The Tiger’s Wife

The Tiger’s Wife, the acclaimed novel by Téa Obreht, is not for the fainthearted. The Yugoslav Wars of the early to mid-1990s hover in the background, threatening to overtake the narrative. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, mass graves, war crimes—these are the legacies of those wars. However, Obreht does not historicize them, nor does she exploit this horrific period for effect, as she justifiably could. She was born Tea Bajrakarević in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1985 and lived there with her mother and maternal grandparents (her grandfather was Slovenian and her grandmother Bosnian) until she was seven years old. The family left the country as the former Yugoslavia was disintegrating, and they moved to Cyprus and then to Cairo, Egypt. When she was twelve years old, she and her mother immigrated to the United States and her grandparents returned to the former Yugoslavia. However deeply the Yugoslav Wars affected Obreht, she does not seem motivated to write an historical novel based on the factuality of those wars. Rather, The Tiger’s Wife is a meditation on death, with war as background, that asks the most existential of questions: How do we humans find meaning in life when we know that we are going to die someday?

Declining to historicize the Yugoslav Wars in The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht invents a whole new map, disguising the factual cities and villages where the wars take place. You, as the reader, could go crazy trying to match these invented names with factual cities in Serbia, Croatia, or Bosnia-Herzegovina. Thus, you read about the invented Galina, where Doctor Leandro, the grandfather of the narrator Natalia Stefanović, was born in 1932, and where, as a child, he befriends the tiger’s wife; Sarobor, where Natalia’s Muslim grandmother and mother were born, and where her grandfather meets the deathless man for the third and last time; Brejevina, which Natalia, a physician in her mid-twenties, visits on a goodwill mission to inoculate orphans at the orphanage of Sveti Paškal; Zdrevkov, where her grandfather dies alone, unexpectedly, and Natalia visits to retrieve his belongings.

Places of interest are given generic names. Natalia, her mother, and grandparents live in “the City” that is administered by “the Administration.” The library is called “the National Library”; the university “the University.” The border—“the ever-shifting border”—is sometimes the Romanian border and sometimes unnamed. You never know which border Natalia is crossing to pass into which country. When Natalia and her long-time friend Zóra travel to the orphanage four hundred miles from home, they must cross the border that used to be a part of their country but now belongs to another country. Tanks roll down “the Boulevard of the Revolution,” heading to these shifting borders. “The Zoo” is exactly what it is—a zoo. Located in “citadel park,” “the Zoo” has a most unassuming name for the part it plays in the arc of the narrative: The title of the novel comes from the tiger that escaped this zoo when the Germans bombed “the City” in late spring 1941. Escaping through a gap in the south wall of the citadel, the tiger finds his way to the snowbound village of Galina where he remembers his Siberian instincts and prowls the forest and mountain ridges above the village, hunting for food.

This invented naming, or un-naming of factual places, is intentional. It not only reinforces the chaotic nature of war, in particular the Yugoslav Wars, but it also forces the reader to acknowledge the confusion and dislocation Natalia experiences during and after the wars. She remarks: “The war had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. Previously shared things—landmarks, writers, scientists, histories—had to be doled out according to their new owners. That Nobel Prize-winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure. And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal.” The invented naming has the advantage, however, of foreclosing the possibility that the historical Yugoslav Wars will overtake the narrative. Obreht uses this advantage to maneuver the reader’s attention onto the folkloric stories that giveThe Tiger’s Wife its synergistic effect.

Reading The Tiger’s Wife the first time, you might think it is not really a novel but rather a series of short stories pretending to be a novel. You might question Obreht as to her novelistic bona fides. This would be a mistake. It is true the narrative is not linear or chronological, interrupted as it is by five folkloric stories—all saturated with superstition and ritual—that divert the attention away from the narrative. However, when the deeper structure of The Tiger’s Wife is analyzed, you begin to see that each folkloric story is not a stand-alone but is meticulously interwoven with the narrative and connected to each other through character links that expose the underpinning of the novel. The narrative keeps you grounded while the stories force you into a willing suspension of disbelief; they thicken the narrative so that it, too, becomes a story interwoven among many. Thus, the folkloric stories are interconnected with each other and with the narrative in a relationship that results in a whole that is more powerful than if each entity stood alone. The Tiger’s Wife derives its synergy from this relationship.

