Fairy tales are not just for children. In this week’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection, The Tiger’s Wife, myth and folklore hold more sway than moral lessons. They prove to be true.
A woman befriends a man-eating tiger in a terrified village. A deathless man survives after drowning and gunshot wounds to the head.
Téa Obreht will speak about The Tiger’s Wife, her first novel, at the CLSC Roundtable lecture at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
The book takes place in a war-ravaged, unnamed Balkan country around present day and follows Natalia Stefanovic, a rational young doctor who is heading to the “other side” of her country to give out inoculations at an orphanage with her best friend Zóra. This little village is a refuge of Eastern European folklore in which both she and Zóra see nothing but backwardness. Yet, as she learns, so much myth reaches back into her family’s history.
Natalia’s grandfather, also a surgeon, just died after a private fight with cancer, miles away from home in a small village close to the orphanage.
Grief and old memories distract her, and she feels drawn to the little village where her grandfather died, to reclaim his mementos and try to unravel two enigmas that lurk in his past.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: 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,” Obreht writes early in the novel, from Natalia’s point of view. “One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”
Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker was the first to propose The Tiger’s Wife as a CLSC reading selection. He bought it on a whim after reading the first page, finished it on a plane and found it to be brilliant, he said.
It then received rave reviews in the press, and Becker and Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education, slated it for the season’s reading list.
“I think its nuances, its tonalities, its shift of time, its various characters, some of the inscrutable elements of the story all lend itself to a continuing kind of deliberation for a while after you’ve read it,” Becker said. “And it’s a book I expect to read again after a time, because my sense is … I’ll find something else in it, as well.”
The Tiger’s Wife is not a straightforward story. Obreht layers Natalia’s narrative with swirling subplots and flashbacks to her childhood. Natalia thinks back to the memories of her grandfather, searching for ways to understand him. She remembers the day trips with her grandfather to the zoo, to watch the tiger pacing its cage. Her grandfather held this ritual unceasingly, just as he carried an old copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book everywhere in his pocket.
Obreht then moves into Natalia’s grandfather’s memories growing up in a deeply superstitious village called Galina. As a young boy, he encountered a tiger that escaped its cage from a bombed-out zoo in the city during World War II. Unaccustomed to the wild, the tiger slunk through the countryside, half starving because it couldn’t hunt, until it was lured into a woman’s home by the familiar smell of raw meat.
Later, the other great mystery of Natalia’s grandfather’s life appears, the deathless man. He is a humorous but somewhat unsettling character who never seems to age. Appearing at the most unlikely moments, the grandfather must wrestle with his own skeptical rationalism and belief in the obviously undying man.
“The stories of that tiger on the one hand and the deathless man on the other is like inserting myth into the middle of an otherwise straightforward narrative of our time,” Becker said. “That’s not an easy thing to do, but she does it and pulls it off with élan.”
Throughout the narratives of The Tiger’s Wife, myth and fable are the prevailing logic. In their richness and imagination, they are like defiance to the harsh reality of war that seems ever-present.
Natalia’s Balkan homeland, for several generations, has been deeply affected by conflict. The border between her home and the orphanage there makes her an outsider. The war makes neighbors wary of neighbors, and having the wrong last name is a punishable offense.
It is a country very similar to former Yugoslavia, which is Obreht’s birthplace.
“You can look at this story and read Serbian-Bosnian and all of that in a very easy sort of way; it’s there,” Becker said. “That whole part of the world is there, with its customs and ancient antagonisms.”
Obreht was born in 1985 in Belgrade, Serbia. Her grandfather was a Roman Catholic and her grandmother was a Muslim, like the grandparents of The Tiger’s Wife. The family left the country before the outbreak of the 1992 civil war. They lived in Cyprus and Egypt before moving to the United States in 1997.
Obreht had known from as early as age 8 that she wanted to be a writer, and she has written stories ever since. The New Yorker placed her on its “20 Under 40” list of young writers and the National Book Foundation on its “5 Under 35.” Obreht’s stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and Zoetrope: All-Story, among others. The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction.
“A stunning reality about this book is that she’s just now turned 25,” Becker said. “So you think about life’s experience on the one hand, and certainly people can live intensely, and she clearly does. But I also, I go back to how sophisticated a work this is. That’s an amazing artistic accomplishment at such a young age; it really is. If she continues to develop like this, I think she’s gong to be one of the great writers of our age.”
Tea Obreht was born in Belgrade and lived in Cyprus and Egypt before settling in the United States. Her début story, "The Tiger’s Wife," appeared in The New Yorker’s 2009 Summer Fiction Issue and was part of her first novel, of the same name, which won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction.