The Magazine

Balkan Dreams

A debut novel hovers among shadows and action.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JOHN SIMON
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The Tiger’s Wife
A Novel
by Téa Obreht
Random House, 352 pp., $25

Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht

Beowulf Sheehan

This is the latest runaway bestseller among first novels. Much has been made of the fact that Téa Obreht was 24 years old when she finished writing it, that she hailed from the former Yugoslavia, that she was 12 when she came to the United States with her family, that she wrote the novel mostly as a student at Cornell, that the style could best be described as magic realism (though she does not call herself a magic realist), and that she was a woman. And not only a woman but a blonde, and an attractive one.

The novel has mythic qualities—and is by no means the sort of thing attractive young blondes usually write about. The vocabulary is large, the syntax mostly correct and idiomatic, and the prose both exotic and poetic. Obreht declared various influences, the most evident being Gabriel García Márquez, whose Love in the Time of Cholera she pronounces the perfect novel. Respected writers—T.C. Boyle, Colum McCann, and Ann Patchett—showered her book jacket with superlatives.

She has appeared in respected publications: The New York Times Book Review accorded her the rare privilege for a first novel, a front-page review; the New Yorker chose her as the youngest member of a select group, “The Twenty Under Forty,” and published a chapter of The Tiger’s Wife in its pages, something tantamount to literary canonization.

So who is this young woman of mystery? Yes, mystery, for her very name seems fictitious. The acute accent on Téa does not jibe with either Serbian, her native language, or with English, her adopted one. Obreht would appear to be a Slovene name, but why Slovene in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, where she spent her first seven years? It turns out that she has Muslim, Slovene (i.e., Roman Catholic), and Greek Orthodox ancestors. Some time ago Wikipedia accorded her a brief entry, revealing her real surname as something very Slavic and ponderously polysyllabic. Also curious are the two pages of acknowledgments at the end of the The Tiger’s Wife, as provocatively unusual as the book itself.

There is much that is indisputably arresting about Obreht the writer. She is in equal measure talented and annoying. On the positive side are her intense powers of observation of nature, objects, people and their behavior, which she perceives and evokes in minute detail with the eye of a miniaturist painter. Also the frequent, albeit inconsistent, ability to convey things through striking similes and metaphors. On the negative side are pretentiously elucubrated tropes, and problems with the larger picture—fully realizing some characters and finding a proper arc for the story. Thus her structure is often deliberately choppy, with excessive crosscutting or disjunctive fresh starts. Her chapters tend to be like short stories—seem, indeed, to have originated as such. Major characters are introduced a bit too serially even as earlier ones fade too often out of the picture. The never-named country is sometimes Serbia, sometimes not, remaining generic Balkan.

In the novel’s present, the quasi-autobiographical Natalia and her best friend Zóra (again with a preposterous accent mark), two young doctors, travel from what is called the City across borders (corresponding to those between Serbia and Croatia) to inoculate endangered children in some seaside town, but neither then nor later become fully realized characters even though they reappear periodically.

More developed are events in the past, such as Natalia’s close relationship with her distinguished physician grandfather, with whom she, as a child, makes weekly visits to the zoo to check up on their beloved tigers. Grandfather carries in his pocket a well-thumbed copy of Kipling’s Jungle Book, which makes multiple appearances, usually featuring its tiger. This zoo bears marked similarity to the Belgrade Zoo, located in the Kalimegdan, the fortress-park at the confluence of two rivers (in reality, the Danube and Sava).

Of Natalia we learn that she adores her grandfather, who is basically the novel’s protagonist, but possibly because he figures now as an old man, now as a nine-year-old boy, and now in-between, remains in too-uncertain focus. Of more or less equal importance are the tiger and the tiger’s wife. Upon her grandfather’s death Natalia travels to retrieve his possessions since he puzzlingly went off to die in the distant burg of Galina. She, too, will meet the deathless man, a strange character who neither ages nor dies but announces and facilitates the death of others, being, he says, the nephew of Death. His name is Gavran (Serbian for raven) Gailé (of no known language) and he has periodic meetings and weird intercourse with Grandfather.

As a boy, Grandfather became involved in Galina with the tiger, escaped from the city zoo through German bombing (it is almost always war), and is now wandering in a snowy landscape (it is almost always winter). He stops on the hillside above Galina, terrorizing its people, all but one. That is the deaf-mute girl, as she is known at first, the widow of the brutal butcher Luka, who beat her. A petite but somehow strong creature, she becomes known, when widowed, as the tiger’s wife; certainly the tiger makes regular nightly visits to her house. Grandfather becomes her only friend and helper in the village.

Different characters take over single or some consecutive chapters, only to vanish more or less completely. There are even strange characters in Natalia’s friends’ vineyard, digging for something even stranger. There is Luka, the brutish butcher; there is Dragisa the Bear, who hunts (especially) bears and stuffs them to sell to aristocratic buyers; there is the Apothecary, who goes by more than one name and provides a sort of village gossip central. All of them come to diverse but equally sticky ends. So does the tiger’s wife, whom the village all along wanted dead. The tiger, however, survives, albeit in parts unknown.

The most quoted passage runs as follows:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather [who keeps telling little Natalia stories] lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life—of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant at the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told me, is of how he became a child again.

That sounds very clear, but is not really borne out by the novel. We do, indeed, get the stories of him and the tiger and tiger’s wife; but there is, for instance, nothing much about his great love for his wife. As a mature man, he does run into the deathless man at odd times, first after Gavran (nicknamed Gavro) has been shot in the head and buried, only to revive at night and begin by asking Grandfather for water. He always asks for water; why he doesn’t get it himself is one of the book’s lesser mysteries.

 Their conversations are pretty weird, but then weirdness is Obreht’s stock in trade. Herewith a very few out of numerous examples. What are “green-river veins” or “a productive cough”? What is “the wet glazed noise of throat ache”? Why is something “noticed by the city’s tank commander, who would go on to shoot himself three days later”? Isn’t that too much or too little about a character who gets no further mention anywhere? How big is a tiger if he can hide “in the hollows of fallen trees”? Why are cooked fish on a platter “clear-eyed and firm [looking] like something out of a circus”? How is “the ridge of [someone’s] nose folded up against her eyes”? Particularly forced is the showy use of recherché verbs. A dog bays, an owl fares in from somewhere, a tiger mouths thistles, a shovel is lanced, a head is staved in, someone’s chest jolts, the sun blanches water bottle-green, a shirt sinks into someone’s skin, a bull smears someone across the dirt. Snow dews in someone’s eyes, a tiger’s skin is clewed up as dead as a sail, a tiger is washed with fire. And much, much more.

So Olbreht gets away with verbicide; there are also mistakes of grammar I will spare you. From a prized writer I would ask for better. Not so the folks who fall all over themselves to praise her. Or do they propel themselves all over?

John Simon, author and critic, lives in New York.

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