The Tiger's WifeDH: The most remarkable thing that I know about writing is that you never know what you are  going to say until it spills out. Of course, first you discern a kind of fog and then some inchoate  ideas drifting around in that fog with which you try to anchor the page so it doesn’t just drift off like a vaporous cloud of white.

I’m getting back to my idea that The Tiger’s Wife is a rite of mourning. But it seems to be a process of recovery from what the writer couldn’t know. Tea Obreht’s book reminds me of another story of emotional excavation, The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer.

Both novels take place in central Europe, where neither writer happens to live.  And both novels tell the story, not even of grandparents but of great grandparents, since both writers are too incredibly young to have experienced the older 20th century era for themselves.

This is the literature of the children of immigrants. And it’s conservative in the best sense of that word, drawing up the best that can be taken from the dark waters of the time-well.

Invisible BridgeIn Orringer’s case, pure idealism, it’s a tribute to her honorable Jewish ancestors. In Obreht, the picture is bleaker since you can’t see the figure of the Tiger as a benign presence. The striped beast, an impossible thing, can’t be accommodated, tamed, or pigeon-holed, ever.

Yes, I’m typing the writers…as…young women who are the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves from central Europe, part of a larger family or trying to understand their separation from that family. This is part of what contemporary American literature is about. It’s not just about wasps coping with upper middle class angst in the suburbs. It’s publishing itself that’s about wasps coping with upper middle class angst in the suburbs. That’s not all the fiction is about. There is no “real” American literature and I object to there being any.

There’s a double-think in Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. The doctors confront superstition and folk wisdom which is literally devouring people, since it prevents the undereducated from seeking the medical aid that could save the lives of their children. But then it’s as if TO turns over the fabric of her story and reveals the stitching on the other side, since folktales and village legends devour the realistic novel that I at first thought I was reading.

Why is this happening? I think Noah had the right instinct when he expressed an interest in improving his feel for village life. The heart of this story is the village of Galina and what happens to it during WWII. That’s gives us another tie to Orringer who writes so eloquently about the fate of a Hungarian city during the war. It seems like a struggling nativism is trying to free itself from the snares of the past, from guilt.

I & the Village - Marc Chagall-Wikipedia

There’s a fine little anecdote that tells how the village apothecary ends up as the village leader. He wanders into town, just passing through from his extensive back story, treats a villager and ends up staying for the rest of his life. The village is a fairy tale of communitarianism. Every resident is a piece of the puzzle that is the mountain village of Galina. The only puzzle pieces that don’t fit in are the Tiger and the Tiger’s wife. It’s like watching a Marc Chagall painting come to life. I think there’s a famous one called “The Village” at MoMA. Go look at that picture. That’s Galina.

There’s a hidden nostalgia, as well as revulsion, for the communtarianism that failed, for the totalitarian community spirit of fascism, where everyone either belongs or is excluded, both groups paying a very heavy price but the excluded paying more. I guess I’m demonizing the spirit of belonging that we all want to share. But there’s a darker side to conformity.

What a dicey mind Obreht has! I celebrate her doppelganger spirit. There is another great mythical tale in Tiger, a ghoulish one about a “Deathless Man” who seems to trace the steps of Natalia’s grandfather. This amazing tale takes up just as much space as the story of the Tiger, perhaps more, but it’s a tale of the shadows and it doesn’t get title billing. The Deathless Man is a respectful obeisance, not only to what we do not know, but to what we can never know.

How Tea Obreht loves the old stories and how she loves telling tales like them! There’s so much of the Thousand and One Nights in some of TO’s digressions. These side-stories are narrative caviar. They seem to go on forever but who the fuck cares? From the deep time coulisse of the past, the stories, more realistic, of our time lead back to other stories, more primitive but perhaps wiser, of our respected ancestors, our homeland. Tea Obreht has fashioned a complex wonder machine of story. If you’re not a half-dead reader, it will dazzle you.

DH: I have been spending the week with Mowgli the Frog Boy. This is not someone I picked up in Chelsea last Saturday night, I wish it were. Mowgli is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, a classic of world literature.

I’m trying to get to Mowgli not because I’m interested in him. I’m interested in his enemy,Shere Khan, the Tiger. Is there a name in literature that conjures up more magic and awe than “Shere Khan”? Okay, ‘Moby Dick” but Melville was no poet. Kipling is, and it shows to his advantage in the names of his characters. We have Mang the Bat and Rann the Kite. This is great naming, a neglected skill among our writers.