In outline form, the narrative starts like this: Natalia and her friend Zóra are volunteers on a good will mission with the University’s United Clinics program to examine the children at an orphanage in Brejevina “for pneumonia and tuberculosis and lice, to inoculate them against measles, mumps, rubella, and other assorted diseases to which they had been subjected during the war and the years of destitution that followed it.” While on the road to the orphanage, Natalia receives a phone call from her grandmother, who tells her that Natalia’s beloved grandfather has died unexpectedly “in a clinic in an obscure town called Zdrevkov on the other side of the border,” and would she please return to “the City” for the funeral. The monastery that temporarily houses the orphanage is run by Fra Antun, a Franciscan monk, whose parents, Nada and Barba Ivan, host the two doctors at their modest beachfront house fifty yards from the sea. On the first evening of their arrival, a sick child appears, and Natalia observes that she is “so small I suspect that none of us would have noticed her if she hadn’t come in coughing—a thick, loud, productive cough that ripped through her on the balcony….” A lavender pouch, a traditional remedy passed down from mother to mother, hangs around her neck to ward off the sickness. She is the daughter of one of the diggers from “the City” who is also staying at the Ivan’s house, presumably to dig up a cousin who was left in the Ivan’s vineyard twelve years ago during the war. Natalia challenges Duré, the father, to take his sick children to the clinic. Offended, he tells her that his cousin “ ‘doesn’t like it here, and he’s making us sick. When we find him we’ll be on our way.’” Duré also tells her to mind her own business. Natalia leaves Zóra at the clinic and drives to Zdrevkov to retrieve her grandfather’s personal belongings. There she finds a shantytown, disabled war veterans, and a run-down clinic where a barman gives her the bag with her grandfather’s belongings. She realizes that her grandfather was not on his way to see her at the orphanage, as her mother had told her, but to see the deathless man for the last time.

When Natalia returns to Brejevina with her grandfather’s possession, she is just in time to observe the burial of the dead cousin. It is at this point that the narrative begins to blend with the five interconnected folkloric stories strategically placed throughout The Tiger’s Wife. The narrative itself becomes a sixth story that elucidates the other five stories, as it has more in common with them than it does with the narrative that has taken us up to this point. In order to show why the narrative becomes a sixth story, it is first necessary to examine how the five folkloric stories are strategically placed in the arc of the novel, and how they are linked with each other and with the narrative in order to produce the synergistic effect mentioned above. In doing so, the deeper structure of The Tiger’s Wife is also illuminated.

The stories of the deathless man, Gavran Gailé (Gavo for short) and of “the tiger’s wife” are the two major ones that concentrate the mind. Interconnected with these two stories are the story of the gay butcher Luka and his thirteen-year-old Muslim wife; the story of Dariša the Bear, the taxidermist, whom the villagers of Galina hire to kill the tiger; and Kasim Suleimanović, the apothecary of Galina, who gives The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling to Natalia’s grandfather when he is a boy growing up in Galina. There are thirteen chapters between the opening and closing pages, and the narrative alternates with a folkloric story, whether it is three chapters devoted to Gavran Gailé, the deathless man; four chapters devoted to the tiger and the deaf girl; or one chapter each devoted to Luka, Dariša the Bear, and Kasim. Because the narrative is not linear, you might think the novel is hobbled by this arrangement. Quite the opposite. Natalia’s story becomes, in fact, more complex as she connects her life with her grandfather’s childhood in Galina. The folkloric stories reveal the secret her father kept his entire life until Natalia uncovers it—after he has died. These—the linked folkloric stories—lay the foundation for everything else that gives meaning toThe Tiger’s Wife.

Locating this foundation—the underpinning—among the five folkloric stories, however, is like finding the missing pieces to a puzzle, that when found and connected, complete it. In the The Tiger’s Wife, the search for the connecting pieces begins in the village of Galina. Each of the folkloric stories centers on Galina, where Natalia’s grandfather lived with Mother Vera, his grandmother, and each features a character that is connected with another character in a different story. For example, when the escaped tiger from the zoo comes to Galina, the villagers do not know what the animal is because they have never seen a tiger before—“what was this orange thing, back and shoulders scorched with fire?” They believe the devil himself has arrived, and they are deathly afraid of him. Having learned how to read The Jungle Book, a gift from the apothecary, Natalia’s grandfather recognizes the animal that appears in the village and exclaims to the villagers, “But that’s Shere Khan,” the striped, lame tiger in The Jungle Book. He shows the villagers the picture of the man-cub Mowgli and Shere Khan “and that was how the village found out about the tiger.” This example illustrates the connection between the tiger, the nine-year-old boy, the apothecary, and The Jungle Book—a factor in the novel that not only links all the stories together but also secures its synergy.

