This 2010 work is a remarkable novel. And a highly imaginative one. Written by a young woman wise far beyond her years. Wise, especially, in being able to recreate what one speculates was the experience of her family and their suffering in a violent era of two world wars. It is also a complicated novel, shifting back and forth between the woman narrator Natalia’s present life, as a doctor dealing with the ills of society as well as the death of her beloved grandfather, and the life of that grandfather when he is nine years old. a major war is on the horizon, and his innocent life is complicated by the presence of a legendary tiger.
The reader moves back and forth between these two eras of time as well as from a world of reality to a more primitive world of superstition and legend. That is, to the world of the tiger and that of a deaf mute woman who has fled a violent marriage—arranged much like that of the Biblical Jacob—and found solace in the company of that tiger, who has fled the domesticated life of the local zoo after the city was bombed.
The physical descriptions of the war-torn landscape, of ruined cities, distraught citizens, and a fertile countryside, is brilliant, and yet the exact location of these events is never indicated, although it is clearly Eastern Europe and suggests the tumultuous history of Yugoslavia, where the author was born. The explanation appears to be that Obreht is aware that if the legendary aspects of her novel are to be credible she needs to remove that legendary portion from the world of specific reality.
But if the geography is elusive, what is not is the presence of death. In an era of warfare, death is everywhere, of course. And here it is given its reality through “the deathless man,” whom the grandfather continually encounters in his life, a man who is constantly being killed but never dies. He is, in fact, the author’s messenger of death, as he serves coffee to those he meets and then reads the coffee ground to determine if they are about to die. And, yet, like other “villains” of this novel, the author makes him human. She does so by her tale of why he was condemned not to die— because he once relieved a girl he loved from the death that she was fated to suffer. Note also that a subsidiary theme of this novel is how doctors, both the grandfather and the girl, deal with the constant presence of death.
What is amazing is that Obreht, who left Yugoslavia at seven, is now an American and wrote this work while studying for her MFA at Cornell. The novel was published when she was only 25. Her talent was immediately recognized by The New Yorker, when it ran an excerpt, and one can see many chapters that could have been extracted from the final manuscript. For she has written here a number of set pieces and a number of character studies that can easily stand alone. Not that they do not belong, for the character studies, in particular, humanize and help the reader to understand characters whose actions would otherwise seem abhorrent. For even as they portray the violence in these particular human beings, such as Luka, the abusive husband of the tiger’s wife, they also demonstrate how such villains came to commit their violent acts.
The structure of the novel revolves around Natalia’s attempt to discover the circumstance of the mysterious death of her grandfather. How well did he know he was going to die? Why did he leave home and his wife in order to die? Why did he go to the small town he went to? Why did he say he went there to visit Natalia, when that was not the case? In her own attempt to answer those questions while she is away on a mission to help the unfortunate, Natalia recalls her life with her grandfather, beginning with how he took her regularly to the zoo, where he passed on to her his fascination with tigers. As she searches for her answers, she discovers—from her memories and from those who knew her grandfather—about the deathless man, the tiger, and the tiger’s “wife.”
The major problem I had with this novel was being unable to remember where the story was each day when I returned to it. As vivid as the writing was, as interesting as the various tales were, the events themselves did not stick with me from one day to the next. Which perhaps goes to the point of some critics, who have said that there is not enough substance behind the beautiful, evocative writing. Nor enough connection among Natalia’s story, her grandfather’s story, the war story, and the legends of the deathless man and of the tiger and his wife. Another explanation for the abrupt moving back and forth in time is technical. For it helps to create suspense when we leave one era at a climactic moment, and return to the drama of the other era.
Yet, to balance that, I was fascinated each day by the content I was reading, and in my final analysis, I do believe the pieces fit together. And if the final fates of the characters is not clear—that of the tiger, of the tiger’s wife, of the tiger’s wife’s husband, of the grandfather, and even of others I have not mentioned, such as the Darisa, a great bear of a hunter and the tiger’s enemy—is that not often the case in real life? And is it especially not the case in the legends we recall, where the otherworld mysteriousness is the point, not the actual conclusion of the tale?
I believe Obreht wanted to pour into this work everything she felt about life and its meaning. That such meaning, for example, goes far beyond the reality we live, that it also includes a reality we don’t live but do imagine. Often, what we wish had happened. Which can turn into legend. But the author also shows that the meaning of life can be found in death, in whether we accept its arrival and in how we react to that knowledge. Thus, the presence of the deathless man.
I often disagree with Michiko Kakutani, but her New York Times review offers a summary of Obreht’s approach that is quite interesting: “It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Gunter Grass,” she writes, “as it is an extraordinary limber exploration of allegory and myth making and the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs or supernatural legends) reveal—and reflect back— the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies and hatreds.”
What Obreht accomplishes so effectively here is to mine the specific to reveal the universal. Time and again, her characters extract great truths from their daily life, their daily suffering. That war and its violence, in current parlance, is a game-changer, that our lives are never the same again, that we see life far differently, that out of daily experience comes a long view of history, of both man’s significance in that history and the value of each man’s life.
A story built around the relationship between a grandfather and a granddaughter is quite rare, and Obreht discusses this in an interview. She says that grandchildren often cannot relate to their parents’ lives but do want to know about their grandparents’ lives, lives that belong to an earlier era they cannot identify with but that they are curious about. She also says her own father was not in her life, but that she had a close relationship with her grandfather, who often did take her to the zoo. But beyond that, she says, this novel is not autobiographical. Of course, emotionally, it is quite autobiographical, and her relationship with her grandfather is why it is so successful. It is the starting point, and gives the novel its heart.
In the same interview, Obreht says she is not sure what she will write next, but does acknowledge her continuing interest in the Balkans. And I myself would not mind visiting that world again. But this raises the same question I had on finishing her novel. What will come next? She has put into this work so much of her knowledge of life, so much of her own family relationships, so much of her own awareness of legend and the imagination, what is left to inspire her? One might find it difficult to move from this to her view of American life. Perhaps there is something in her relationship with her mother, with whom she moved to Cyprus, to Egypt, and then to America. There may also be a germ in the fact that her grandfather was Catholic and that her grandmother was Moslem, and how they got along in a society that often did not.
In any event, both the literary world and I will be deeply interested in what comes next. It will have to be truly marvelous to top this work. Which often second novels are not. Perhaps the key will be how much more she discovers about life. How much more she is able to penetrate into the heart and into the soul of the people she writes about. This novel, as profound as it is, is more about surfaces. About the legends that we build to explain our lives. I might be more interested in the changes that occur within her characters, perhaps as a result of the same violence that inspires these legends. (November, 2014)