Monday, July 30, 2012

Inoculating children from a war-torn past in Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife

 Not so much a review as a reading response, this essay attempts to address what I find interesting about this book. It contains spoilers.

Digging for bones. Digging for stories. Digging’s a way to inoculate children against the war-torn past in Tea Obreht’s  The Tiger’s Wife.

Finding the bones, unearthing the stories, release the quick and the dead.
In an unnamed Balkan country, two young doctors, Natalia and Zora, cross former enemy lines on a goodwill mission to an orphanage where they will inoculate children against disease.

On her way Natalia receives a disturbing call from her grandmother Bako, telling her that her beloved grandfather, had gone off on his own to die in a village Natalia has never heard of.  Understanding why, contemplating the stories of his life and retrieving a bag of his belongings becomes Natalia’s other mission – one that intersects with the first at a place called the crossroads, a place where medicine, superstition and stories meet  --- and pass on. 

 Natalia and Zora stay at the home where a family of 10, all sick, is also staying and digging up their host’s orchard.  Particularly of concern to Natalia is the coughing and high fever of a young girl the family is treating with folk medicine – wrapping her in wine- soaked sheets and tying a foul smelling bag around her neck. Natalia confronts the diggers, telling them repeatedly she is a doctor and can help, scolding them for working at night in the vineyard while sick.  In so doing, she discovers they too are seeking a cure, searching for the bones of a cousin whose body was left behind during the war. They believe his wandering soul is the cause of their family illness.

Although Natalia’s first belief is that such digging is preposterous, mere superstition, her subsequent actions parallel theirs. She goes into former enemy land in search of her grandfather’s things. She returns to his home village, Galina, in search of his story. Natalia seeks and relates her grandfather’s stories as a way of understanding her own.  The two share experiences: Both grew up amid war; both were raised in part by grandparents; both chose to be doctors; both are in awe of tigers.
Her grandfather indoctrinated her well when young. He always carried a copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book in his breast pocket and took young Natalia on daily trips to the zoo to visit the tiger.  He told her he once knew a woman who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself and Natalia believed he was talking about her, giving her a fairy tale she could imagine herself in. His personal brush with a tiger and the woman who cared for him is the story she unearths.

Her grandfather also taught her about stories. Natalia relates an incident when her grandfather takes her to see an elephant being led through their city’s streets, an experience so exotic and entrancing she wants to share it. He tells her there are public stories like that of the war that belong to everyone and private ones that are just hers. Like the elephant. She asks if he has stories like that.
 He has two. Two stories, she tells us, that run through his life like rivers.  The story of the tiger’s wife, which she learned after his death, “is the story of how he became a man.” The story of the deathless man, which he told to her in three installments, is the “story of how he became a child again.”  We later learn that for the doctor being a man means to live and die in fear; being a child means to live and die in hope.
Those stories also run through this book like rivers. Both have many small tributaries, rivulets --- subplots and life stories of minor characters that flow into the two larger streams.

First there’s that of the deathless man.
Gavran (Gavo) Gaile can divine when others will die. As a young doctor, he fell in love and tried to cheat Death; as punishment he cannot die; he can only aid those who will on their way.  Grandfather first meets Gavo at his funeral when he pops upright out of a coffin. Subsequent installments take place at a Lourdes-like shrine where pilgrims have come seeking miracle cures, and on an eve of destruction at a restaurant in Sarobor. It’s where grandfather previously dined with Baku on their honeymoon. When grandfather first meets Gavo, he refuses to believe him. The three installments track the progress of his belief.

Natalia, in turn, accepts her role in the story of the deathless man when she recovers her grandfather’s belongings. This, not that of the Tiger’s Wife, is the fairy tale she belongs in. She opens his package just as the diggers open a suitcase with  their lost cousin’s bones – and she accepts the dangerous mission of taking remains to the crossroads in exchange for being allowed to inoculate the sick child. There she has her own brush with the mysterious.

The second story is the story of the tiger’s wife, which Natalia learns long after the funeral when she goes to Galina. It is a story of disappointment, violence, prejudice and treachery, and one in which her unsuspecting grandfather plays a  role in a death, a role he must have needed to recover from.

Like the other stories of his life, it is one where her grandfather crosses boundaries – accepting an outcast who in turn has befriended that which others most fear –a tiger that has wandered away from a zoo and made an unlikely home in the hills above the village.

While her grandfather carried The Jungle Book, he had ambivalent feelings toward Shere Khan, its tiger. His stories also suggest the “fearful symmetry” of another writer, William Blake whose Songs of Innocence and Experience include “The Tyger”  and “The  Lamb.” While a child, grandfather trained as a shepherd, but learned to read The Jungle Book and become smitten with medicine at the local apothecary,  the same place he was ultimately betrayed.

 Natalia’s stories are interesting for what they do not include:
how she came to know many details of the story of the tiger’s wife during a visit to Galina; her father’s story and her mother’s.  But the most interesting absence is that of Natalia’s Grandmother’s  story. Grandmother is a Muslim,  from Sarobor, home to the enemy, site of a massacre. Her background endangers the family years later. Sarobor is also the home of the Muslim woman who will come to be called the tiger’s wife, the younger sister of the woman who ran off with the doctor, Gavran Gaile.

How this story connects remains ambiguous and mysterious to me, even as it becomes the most intriguing.  There are some things we must leave unknown. The stories don’t offer each other direct correspondences though I would suggest they are about the unification of differences, holding hope with fear, wonder with terror, valuing private stories over the public ones.

  And they are about doctoring and its limits.  Doctors can sometimes only help the dying pass on. At one point, grandfather asks Natalia why she chose to become a doctor. She tells him. “Because it’s the right thing to do.” She also chose treating children as her specialty. They are the hope of the future.  But as her grandfather learned before her, medicine alone is sometimes not enough to live or die by – and that’s where grandfather and Natalia believe and find strength in story. 

As do we.

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