As the tiger lingers on the mountain ridge, he smells the smokestack, and then he ventures down into the valley and stands at the pasture gate. There, he finds the meat someone has left for him. On successive nights he finds larger pieces of meat until he discovers “a whole shoulder right at the threshold of the smokehouse.” The next night, he walks up the smokehouse ramp and sniffs the air: “There was the smell of the meat, but also the thick, overwhelming smell of the person inside, the person whose scent he had found on and around the meat before, and whom he could see now, sitting in the back of the smokehouse, a piece of meat in her hands.” This is how the tiger and Luca’s wife meet each other the first time, and how the deaf girl and the tiger are linked together.

The nine-year-old boy, fascinated with the tiger, sneaks into the smokehouse to get a glimpse of him. When he hears and smells the tiger, he dives under a tarp. As the tiger brushes past him, the boy thinks “of The Jungle Book—the way Mowgli had taunted Shere Khan at Council rock, torch in hand, grabbing the Lame Tiger under the chin to subdue him—and he put his hand out through the tarp and touched the coarse hairs passing by him.”

This first contact with the tiger of Galina will hold a special place for the boy, who grows up to be the doctor who visits “the Zoo” everyday to see the tigers—except when it is closed because of the war. In the opening pages of The Tiger’s Wife, Natalia writes about her earliest memory: When she is four years old, her grandfather takes her to the zoo to see the tigers. He picks her up and props her “feet against the handrail so I can look down and see the tigers in the moat,” and he would tell her, “ ‘I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.’ Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself—and will, for years and years.” The nine-year-old boy’s experience with the tiger—of hearing him, smelling him, touching him—connects the boy with the tiger, the young deaf girl, and to Natalia. The Jungle Book plays an important role in this connection, as well.

As the girl’s relationship with the tiger grows, the village gossip intensifies. They wonder about the strangeness of it and whisper to each other: “What had she been doing…in the smokehouse with that tiger? And what did it mean…that Luka couldn’t keep her in his bed?” When Luka discovers that his wife has been feeding the tiger, he beats her mercilessly. The apothecary, who is known in the village as a healer, tends to her: “The girl’s face was unrecognizable, gelled with blood, her hair matted down and the scalp bleeding into the floor. Her nose was broken—he was certain of that without touching her.”Among the other injuries: a shattered kneecap; a broken wrist; shards of crockery embedded in her scalp. The apothecary saves her life. This is how Luka, the girl, the tiger, and the apothecary are linked together.

The girl continues to feed the tiger; one day Luka disappears; the villagers figure he is on a trip; the butcher’s shop closes; the girl buys Turkish silks from the fabric shop; she begins to show. The villagers call her “the tiger’s wife” and talk about her incessantly: It is “constant, careless, and unburdening.” Natalia’s grandfather forms a different opinion and befriends the girl—taking her meals prepared by Mother Vera, spending time with her, showing her the pictures of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Natalia believes this about her grandfather: “The thing he had met in the smokehouse was massive, slow, hot breathing—but, to him, it had been a merciful thing, and what had passed between my grandfather and the tiger’s wife had been a shared understanding of something the villagers did not seem to feel. So because they did not know, as he knew, that the tiger was concrete, lonely, different, he did not trust what they said about the tiger’s wife. He did not trust them when they whispered that she had been responsible for Luka’s death, or when they called the tiger devil.” The villagers gossip about the boy’s visits to the tiger’s wife, but the apothecary assures him that he does not need to be afraid of Shere Khan, the tiger of Galina. To show her gratitude, the girl gives the boy a present: Inside a little paper bag, “his fingers felt emptiness, emptiness, and then short, coarse, rusty hairs that scraped that distant, living smell of the smokehouse into his fingers.” Thus the links between the nine-year-old boy, the girl, the villagers who are fixated on the idea that the tiger impregnated her, and the apothecary are established. These links also draw attention to the first homicide. The inference is that the girl has killed Luka, one of three that occurs in the folkloric stories.

