he died in, or if it is even nearby, she begins to weave a different narrative about his final journey.
This narrative relates to the story of the deathless man. He is Gavran Gailé, whom Natalia’s grandfather claimed to have first met in “late summer ’54” under unusual circumstances. Gailé emerged from the coffin he was nailed in, politely requesting that he might be given a glass of water. The grandfather, Dr. Leandro, who was a rationalist, refused to believe Gavran’s subsequent stories, particularly those relating to his immortality and ability to predict the time other people were due to die by looking at the grounds in his special coffee cup. So the deathless man offered him a wager: he pledged his coffee cup that he would not die when Leandro threw him in a nearby lake, weighted down with chains. Natalia’s grandfather accepted and offered his most prized possession in return — the copy of The Jungle Book that he carried everywhere in his coat pocket. True to his monicker, the deathless man did not die, but Dr. Leandro did not honour the debt.
Leandro claimed to have met Gavran Gailé a few times — and to have gradually pieced together his strange story. How he had annoyed his Uncle, Death, by breaking the coffee cup after seeing in it that the love of his life was about to die (since breaking the cup allowed her to go on living). How Death cursed him to live forever as a result, and how he now dedicated his time to trying to get back on to Death’s good side by gathering up the souls of the recently deceased and carrying them to crossroads to make it easier for Death to carry them off.
As the strangeness of that summary might suggest, Obreht laces an appealing streak of mordant humour throughout this story and Gailé is an intriguing, teasing character, delightfully cheerful whenever he meets his doctor friend, but imbued with sadness. The deathless man pines for his lost love, he longs to die — and surrounds himself with death as a result.
The last meeting of the two men takes place in a thinly disguised version of Mostar. Dr. Leandro is there to enjoy a last meal in the lovely old Muslim quarter. He visits his favourite restaurant — the place where he enjoyed lobsters on his honeymoon; a place which for him is filled with love and delight, but which an accident of war has placed in enemy territory. The waiter is on the “enemy” side, separated from Leandro by an accident of what? Religion? Superstition? Fate? He knows that grandfather’s people are likely to blow the restaurant to smithereens the next morning — but he takes scrupulous care to serve him and Gail‚ (who is there by chance) the best meal he possibly can. More than that, he delights in doing so. The meal that Leandro and Gailé enjoy on a ledge, overlooking a river, is sumptuously described; described so well that you long to be there — but for the horrifying knowledge that this is a war zone. Yet more pathos is added when Gailé reveals he is there to gather up the hundreds of souls that he knows are coming his way when Leandro’s people attack the town. And that one of those souls belongs to the old waiter.
It is a scene so good that by itself it almost justifies the hype surrounding Obreht. It helps us understand why Obreht, who is only 25, was the youngest person on The New Yorker‘s most recent list of the 20 best fiction writers under 40; and explains why the New York Times‘ famous attack journalist Michiko Kakutani (whom Norman Mailer described as a “one woman kamikaze”) larded the book with praise, calling it: “a hugely ambitious, audaciously written work” and “a richly textured and searing novel.”
As well as evoking such bittersweet joy as the two men chow down on their spectacular last supper, Obreht also leaves a tantalising problem in this wonderful scene. Dr. Leandro still doesn’t give the deathless man his copy of The Jungle Book. That — and the fact that this book he carried everywhere wasn’t amongst his clothes and final remains — leads Natalia to think that her grandfather wasn’t on the way to see her at all when he died. She decides that he was actually looking for Gailé, so that he could finally honour his wager. Or perhaps cheat death. I won’t give away the answer to the puzzle here, except to say that as she gradually traces through the story we realise she is using it as a way to come to terms with her grief, with death and with the madness of war — and the effect is very touching.
Stories and strange beliefs might help Natalia to make sense of a baffling world — but the story of the tiger’s wife also shows how tall tales and superstitions are equally able make the world more crazy. Gradually, the various interleaved stories that run through the book begin to reveal a single bigger truth:
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” says Natalia, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life….”
What is a secret river, I wonder? Never mind. Obreht hits quite a few similar bum notes in her constant striving for mystery and portent, but that’s not to detract from the ingenuity with which she plays out her stories — or the profundities she plumbs.
That “story of the tiger’s wife” shows the flip side of superstition and the shadows in the world of Natalia’s grandfather. It mainly takes in the isolated mountain village where Dr. Leandro was born. The woman known as “the tiger’s wife” (and also as “the deaf-mute girl” — Obreht never gives her a name) is actually married to the local butcher, who is a disappointed, angry man. That’s another story — and another one that Obreht lays out wonderfully — but the important thing to know is that he takes out his frustrations on his spouse. He beats her even though she is unable to talk, or even cry out in pain, thanks to a congenital disability. The villagers pity the tiger’s wife, but they also come to fear her. She is foreign — a “Mohammedan” to whom they attribute special powers and malice. She earns her name when a tiger — escaped from a city zoo thanks to World War II bombing – comes to the village, and they start to believe it visits her specifically, taking off its skin and lying with her. They also believe that she somehow persuades the tiger to get rid of her husband.
These are foolish “village stories”, the local apothecary tells a visiting outsider who is interested in the story of the tiger’s wife. “What are they besides superstitions? How could listening to this nonsense have helped you?” The answer is moot, but the implications are clear. It isn’t giving too much away to say that the villagers’ beliefs do little to help the tiger’s wife. And so Obreht shows how the explanations people give for the things they don’t understand lead to disaster. Our human capacity to rationalise can also lead us into madness. Wars can break out between neighbours, thanks to next to nothing, to something as intangible as misplaced belief and superstitious paranoia. The people who commit genocide live in a fantasy world — subject to strange irrational fears, a bizarre sense of justice and mad ideas. Obreht’s gift is to show that these ideas can have apparently innocent beginnings in storytelling and the need when “confounded by the extremes” of war to “stitch together unconnected events in order to understand.”
As if all that weren’t enough, this theme is also given another refraction in a present day narrative focussing on Natalia and the gothic goings on around the orphanage she is visiting. There, a family are working day and night to dig up an olive grove, in spite of the fact that many of them are children and clearly suffering from a fever. Natalia attempts to persuade the father to accept a scientific medical cure. He is determined to exhume his cousin’s corpse, which he left there during the war, and whose inappropriate burial he thinks has caused all his problems. She believes he will never find the body and kill his children in the attempt. He thinks she is an ignorant, interfering fool. They are proved right and wrong in all sorts of interesting ways and with the characteristic interweaving of black humour and dark tragedy that makes this book such fun to read as well as so effective.
Not everything in the book is quite so wonderful. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Obreht said:
“I didn’t write it linearly at all. Very early on it became clear there were three story lines that needed to be interwoven. I wrote the parts that interested me the most first, then tried to develop the parts that were necessary but I was not as emotionally invested in later.”
Sometimes, this lack of investment shows. Sometimes too, the bright tapestry of interwoven stories shows up gaudy colours. The folklore, the hyperbole, the picaresque adventures occasionally seem twee. More often, however, they are dazzling and the effect is positively enlightening. It’s rare that fantasy is used so well to reveal reality. You can believe the hype about Obreht — even if that involves nurturing a healthy mistrust of the stories she tells.