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Balkan Dreams

A debut novel hovers among shadows and action.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By JOHN SIMON
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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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