As fear and rage reach a fever pitch in Galina, the baker’s daughter tells Dariša the Bear, a hunter who sells the pelts of dead bears to the villagers, that “the tiger is her husband. He comes into her house each night and takes off his skin. That apothecary—he knows, but he will not tell you this. He’s not from here.” (259) The apothecary criticizes the villagers’ superstitions, but this does not stop Dariša the Bear from hunting the tiger. In the middle of the night, the nine-year-old boy wakes up in a panic: “…he could not rid himself of the feeling that something had shifted, crawled between himself and the tiger and the tiger’s wife until the distances between them, which he had slowly and carefully been closing, had gone back to something insurmountable.” He runs to the butcher’s house, finds the tiger’s trails that lead up to the forest, sees both the tiger’s wife with an armful of meat and “an unexpected figure”—Dariša the Bear—“advancing through the snow with a gun on his arm.” Natalia’s grandfather attacks the hunter, “…and then, before he even knew it was happening, my grandfather’s hand was closing on something cold and hard it contacted in the snow and raising it straight up against Dariša’s nose. There was a crack, and a sudden burst of blood, and then Dariša fell forward over my grandfather and lay still.” Natalia’s grandfather saves the tiger but kills Dariša. Dariša’s death is the second homicide. The third is yet to come. Thus, Luka, the tiger’s wife, the tiger, the nine-year-old boy, and Dariša are interlinked, as is Natalia, now privy to the secret.

Perhaps the most tragic homicide is the one the apothecary commits, particularly because he understands the destructive nature of superstition and fear: He has learned “…that when confounded by the extremes of life—whether good or bad—people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening.” When an epidemic reaches the village, the apothecary—the doctor of the village—cannot save some of the children and adults who are sick, and he loses their trust. He has vowed to defend the tiger’s wife, but he must find a way to re-establish the villagers’ faith and submission to him, considering that, like the tiger’s wife, he, too, is a Muslim, a fact he keeps to himself. When he goes to the butcher’s house to take a drink he has prepared for the expectant girl, she is sitting by the hearth, “wrapped in her Turkish silk, purples and golds and reds draped around her shoulders like water, and her legs, which were folded under the bulge of her stomach, were bare and thin.” As he stands with the drink in his hand, she remembers him as the man who gave her back to Luka after Luka had beaten her up. She hisses at him, “…the only sound he ever heard her make, when she had made no sound over broken bones and bruises that spread like continents over her body…,” and it “went through him like a rifle report and left him there, left him paralyzed.” He realizes she has learned the sound from the tiger. He returns to his shop with the potion and tells the boy to take it to her because, the apothecary says, she does not recognize him. Natalia writes: “So it was my grandfather who crossed the square, carrying the clouded glass, looking over his shoulder at the empty square; my grandfather who went into the butcher’s house, smiling; my grandfather who held the hand of the tiger’s wife when she propped the glass against her lips, my grandfather who wiped her chin.” The apothecary is reinstated in the eyes of the villagers “…now that everyone knew, without having to talk about it, that he had saved them from her, that he had been the cause of her death.” In this folkloric story, the apothecary betrays the boy and commits the third homicide. The boy carries the guilt of her death—“they found her dead on her own porch”—for the rest of his life. Thus, the tiger, the tiger’s wife, Luka, the nine-year-old boy, Dariša the Bear, and the apothecary are interlinked through these four folkloric stories.

How is the folkloric story of Gavran Gailé, the deathless man, connected to the other folkloric tales? A puzzle piece can be found in the story about Luka, the husband of the deaf girl. When Luka, who composes love songs as a young man, leaves Galina to travel to Sarobor to become a guslar, he finds a friend in Amana Effendi, the daughter of a rich Turkish silk merchant, who has vowed to remain a virgin, a vow Luka can support. On the Old Bridge where they sing the love songs that Luka plays on the gusla, crowds gather to hear them. It is around this time, when he is gaining fame for his songs, that his sister writes to tell him that his mother has died, his father is ill, and would he please return to Galina to take care of him. Luka decides to return to Galina with Amana, and he woos her father Hassan Effendi for her hand. In a twist of bad luck, Amana falls ill and runs away with the physician who has taken care of her. Hassan Effendi is so disgraced by his older daughter’s betrayal that he dresses her sister, who is deaf, “in her sister’s wedding clothes” and puts “her in Amana’s place.” After Luka lifts the girl’s veil, Effendi tells him, “She is the sister of your betrothed, and I’ve the right to demand that you take her. You will disgrace yourself to refuse her now.” All of his dreams of going to “the City” with Amana and singing his love songs are dashed. He returns to Galina the next day with his thirteen-year-old child bride.