“Shere Khan roared still in the night, for he was very angry that Mowgli had not been turned over to him.”

SK disregards the Law of Jungle which never ordains anything without a reason. He hunts in other animals’ territory without giving fair warning, he hunts domestic animals and he hunts man. He demands what is his due rather than earn it. And he hangs out with sleazy friends like Tabaqui the Jackal. the Dishlicker: “and the wolves of India despise Tabaqui because he runs about making mischief, and telling tales, and eating rags and pieces of leather from the village rubbish-heaps.”

Kipling never mentions Shere Khan without rushing, almost breathless, to defame him. It’s as if the most important thing he has to tell his readers is who to hate.

Kipling can be wonderfully generous in describing animals. Here he is on one of Mowgli’s mentors, the other being Baloo, the Bear, another great name. “It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.” Now that’s beautiful.

You may not realize it, but no beast can look at man in the eyes. That seems to be one of the Laws of the Jungle. Mowgli’s brother wolves can’t look him in the face because he is of the tribe of men. But nobody told my cat that one, since I get stared at all the time. But Kipling has a great conceit to bridge the gap between man and beast. It’s sort of a call signal, unique to each species and if you know it, you can be accepted. It’s something like: we are all brothers, of one tribe. Harm me not.” The Three Guys have a call signal something like that between themselves.

So Kipling’s Jungle Book weaves a great spell, which I loved despite my misgivings about its racism and colonialism. Here’s what I’m giving Kipling credit for, confronting otherness. Perhaps that’s part of his late imperial feeling, trying to understand the other, symbolized by the animals who live by names and rules, sort of like us superior white men, the whole crap white man’s burden thing, but in a more primitive way, which we are for a second tempted to think is maybe better than what we have in civilization.  (Yes, that’s what Kipling wants to think. What he is afraid not to think.) Still Kipling knows what it means to stick by your friends. And I’d very much like Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Black Panther as my friends. What kid wouldn’t?  And even Kaa the Rock Python. I think especially Kaa the Rock Python.

It seems to me that societies that inherit imperial power get dumber as a result. Maybe that’s a lesson for some other countries. Mowgli, our hero in the Jungle Book, hates Shere Khan. In the end, he can wear his skin and Shere Khan is not even allowed to put up a good  fight. It’s as if Kipling is afraid to have Shere Khan die noble. Afraid that you might love and admire the tiger. But if Shere Khan is so contemptible, then why does Mowgli want to wear his skin, be Shere Khan? Perhaps we would feel too guilty if Mowgli killed something beautiful. There’s a hidden guilt in the pages of The Jungle Book.

After Shere Khan, I turned away from The Jungle Book and am trying to dissipate its spell. I read it because it’s the book within The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. Natalia’s grandfather carries it around with him from childhood until his last days when it finally plays out its fate in the story.

And I’m believing that Shere Khan is not dead but somehow has turned into the tiger in Tea Obreht’s story. Doppelgangers in fiction are common enough since E.T.A. Hoffmann, I believe, first came up with the concept in one of his weird stories. But Obreht may be the first writer to have an animal doppelganger and that one taken from another writer’s literature. She has taken the animal that I lost in one story and saved it in hers. Shere Khan is still alive, an object of awe and terror, and if we dare, an object of love. He’s our tiger but he’s not, because he won’t have us. Just splendidly himself, the other, vanishing beyond the tree line in the drifting snow.

Just one more thing:

Three Guys One Jungle featuring:

Booey, the Old Possum, who chases after his own tail

Thunder, the Bear, whose roar no creature can withstand

Lightning, the Hare, who no snare can contain

Brown Wing, the Young Hawk, whose eye encompasses all

DH: I am trying to imagine the excitement, the growing sense of astonishment, that Noah Eaker,  the editor of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, must have felt when reading this manuscript. Did he stop reading and stand up in his chair, unable to proceed without taking a pause for breath or to pull himself together?

That’s more like me than Noah. Perhaps editors have an objective detachment that’s akin to that developed by physicians. Perhaps they read with cold objectivity, not because they don’t care but so their unbiased judgement can be of the most benefit to their writers.

