Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Catch a Tiger

All great novels, a professor once announced to class, are about sex and death.  Argue that such a view is reductive, if you will, but it’s helped me to understand many difficult works in the past. The Tiger’s Wife tilts toward the death end of this polarity, with a sprinkling of interspecies sex to lighten the passage.

I read this because I am on a mythos kick lately, favoring novels that interweave legend and fairy tale into our ordinary, drab world.  Tea Obreht’s novel  offers a rich reading experience for readers like me, as it braids two myths—The Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife—with the story of a young female doctor’s search for what happened following her beloved grandfather’s death.

Because I am a writer and not a book critic, I will offer here two contrasting views of the novel.   Writing for Salon.com, well known literary critic Laura Miller said that “the plain truth is that “The Tiger’s Wife,” while certainly entertaining and of considerable literary merit, is too rich for its own good: Obreht would have been well-advised to parcel out its constituent elements as stand-alone stories.”

By contrast, Michiko Kakutani, in a glowing review for The New York Times, praised how, ”Ms. Obreht creates an indelible sense of place, a world, like the Balkans, haunted by its past and struggling to sort out its future, its imagination shaped by stories handed down generation to generation; its people torn between ancient beliefs and the imperatives of what should be a more rational present. In doing so, Ms. Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.”

Bloated or blazing?  Who has the tiger by its tail?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  The truth probably runs a split between these two views.  I loved the myths interwoven in this novel, but found the present day rendering of the war in the Balkans to be bleached out in comparison, a pale yet subtly enchanting experience in its own right.  That it is to say that it was lovely to read, but because the author is so intent on avoiding anything smacking of melodrama, the result is that these scenes don’t evoke as much emotion as they should. That’s a small complaint in what is otherwise a wonderful novel.

My own verdict:   It’s a damn good book.  It would be easy to hate Tea Obreht since she is not yet even thirty years old and has a written a work that will live for the ages.  Don’t believe me?  Read “The Laugh” which was also featured in Best American Short Stories, 2011:  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/the-laugh/7531/

It’s an absolutely chilling story.  You will not like hyenas at the end, in case you were a fan of this animal species before reading it.  We read this story in my intro to creative writing class and I can remember after reading aloud the endnotes how surprised my students were that Tea Obreht had never been to Africa. 

“Cheater!” one student exclaimed.  Like I said, it would be easy to hate her.  If you are inclined to such feelings, go ahead.  As for me, I intend to read all of her work.  I will conclude here with my usual technique, typing out my favorite passages from the novel.   Here’s a cool scene set:

“North of Brejevina, the road was well paved, stark and new because the scrubland had not grown back up to it, the cliffs rising white and pitch and pocked with thorn trees.  A wind-flattened thunderhead stood clear of the sea, its gray insides stretching out under the shining anvil…”

Here is the grandfather, and a little of the death theme.  Please note that the grandfather is most fully present in this novel through the telling of his mythology:  “You are going to see what it is like someday, being in a room full of the dying.  They’re always waiting, and in their sleep they are waiting most of all.  When you’re around them you’re waiting too, measuring all the time their breaths, their sighs.”

Here is one of my favorite passages as the Deathless Man explains his reason for existence:   “You and I are misunderstanding one another,” he says…”The dead are celebrated.  The dead are loved.  They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

“I want to say to him, the living are celebrated too, and loved.”

Yes, it’s a melancholy work, but I love melancholy.

And here is a passage from Darisa, the bear hunter.  One other thing I really loved about this work was how fully fleshed out even minor characters were.  Darisa has just lost his epilectic sister, his charge, to a deadly seizure:  “Young boys are fascinated by animals, but for Darisa the hysterical dream of the golden labyrinth, coupled with the silent sanctuary of the trophy room, amounted to a much simpler notion:  absence, solitude, and then, at the end of it all, Death in thousands of forms, standing in that hall with frankness and clarity—Death had size and color and shape, texture and grace.  There was something concrete to it.  In that room, Death had come and gone, swept by, and left a mirage of life—it was possible, he realized to find life in Death.”

To find life in death.  Yes.  For me that gets to the core of what art should do.

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