Cut to the hard-to-believe supernatural stories about the deathless man, Gavran Gailé (Gavo). As hard as they are to believe, they are surprisingly convincing, perhaps because Gavran Gailé evokes passionate feelings from Natalia’s grandfather. Natalia learns about the deathless man from her grandfather on three different occasions: the first time in the middle of the night when they see a lone elephant being led down the street to return to “the Zoo”; the second time when they visit their cottage in Verimovo and try to save it from an uncontrollable fire; and the third time when her grandfather accompanies her to the citadel when “the City” is being bombed.

The first encounter with Gavo happens in 1954 when her grandfather is a “first triage assistant” in the military (the year he met her grandmother); the second in 1971, as the lead doctor of a team to set up a care center on an island where a miraculous sighting of the Virgin has occurred and to which people from Spain, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere are flocking to witness the miracle; and the third time years later in Sarobor (a reference, perhaps, to Mostar in 1993, when Bosnia-Croat forces bombed the four-hundred-year-old Stari Most—Old Bridge—crossing the Neretva river) where Doctor Leandro and Gavo share an elegant meal together in the Hotel Amovarka in the Turkish quarter where he and his wife spent their honeymoon.

At his first visit with Doctor Leandro, Gavo tells him that he, Gavran Gailé, is the deathless man; he cannot die. The Doctor does not believe him. The deathless man extracts a pledge from him: He will give the Doctor his coffee cup—the cup his Uncle Death has given him in which he determines whether a person will live or die—in exchange for something of value “…so that when we meet next, we needn’t go through this again.” Doctor Leandro resists at first, but then he pledges The Jungle Book. When Gavo meets Doctor Leandro the second time on the island where the miraculous sighting occurs, he reminds the Doctor about his pledge. It is at this second meeting that the deathless man tells him that it is his uncle who is punishing him for a betrayal he committed long ago: He fell in love with a young woman who was dying. Although he knew she was going to die, he told her to break the cup anyway, and in allowing her to do this, he betrayed his uncle. His uncle was furious at him and told him that he “…shall seek all the days of your life and never find it.” The woman dies, he never falls in love again, and he thinks this is what he is being punished for. Then he notices that his face, his hands, his hair have not changed. He throws himself from a cliff in Naples, and he still does not die. He tells the Doctor that once he was a great physician but now that he is the deathless man he meets only the newly dead—not the dying—at the crossroads “…where the paths of life meet, where life changes. In their case, it changes to death. That is where my uncle meets them once the forty days have passed.” His parting words at this second meeting: “Remember for the next time, Doctor, that you still owe me a pledge.”

On the third and last meeting with Gavran Gailé on the evening before the shelling of Sarobor at the Hotel Amovarka, Gavo tells Doctor Leandro that he is older than sixty (but looks thirty); he is from Sarobor; and the woman he fell in love with was the daughter of a prosperous, Turkish silk merchant who played the gusla on the Old Bridge. Gavo wants to know why the Doctor has come to Sarobor, “…where you take a risk every minute you sit here, even though you know that one day this war will end?” The Doctor replies: “This war never ends…. It was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children’s children. I came to Sarobor because I want to see it again before it dies, because I do not want it to go from me, like you say, in suddenness.” The Doctor then asks him if the cup indicates “…that I will be joining you, tonight, in suddenness,” and Gavo tells him to break the cup and go.

The deathless man and the folkloric stories are linked in three significant ways. First, it is quite a surprise to learn that Gavo, the deathless man, is a physician who falls in love with Amana Effendi—the daughter of the rich Turkish silk merchant, the woman who sings with Luka on the Old Bridge, the woman Luka was going to marry. When Gavo and Amana run away together, Luka is deprived of a relationship with a woman he considers his soul mate. Second, Sarobor is a central location of coincidences: The deathless man is from Sarobor, Luka travels to Sarobor to try his hand at playing the gusla on the Old Bridge, Doctor Leandro and his wife spend their honeymoon at the Hotel Amovark in Sarobor, and Gavo and Doctor Leandro meet for the third and last time in Sarobor at the hotel overlooking the Old Bridge. Thus, the link between the deathless man and each of the other folkloric stories is established through Luka, and by extension, through Natalia’s grandfather to Natalia herself.

