Saturday, April 23, 2011

Balkan Beast

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.


You can erase national boundaries, but memories and myths will always prevail. Such recollections and legends run “like secret rivers” through Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, set in the villages and cities of the Balkans. The upheavals that the area has witnessed may have redrawn the map, but, as this book exuberantly illustrates, storytelling has its own contours.

For a contemporary novel, Obreht’s tone of voice is both unusual and apt, being a blend of the real and the folkloric. On occasion, she draws from the well of magic realism that others such as Rushdie and Marquez have dipped into. The warp and weft of this sprawling tapestry comprise two interlinked narratives, the first concerning the narrator’s present circumstances, and the other, fables from her grandfather’s coming-of-age years. As such, it features a picaresque cast, also managing to touch upon faded Ottoman glory, Nazi depredations and later religious strife.

The Tiger’s Wife opens with Natalia, a 20-something clinician, travelling with a feisty colleague to deliver inoculations and other medication to an orphanage across the border. She learns of the death of her grandfather, a doctor and cancer patient, under somewhat mysterious circumstances; soon, she gets involved with an itinerant crew trying to find the buried corpse of a relative, convinced that it is responsible for their ill-fortune. The story proceeds by alternating between Natalia’s actions and reconstructions from her grandfather’s youth.

The centerpiece of the grandfather’s story is of his meetings with a “deathless man” and the wager he makes with him involving his favourite novel, Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Death, in fact, is a concern that shadows the book: characters fight it, overcome it, are haunted by it, make Faust-like pacts with it, rely on superstition to banish it, and, of course, succumb to it.

This is not to say that the book suffers from a surfeit of sorrow: there’s an undercurrent of humour, often black. At one point, a person who protests against the bombing of a cotton factory bears aloft a placard that reads: I Now Have No Clean Underwear.

Colour and incident aren’t qualities this novel is short of. The tiger of the title is one that has escaped from a city zoo after a bombardment and goes on to inhabit a forest at the outskirts of a remote village, creating panic amongst its occupants. Obreht takes us into the consciousness of this creature as he prowls in search of food and shelter, finding an ally in the battered deaf-mute wife of the village butcher. The tale of the butcher – once a sensitive, musically-inclined youth – is also revealed, as well as those of others, including a valiant blacksmith, an peripatetic bear-vanquisher and the local apothecary.

All of this is grounded by Obreht’s attention to detail, often rendered in the form of lists. The tiger, at one point, scents “the thick, woolly smell of sheep and goats; the smell of fire, tar, wax; the interesting reek of the outhouses; paper, iron, the individual smells of people; the savoury smells of stew and goulash, the grease of baking pies". A pasha’s palace-turned-museum comprises “portraiture halls with ornate hangings and brass lamps, court tapestries depicting feasts and battles, a small library annex where the young ladies could read, and a tearoom where the pasha's china and cookbooks and coffee cups were on display.”

The war and strife that have bedevilled the region are often referred to in terms of their effects: the shortages, the petty black marketeering, the implications and sense of nearby hostilities. As the narrator says at one point, "Conflict we didn't necessarily understand -- conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn't go anywhere, do anything, be anyone -- had been at the centre of everything." A little later there’s another reflection: “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 parts of the whole. Previously shared things -- landmarks, writers, scientists, histories -- had to be doled out according to their new owners.” Putting the pieces together is one of the things that Obreht’s work sets out to do.

There’s a lot, then, that’s crammed into this novel, and certainly, there are times when one feels adrift on a sea of stories, with the links between them being tenuously articulated. However, it’s Obreht’s assured storytelling instincts that come to the rescue, making The Tiger’s Wife a saga that burns bright.

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