Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife is an amazing first novel by Tea Obreht. The story goes back and forth from the Yugoslavia of the 1950s to the Bosnian Conflict of 1992-1995. Once loosely united under the military dictator, Tito (the "Marshall"), it is now being torn apart by ethnic hatreds. As in the allegorical novel, A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev, Tea Obreht depicts the horrors of war without naming the parties. This universalizes the suffering and makes an enemy of cruelty and intolerance.

Still, some background to this war-torn region is helpful. One of the main characters--the grandfather, recalls his time as a soldier during the Soviet-Yugoslav Conflict of the 1950s. At the time, the Bosnians, Croations, and Serbians were united by communism and informal borders.

But this peace is shattered with Tito's death in 1980 and the fall of a collective presidency in 1991. On June 25, 1991, Serbia and Croatia proclaimed sovereignty over Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian Army then attacked Slovenia. The Croats and Serbs began fighting in Croatia and all ethnic rivalries were unleashed. Ethnic cleansing continued through 1995, when NATO sent in peace-keeping forces. It was not until December14, 1995 that a peace accord between the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs was signed. By the end of the war, 200,000 people had lost their lives; six million remained homeless.

Tea Obreht spins her story loosely based on events from this time. Natalia Stefanovi is a young doctor, just out of school. She journeys across the newly-drawn border to treat Muslim children orphaned by the Serbian forces. Obreht does not tell us the nationalities of either Natalia or those she treats, but there is a reference to the children orphaned by Natalia's people.

We learn that her sick grandfather has died, not at home, but in a village close to where she now works. Why he ventured there to die alone is a mystery she intends to solve. In doing so, she reflects on the stories her grandfather told her--namely those concerning "the deathless man." Obreht weaves elements of the supernatural into the plot with ease and grace.

The story from which the novel derives its name is about a tiger that escaped captivity when the zoo was bombed during World War II. The tiger re-learns its wild ways, and searches for food at the edges of the town. It begins to steal food from the butcher's smoke house. There, it meets the butcher's deaf, mute and abused wife. She is a Muslim, and like the tiger, an outsider in the village. As WWII rages, and threat of invasion by Germany is imminent, the villagers turn to scapegoating both the tiger and the wife. Obreht's imagery is luminous as she describes the forest setting and the relationship between the tiger and the woman he loves. "He had gone a week without the warmth of the village and the smokehouse smell of her hair...Once or twice he had gone to her, had tracked her down in the blackness of the trees, but she had always led him back. And he had lain there among the ruins of Sveti Danilo while the snow fell through the caved-in roof above the alter, and watched the birds huddled along the golden arch of the alterpiece." (p. 261)

The Tiger's Wife is highly metaphoric and sensuously visual. Its lyrical writing keeps the reader spellbound to the last page.

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