The Tiger's Wife Way Better than Recent Pulitzer Winners

Téa Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife (2011)
Random House 978038543831
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Count me among the stunned when this year’s Pulitzer committee declined to name a winner for fiction–virtually every novel I’ve read this year is superior to last year’s honoree, Jennifer Egan, and her mediocre A Visit from the Goon Squad. [See review.] Any list of superb novels for 2011 should certainly include Téa Obreht’s stunning debut, The Tiger’s Wife.

The blood-soaked Balkans forms the backdrop for the novel, and a curious incident from World War II provided the inspiration for the title. In 1941, the Germans bombed Belgrade; a misguided missile hit the local zoo and liberated animals it didn’t kill. This included, briefly, a tiger. Obreht uses this incident as entrée into looking at a more recent Balkan tragedy: the terrible civil wars that ensued as Yugoslavia disintegrated between 1990 and 1995. She introduces this through the eyes of a young girl, Natalia Stefanovic, whose prewar ritual accompanying her beloved grandfather, a local physician, on his periodic visits to the zoo to view the resident tiger. The kindly doctor always carried a copy of The Jungle Book with him, an appropriate prop for a man whose later life was consumed by storytelling. Flash forward to the early 21st century and we find Natalia as a young adult who has followed her grandfather into the medical profession, though she’s come to think of him as a compulsive oddity and appears to have been less shaped by his stories than by 1960s-style folk music, 70s/80s rock and roll, and the ennui tempered by cynicism emblematic of a generation trying to pick up the pieces left by years of war. We meet Natalia and a colleague, Zóra, in a neighboring breakaway nation, where they try to administer help in a Balkans-style Physicians Without Borders program, but are met with stares, suspicion, and resistance that serve to deepen divisions rather than heal them. To make matters worse, Natalia has just received word that her grandfather has died on a trip to visit her, a sojourn about which she was unaware, but needs to explain.  

Phew! That’s a lot of claws scratching at the plot and plenty more unfurl in the pages to come. Luckily, this is not a conventional novel and Obreht can play loose with facts, chronological sequencing, and objective reality. The book isn’t about the Balkans or Natalia per se; it’s about regional identity, antagonisms, family, and those transcendent moments in which shared humanity dissolves individual and cultural differences. Obreht writes in a magical realism style that brings to life folk tales, fables, and incredulities. Do not think of this is a single, coherent story–it is actually a collection of short stories, each of which provides threads from which a larger truth can be spun. The stories intersect, but you’ll need to be on your toes. Don’t look for objective history either; Obreht deliberately elides historical detail, falsifies geography, infers ethnicities, and obliterates judgments so that we concentrate on the individual human dramas that would otherwise be lost amidst the larger tragedies.

Her grandfather’s native village, for instance, is rendered as Galina. (I seem to be the only reviewer to have noticed that this is Russian for Galen, the name of a famed Roman physician.) The 1941 zoo bombing has been moved to this city, which is patterned on Mostar. (The allusion to the bombing of a famed bridge gives it away.) The tale that gives the book its title involves a deaf-mute woman, who is also Muslim, who has been badly abused. Her husband, Luka, was tricked into marrying her, the latest disappointment in his life. He is the local butcher, but he had dreamed of becoming a poet and gusle player. (The gusle is a one-stringed instrument favored by poets and troubadours.) When Luka meets his demise while trying to hunt the tiger, his wife is assumed to be in league with the animal and villagers whisper that she has bedded the beast. (The tiger, in this sense, appears as a Satanic symbol for superstitious and Islamaphobic Christians–another metaphor for the Balkans wars.)  

Another tale that makes numerous appearances is that of the Deathless Man. It does not matter how badly he’s abused or disfigured, he survives his horrors with little more to show from his traumas than scars and a voracious thirst. This one intersects with a 21st century story of a villager hell-bent on finding the bones of a relative he hastily buried during the recent war. One could easily see both as metaphors for the indomitable human spirit–perhaps even as symbols of how humanity survives despite its best efforts at self-annihilation. Those who wish can probably find symbolism in just about everything. The tiger, for instance, could be a play on TIGR, the acronym of a Slovene anti-Nazi resistance group during World War II. Who knows? As I said, Obreht does not name or point fingers. Want to complicate things more? She’s actually of Croat descent, but her family left Yugoslavia before the Balkan wars and she grew up in the United States.

The beauty of this book is that you can play detective and try to connect all the dots and match the fictional scenes to real places and events. Or you could just surrender to the mystery and magic. I won’t pretend that The Tiger’s Wife is an easy read, but it’s moving, thoughtful, and uplifting in very unexpected ways. And it sure is better than anything that’s won a Pulitzer lately.--Rob Weir

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