Fantasy and hard reality are indistinguishable in Tea Obreht's engrossing tale.
Around 60 pages into Tea Obreht's fine debut novel The Tiger's Wife, a young doctor in a Balkan village in the 1950s encounters a Deathless Man. Gavran Gaile is sitting up in his coffin, two bullet-holes in the back of his head, thirsty but not much worse for wear, and the terrified villagers think he's a vampire. But he isn't, he patiently explains to the doctor; it's just that he cannot die. Before departing in the night, he even offers some proof.
When they next chance to meet, 15 years later, Gavran will tell the doctor about the reason for his unusual condition. And there will be one final encounter, when the doctor is very old and nearing his own death.
Needless to say, this is not the stuff of realism, but by the time I had finished this very engrossing book, I was no longer sure there was anything supernatural about the story. For one thing, the Deathless Man interludes come to us second-hand: the book's narrator Natalia, the doctor's granddaughter, has heard these stories from him, and there's no real reason for the reader to take them at face value. They can be read as allegory, or even as wish-fulfilment (the three meetings take place at key stages in the doctor's life when the spectre of death is all around him).
But there's another sense in which fantasy and hard reality are indistinguishable in this story: The Tiger's Wife is set in a region with such a war-fractured history — countries break up, then reorganise themselves with new borders and new names — that real life acquires a surreal tinge. In times of war, we are reminded, all recognisable rules and patterns vanish; anything is believable. Armed with makeshift axes, little children play games of “Us vs the Ottomans”. A cannon-ball wedged into the wall of a monastery, with the plaster and paint creating a spidery pattern around it, is something you look at, shrug and walk on. A tiger sauntering through the ruins of a city can seem like nothing out of the ordinary; even if you don't know that the animal escaped when a zoo wall was destroyed by a stray bomb.
The book's anchoring narrative has Natalia, a doctor herself, travelling with a friend named Zora to a seaside village across a freshly created border; they are visiting an orphanage to provide inoculations, and her description of the journey suggests how war has ravaged not just the land but also individual psyches. “Twelve years ago,” she writes, “the people of Brejevina had been our people.” But now she and Zora are in this village “to sanitize children orphaned by our own soldiers”.
Early in the trip, Natalia receives news of her grandfather's death, and this provides the pretext for two narratives that punctuate the present-day story. The first is about the Deathless Man. The other, gleaned from an old man living in her grandfather's village, is a tale from his boyhood days; the story of a tiger that made its way to the village and of the bond it may have formed with a deaf-mute girl. Other stories about other people — with names out of fairy-tale and myth, such as Darius the Bear and Luka the butcher — coalesce around these three main narratives, and the one minor flaw of the book, I felt, was that Obreht occasionally gets carried away with these side-characters. That apart, her storytelling is mesmerising.
The Tiger's Wife works on many levels. Some passages have the surface appeal of magic realism, but it can also be read as a fragmented biography of a man whose name we never learn: what do the story of the “tiger's wife” and the story of Gavran Gaile add up to tell us about Natalia's grandfather? What bearing did they have on the building of his character and the more mundane aspects of his daily life, such as his marriage to a woman from a different religion?
This book is also an exploration of mortality and of how storytelling itself can make people immortal — how legends come into being, how old family yarns become embellished as the decades go by. Consider this passage about a young man with possibly homosexual leanings. “He was too eager to strip naked and bathe with other young men in the mountain lake above the pasture — although no one will ever accuse the other young men of his generation of being too eager to bathe with him. This may be because the young men of Luka's generation are the fathers of the men telling these stories.” In two sentences, Obreht makes a pointed comment on the reductive, self-serving ways in which personal histories get written, and on the many things that might easily slip through the cracks, especially when it comes to chronicling lives lived in “interesting times”.
The Tiger's Wife, Tea Obreht, Hachette India, Rs. 595.