The Tiger Whelp
By Téa Obreht
Random House, 2011
By now The Tiger’s Wife has been so wildly praised in so many different publications that it probably can’t help disappointing quite a few of its readers. I was a little disappointed in it myself, but my disappointment was far outweighed by my admiration for Téa Obreht’s talent and potential. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say that for the moment I think she’s a better short story writer than a novelist. Nothing in The Tiger’s Wife impressed me half as much as her recent tale “The Laugh” did, and so far her published short stories display a mastery that The Tiger’s Wife never quite achieves.
Obreht takes an elliptical approach to the novel’s narrative, shuttling among different times, places, and perspectives. Because of this, it only gradually becomes clear that The Tiger’s Wife has two main threads holding everything else together. The first is the relationship between the narrator and her grandfather. The second is the formation of the grandfather’s character as a boy, largely through his encounter with the tiger’s wife, a deaf woman who experiences a strange communion with an escaped tiger. This communion has serious consequences for her and for the others in her remote mountain village, including the grandfather, whose entire adult medical career will be an effort to atone for his part in the events that flow from the tiger’s presence.
Téa Obreht is 25, and in interviews she has cheerfully admitted that The Tiger’s Wife imagines a specific set of historical situations she hasn’t personally seen. Born in the former Yugoslavia, she left Serbia when she was seven, in 1992, soon after the start of the civil war. Natalia, the novel’s narrator, is a young doctor who seems to be five or six years older than Obreht. Natalia endures many of the years of fighting that Obreht missed, and also endures the aftermath of that fighting. At the same time, and even more intensely, Natalia pictures the lives of the grandfather and of many other individuals during the decades before her birth, especially during the time of World War II.
Obreht simplifies the task of depicting the historical past in two ways: through repeated touches of magical realism, and through the decision to set the story in an unnamed country that seems to be a slight reworking of Serbia. The acknowledged influence of Bulgakov and Marquez washes over the entire book, usually to its benefit but occasionally with a touch of laziness. The deathless man who comes to obsess the grandfather is, for instance, an inspired character, a supernatural figure who wouldn’t be out of place in The Master and Margarita. Yet now and then Obreht loses her grip on him, and he changes into a kind of limp Halloween costume, less uncanny than amusingly spooky. This isn’t entirely a complaint: all literary figures-of-death are bound to feel a bit silly at times, and the silliness is part of their appeal, an aspect of the relief they offer from the horror they represent. Still, Obreht sometimes uses the deathless man too cheaply and easily. His presence might be even more effective if he didn’t make theatrical comments like his statement about his allegiance in the war: “I have no side. I am all sides.” Similarly, the decision to set the story in an imaginary country seems needlessly coy, though perhaps it helped free Obreht to move from one character to another – a skill she exercises with remarkable fluidity.
Indeed, the distinctive quality of the novel is Obreht’s ability to travel at will wherever her imagination takes her, and to remain convincing in each new situation. One moment she’s inside the mind of the tiger, the next parsing the thoughts of a hunter, the next examining the husband of the tiger’s wife back in the early 1940s. After Natalia’s first elegant transition into the tiger’s mind, most of the shifts into the other characters’ viewpoints are handled simply and straightforwardly, with a winning lack of explanatory posturing.
At least one reviewer has complained about the digressions in the book, but digression is central to Obreht’s method, and most of what at first seems digressive ends up being connected to other parts of the story. I’ll give away one of the book’s small surprises, to indicate how some of the larger ones materialize, and how Obreht’s digressions tend to work. After the tiger has escaped from the zoo during a series of German bombing attacks in 1941, a blacksmith joins two other men from the grandfather’s village in trying to hunt the tiger down. Obreht veers off on a description of the blacksmith and his gun, and spends several pages talking about him: she seems to be setting him up as a character who will figure prominently in the rest of the novel.
The blacksmith and the other hunters find the tiger at a pond in the mountainous area above the village. The tiger then starts running straight towards the blacksmith while he struggles to load his gun and shoot:
…The blacksmith had the ramrod out and he was shoving it into the muzzle, pumping and pumping and pumping furiously, his hand already on the trigger, and he was ready to fire, strangely calm with the tiger there, almost on him, its whiskers so close and surprisingly bright and rigid. At last, it was done, and he tossed the ramrod aside and peered into the barrel, just to be sure, and blew his own head off with a thunderclap.