The third important link between the deathless man, Doctor Leandro, and the four folkloric stories involves The Jungle Book, “with its gold-leaf cover and old yellow pages.” The book is always in the doctor’s breast pocket. He takes it with him when he and Natalia visit the zoo. He props it on his knee and recites passages from it to Natalia. She knows this book inside and out. The Jungle Book is also the bet Gavo resurrects at each meeting, the bet Doctor Leandro refuses to honor, the bet Doctor Leandro loses to the deathless man. Why? Is it possible that Natalia’s grandfather cannot release The Jungle Book because he cannot let go of the tiger’s wife? Cannot forget the events surrounding the death of the tiger’s wife in Galina when he was nine years old? The deathless man, ever present, reminds him of his childhood and of his own fate—every human being who is living is always dying. If he gives into the deathless man and gives him The Jungle Book, he is as good as dead. And he is not ready to die. The deathless man might be a projection of his fear of death stemming from his childhood in Galina. The deathless man might be a ghost in a recurring dream, but one that is so real that Doctor Leandro gives it a human condition. Whatever it is—a projection, a ghost, an extended folktale based on vampires—the deathless man is as significant a link with the nine-year-old boy’s childhood in Galina as any other. Through The Jungle Book, the link between the nine-year-old boy and the man who grows up to be a prominent surgeon; the tiger; the tiger’s wife; Dariša the Bear; Luka; the apothecary; and his own granddaughter, Natalia, who discovers her grandfather’s secret, is established. Natalia completes the puzzle and makes it whole.

When Natalia visits Galina after her father’s death, she finds the seventy-seven-year old Marko Parović, who discovered the death of Dariša the Bear, and after being plied with rakija, tells her the story of the tiger’s wife. Natalia connects the pieces, places the various actors in relationship with each other, uncovers her grandfather’s secret, and in the process becomes integral to the synergy in The Tiger’s Wife. As the narrative evolves into a story akin to the folkloric stories, her story becomes intertwined with them and the relationship among them results in a whole more powerful than if each entity stood alone.

It is when Natalia returns to Brejevina from Zdrevkov that the narrative begins and becomes a sixth story. Just in time, she witnesses the elaborate ceremony surrounding the burial of Duré’s cousin, with incense, blessings, and a chorus of villagers chanting “wash the bones, bring the body, leave the heart behind…”—a refrain the Ivan’s parrot repeats when Natalia and Zóra arrive at their house. At the burial, in exchange for a promise from Duré to “send the mother and the kids down to the clinic in the morning,” Natalia impulsively volunteers to bury the ashes of the cousin’s “heart” at the crossroads; neither the family nor anyone else will go to the crossroads where the mora will appear to gather the dead. She does not believe the mora is anything more harmful than a prankster, a man who appears out of the darkness to dig up jars. Still, she cannot deny the fact that the alleged mora is “…gathering souls at a crossroads sixty kilometers from where my grandfather had died, a ferry ride from the island of the Virgin of the Waters, three hours from Sarobor, and there was no way around these things, not after I had been thinking about them all afternoon, not with my grandfather’s belongings in my backpack.”

Fra Antun accompanies Natalia to the crossroads where a wooden icon of the Virgin sits on a shelf carved in a boulder. Natalia prepares the “heart” for burial: She digs a hole in the ground, “puts the jar into the hole,” drops three coins into it and mounds the earth over the jar, as Fra Antun instructs her. Fra Antun asks her to return to the village, but she insists on staying the night. Thus, her vigil begins. After several hours waiting in the vineyard for the mora to appear, she approaches the shrine where she sees a figure digging up the jar and collecting the coins. Natalia, shocked and uncertain, can barely stand, “let alone come out and say, Are you the deathless man? Are you? in a voice convincing enough to deserve an answer.” Natalia follows the man up a mountain, down a mined riverbed, through dense woods, more certain than ever that she is “…following the deathless man, certain of the madness that came with meeting him, the kind of madness that could make my grandfather tie a person to a cinder block and throw him in a pond, the kind of madness that was forcing me to throw my backpack over the chain and go down on my hands and knees and crawl into a minefield and stand up and keep going.” When she ends up in a small stone house that he has entered, she is in for a shocking surprise: Barba Ivan is waiting for her, to explain. Despairing of his wife’s grief over the death of their son by paramilitary forces—from Natalia’s country—he begins to collect the flowers and drawings and coins she leaves at his grave. Discovering that her memorial tributes are gone, she tells her husband that the mora has cleared the grave, not human hands. Since then, he has collected the coins deposited at the crossroads and given them back to the living. Natalia wants to know if anyone else knows, and Barba Ivan tells her in an exchange that could have happened between her and her grandfather—or the deathless man: “Someone always knows, Doctor. But I would be happy if it were only you, if only you are the one who knows.” He asks her not to tell his wife, but Natalia remembers her grandfather’s admonition about keeping secrets and she thinks, “But he had no need to ask. I had been taught long ago that there are some stories you keep to yourself.”

