November 11, 2010
DH: 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.
In 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.
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.