November 10, 2010
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.