That’s the last we hear of the blacksmith, but his brief presence announces the hunting theme that will come back later in the novel, and provides a deliberate contrast with the very different hunter who arrives in the second half of the book—a man who is as competent with his weapon as the blacksmith is clumsy with his. It also adds to Obreht’s presentation of violence as a grotesque form of error or misunderstanding. As the blacksmith’s death illustrates, there’s nothing glorious about the bloodshed and pain in the novel.
Throughout the story, the narrator is surprisingly sober and unsentimental, ready to look coolly at the grandfather and even more coolly at herself. Some of the novel’s best writing casts a critical eye on Natalia’s youthful self-absorption. She’s devoted to the grandfather, but remains honest about how readily she could sometimes turn away from him. Explaining how she lost interest in their visits to the tigers at the zoo, she says:
By the time I was thirteen, the ritual of the tigers had become an annoyance. Our way home from the zoo was continually marked by encounters with people I knew: friends, kids my own age, who had long since stopped sharing the company of their elders. I would see them sitting in cafés, smoking on the curb at the Parliament threshold. And they would see me, and remember seeing me, remember enough to laugh mildly about it at school. Their mocking wasn’t unkind, just easy; but it reminded me that I was the prisoner of a rite I no longer felt necessary.
That “laugh mildly” is typical of the novel’s emotional accuracy, the care Obreht takes to catch the precise degree of feeling in each situation. One of her darker running jokes is the danger of emotional exaggeration. There’s a sense that nearly everyone in the story is injured by pumped-up feelings, and that the exaggerations inflicted on the different characters mirror the exaggerations that have led to all the killing in Natalia’s imaginary land. Yet the novel itself isn’t so explicit. It has the tact to pull back from most of the obvious abstractions: you can find them if you want, but Obreht doesn’t press them on you, and leaves the story open to the possibility of many interpretations.
Her prose style is an interesting mix. She has mentioned Hemingway’s impact on her writing, an influence that’s overwhelmingly apparent in her story “The Laugh,” which comes across as her stab at rewriting “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In The Tiger’s Wife, you can hear Hemingway at times in the dialogue’s rhythmic repetitions. Here’s the grandfather talking to the deathless man:
“What do you say to the perch?” the deathless man asks me.
“I am a great lover of John Dory,” I say. “In the absence of lobster.”
“Shall we have the John Dory?”
“Let’s have the John Dory.”
“We’ll have the John Dory,” the deathless man says to the old waiter…
In her descriptive prose, however, Obreht moves back and forth between the stripped-down Hemingway manner and the thicker, slower Bulgakov approach, with its detail-packed, full-bodied sentences. When she shows us an elephant on a public street, you can feel the pleasure she takes in her powers of depiction:
At first I thought it was a bus, but its shape was too organic, too lumpy, and it was going far too slowly for that, making almost no noise. It was swaying, too, swaying up the street with an even momentum, a ballasted rolling motion that was drawing it away from us like a tide, and every time it rocked forward something about it made a soft dragging sound on the rails… From there, the elephant—the sound and smell of it; the ears folded back against the domed, bouldered head with big-lidded eyes; the arched roll of the spine, falling away into the hips; dry folds of skin shaking around the shoulders and knees as it shifted its weight—seemed to take up the whole street.
It’s not a completely developed style yet: its fluctuations mean that Obreht lacks, for the moment, a distinctive voice. There’s a certain patchy quality to the writing, as it alternates between polished bits of poetry (“blue eye shadow oiling the creases of her eyes”) and shards of matter-of-fact detachment (“Without a weekly cadaver, a corpse to practice on, you were predictably fucked for the remainder of your career in medical school”).
I’m not sure, though, that I’d be happy if Obreht were to clean up the inconsistencies in her tone. Part of the excitement that The Tiger’s Wife has generated, I suspect, comes precisely from its unwieldy energy, the sense it gives us of a writer trying to do many different things at once, while moving in many separate and possibly incompatible directions. Hemingway’s earliest novels and stories are some of his best, and I don’t think he ever developed much beyond the brilliance of his youthful writing. Obreht doesn’t have Hemingway’s startling stylistic bravado, but she has something equally interesting: a style that isn’t so severely limited by its own preconceptions, and that might shift much more flexibly to handle new material than Hemingway’s ever could. That more developed style is, however, merely suggested here, and might not even be an approach Obreht cares to pursue in future books. For now, The Tiger’s Wife is a strong, moving, tough-minded novel, bumpy in execution but compelling overall, even if it’s less impressive than some of the more over-the-top reviews might have led you to believe.
Kevin Frazier is an American author and critic who lives in Helsinki, Finland.