“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 to find him again, in Galina, in the story he hadn’t told me but perhaps wished he had.”
Tea Obreht’s much acclaimed novel, The Tiger’s Wife, captures the rich culture of Balkan folklore. It is through these tales that Obreht paints the landscape of former Yugoslavia, a beautiful land riddled with violence and straddled with the consequences of multiple wars.
The story revolves around Natalia, a young doctor in an unnamed Balkan city, who learns about her grandfather’s death and embarks on a journey of memories, primarily his, that piece together his life against the backdrop of history. Weaved into the story are the arresting tales of the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man”.
Juxtaposed to the stories of her grandfather’s childhood and life as a surgeon are the stories of Natalia’s own childhood and teenage years and her observations on the nature of war, specifically when it tears a country into pieces.
The core essence of the story lies in the bloody history of former Yugoslavia. From World War II to the wars of the 90s, Balkan history reveals stories of death and disaster. At the onset of the novel, we travel with Natalia on her mission to a town across the border to inoculate orphans. She arrives with other doctors in the town of Brejevina where she observes a group of ailing people mysteriously digging holes on the property of the host family where the doctors are lodging. The diggers, Natalia learns, are hunting for the buried corpse of their relative, who died without proper rites and whom they believe is afflicting their family from the grave. They have come to the town of Brejevina to right that wrong and expunge the curse.
As she bears witness to how the culture of superstitions exposes an underlying despondency, a loss of control and an attempt to take it back, she recalls once more the stories told to her by her grandfather. As a child she thought these to be fairy tales, but with time and age she learned that they were as real as the wars they were all living through. Much to Natalia’s dismay (being a rational, educated doctor), the superstitions and allegories, in fact, reveal truths about her grandfather’s life and in turn, her own.
Through her recollections, we learn that the “tiger’s wife” is not a mythic creature of fairy tales, but a real person with a brutal history. She was the wife of a butcher’s son, Luka. They lived in the village of Galina, the birthplace of Natalia’s grandfather. The tiger who gave the “tiger’s wife” her name was real too: he made his way to Galina in 1941, after bombs fell on a Balkan city, leaving the tiger to wander. In a captivating and moving way, this woman comes to be forever named the “tiger’s wife.”
Natalia goes over this story and that of the “deathless man” as she performs a rite of her own and of her family’s, finding her grandfather’s belongings and returning them home so that his soul can finally rest. She unearths mysteries of her own and leaves some stories ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder.
And so, entrenched in the folktales of our cultures are glimpses of our past and maybe lessons for the future. The Tiger’s Wife is a reminder of the strength of stories of magical realism. Interestingly, the folklore of my own country, Pakistan, consists primarily of love stories. Waris Shah, the Punjabi, Sufi poet, made famous the tale of Heer and her lover, Ranjha. Fazal Shah, also a Punjabi poet, popularised the tale of Sohni and Mahiwal, another set of star-crossed lovers. These stories not only speak of romantic love but also intertwine spiritual and mystical elements which reflect a Sufi influence. These stories with tragic endings in the name of culture and tradition are Pakistan’s own account of intolerance, a condition that continues to plague the country. These folktales are traditionally passed from one generation to the next. In these tales perhaps, are hidden secrets too, of an understanding of the world that escapes us.
In contrast to the folktales in The Tiger’s Wife, which loom around death, Pakistan’s are tales of love, though tragic, but love nevertheless. The core story Obreht chooses to tell, one of the history of her country in the context of war, is complex and multilayered. She manages to relay it, however, through imagery and imagination. This perhaps can only be achieved through the telling of folktales.