When Natalia volunteers to take the jar with the cousin’s “heart” to the crossroads and bury it, she is certain the mora is nothing but a superstition. Natalia casts a suspicious eye on the superstitions prevalent in her culture: the soul’s wandering for forty days after death; walnut rakija to bring down fever; money to beggars before traveling; coins and presents on the graves of the dead; the crossroads where the mora gathers the dead. At the shrine of the Virgin, however, when the figure digs up the jar and collects the coins, she begins to doubt the certainty that has sustained her throughout the war, in her profession, in her outlook on life. You might begin to think that folklore and legend have finally ensnared her—the scientist, the medical doctor, the rational thinker, the one who keeps our feet on the ground as we move through the thicket of stories that make up the bulk of The Tiger’s Wife. This perspective would not be entirely untrue, although it does not capture the ambivalence that Natalia experiences either at the crossroads or in Zdrevkov where she picks up her grandfather’s possessions: Knowing that he was terminally ill, she wonders if he was on his way to meet the deathless man for the last time. Moreover, Natalia is the guardian of her grandfather’s most intimate secrets—the stories of the deathless man and of the tiger’s wife. Thus, it would be fairer to suggest that Natalia is ambivalent about the superstitions, folklore, legends, and myths that surround her and define her culture. She is caught between myth and reality, doubting and believing at the same time.

And yet. As much as Natalia is committed to the rational mind, as she must be in her choice of a career, she yields to the incredibility of the story of the deathless man. Like a vampire that preys on the living, the deathless man haunts her grandfather throughout his adult life, as it haunts her after she returns from Zdrevkov with his belongings. At the crossroads, is the figure really the deathless man, which, like the mora, gathers the dead at the crossroads? She also yields to the story of the tiger’s wife. She does not discover the truth about the tiger’s wife until she opens the bag with his belongings, in the presence of Barba Ivan—a secret they both share—and discovers that The Jungle Book is not among them. She believes, then, that her grandfather “…did not die as he had once told me men die—in fear—but in hope, like a child: knowing he would meet the deathless man again, certain he would pay his debt. Knowing, above all, that I would come looking, and find what he had left for me, all that remained of The Jungle Book in the pocket of his doctor’s coat, that folded-up, yellowed page torn from the back of the book, with a bristle of thick, coarse hairs clenched inside. Galina, says my grandfather’s handwriting, above and below a child’s drawing of the tiger, who is curved like the blade of a scimitar across the page. Galina, it says, and that is how I know how to find him again, in Galina, in the story he hadn’t told me but perhaps wished he had.”

The Jungle Book makes its last appearance in the closing pages of The Tiger’s Wife. Natalia finds in the breast pocket of his doctor’s coat the word “Galina” written on the yellowed page torn from the back of the book. With this puzzle piece, she goes searching and discovers the secret her grandfather had hidden from her, her mother, and her grandmother. Natalia writes: “Everything necessary to understand my Grandfather 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….” The story of the tiger’s wife teaches him how to become a man. The story of the deathless man teaches him how to become a child again—with hope, not fear.

2 comments
  1. Thank you, Dennis, for your comment about my review helping to see the deep structure in Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I, too, read the book three times. It was in the second reading that I glimpsed the brilliant structure Obreht had constructed to encompass the seemingly disparate stories. It was during the third round that I began to “see” the stories as intimately connected, tying the characters to each other, and most important, to the narrator. Each had been woven into a synergistic tale through which the truth of the tiger’s wife is told. I had many “aha” moments during this critical analysis, and, in truth, began to live this novel as one does when brilliance shines from the pages.

  2. This is a great review. I was glad to find it again–the title had disappeared, along with the byline, even though I tracked it through the author archives. What you say about the unity and coherence of the novel is very helpful for encouraging students not to be lazy and write it off as a pastiche of distinct narrative pieces. This is my third time reading it in three years and with each reading my impression of the novel’s excellence deepens.

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