The Tiger’s Wife weaves back and forth over many decades in war-torn, former Yugoslavia. And I say “war-torn” as if it were part of the name of Yugoslavia, like you would say “New York”. This is not an area of the world that most Americans know much about. But you’ve imagined enough to get you started if you think of a collection of rich and diverse East European cultures, very old, and very Orthodox or Muslim, held together after World War II by the brute force of the state under Marshall Tito. Post-Tito, this family of communities, full of internal tensions, languages, and rituals, breaks apart, and people die where before they managed at least to tolerate each other or actually be good neighbors and friends. And a whole unified world vanishes, as if you were to take a venerable Grandfather clock and smash it to the ground.

We find, in this tragic and now fragmentary country, a grandfather and his granddaughter, Natalia, both physicians.

Tea Obreht has helped unify her complex plot by playing off these two central characters. The grandfather has died, mysteriously, away from home while on an unaccounted-for trip, odd in itself for a man of his age. Natalia undertakes a quest to find the locale of his death, an obscure village called Zdrevkov, in order to recover his personal effects. This whole novel is an eloquent ritual of mourning.

These personal belongings are secured in a blue pouch which Natalia must not open. Her grandmother tells her if she opens that bag she shouldn’t bother to come home. Grandmother already suspects that Natalia knows more about her grandfather’s death than she’s telling. I very much enjoyed the evasive telephone call between grandchild and grandmother, the grandmother accusing Natalia of keeping something back and Natalia stalling for time, making her grandmother more suspicious.

Why can’t Natalia open the blue pouch of personal effects? Well, because you have to wait for 40 days after the death so that the spirit of the deceased person can move on. If her grandfather’s personal items are displayed, his restless spirit might be attracted to them as tokens of his earthly life and miss his safe dispatch to the other world.

But Natalia is a scientist, a practicing physician. This reminds me of the last novel I read, the wonderful You Lost Me There, by Rosecrans Baldwin, a very different kind of story. But they are similar in showing the collision of the scientifically trained professional, the member of an intellectual elite, with regular people. It can seem like advanced Martians confronting Medieval peasants. And I remember Robertson Davies, the great and greatly underrated Canadian writer, remarking in the first volume of his Cornish Trilogy that the medieval mind and the contemporary mind co-exist in the same brain. We don’t lose anything. The earlier historical consciousness just moves down to the basement and lives there, like a feral cat taking shelter where it can.

Natalia and her friend Zora, also a doctor and an old school chum, volunteer to travel into the hinterland to offer medical aid to an orphanage run by monks. She and Zora will stay at a farmhouse with a vineyard. In the vineyard they will encounter a band of nomadic laborers who are searching among the vines for a deceased relative they were forced to bury there on an earlier trip  The body, or what must be left of it, is interred in a suitcase. They must recover the body because their children are falling sick. The workers believe, after consulting an old wise woman, that the children are dying because of bad karma from their abandoned relative. What they really need to retrieve is the dead man’s heart, to be buried at a crossroads so the spirit can be transported to the other world. The doctors’ offer of aid for the suffering children is refused.

It’s an extraordinary collision, between this whacked-out magical thinking and a dedication to hard-nosed empiricism so solid that you feel you might trip over the rocks on the mountain paths that the characters climb. It’s miraculous that Tea Obreht can write both ways at once, write as a realist and as a teller of fantastic, A Thousand Nights and a Night tales. But she’s writing about such an amazing country, as Christian and European as it is Turkish and Ottoman. After I wrote a review of The Tiger’s Wife adaptive short story in the New Yorker, I had a beer with Noah, a great honor for a blogger, and I recommended Kazantzakis, especially the Report to Greco, as a good way to find an entry point into the East European world that Tea Obreht is writing about and is also the part of the world that my family hails from.

I can’t write just one post about Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I’m probably going to pull a Mengestu and write three. Like Dinaw Mengestu, Tea Obreht is one of the now-celebrated, 20 under 30 writers that Farrar is publishing in anthology and that have been featured in the New Yorker. JR has talked about that anthology on the blog. I have read three of those 20 writers so far. Not enough.

Noah, I’d like another beer. I’d love to know about your experience in editing this extraordinary work. I bet that’s a story in itself. The Tiger’s Wife is bound to be one of the most distinguished of next year’s releases. It will be published in March by Random House.