Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

All writing is linear in that it consists of putting one word after another. All writers approach that basic imperative with a conscious or unconscious repertoire of moves that taken together make up a way of working, a style. Some writers strive for a kind of transparency. One might think of Chekhov or Alice Munro or even a writer of mainstream popular fiction like John Grisham. Reading their books, one is inclined to forget about the authorial presence altogether. In their self-effacement, they submerge themselves to the story they have to tell. They are like landscape painters whose technique is so precise that their paintings might be mistaken for photographs. Their goal is less interpretation than reportage; their style is literal and uninflected.

Other writers have evolved a way of working based on certain purposefully selected or self-imposed principles or inclinations. Writers like these—Hemingway, Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, etc—are impossible to read without being more or less constantly aware of and alert to the presence of the author making his choices:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase.

These opening lines from McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses establish immediately a certain level of diction and a certain self-conscious attention to the architectural elements of syntax. This is not everyday language. It’s language of a particular tone and texture. The language is intentionally defamilarizing: it puts us on alert to the ruminating presence of the author in the background, and asks that we stay that way. The stories created in this manner are stylized in the way a painting by Gauguin or Picasso is stylized: true to the world as experienced, but also filtered and mirrored back to us through an interpretive consciousness.

Those are the extremes. But there are a lot of writers who split the difference between the plain style and the personal style in various interesting ways. One of the greatest pleasures in reading for me is when I find myself being drawn into a world by a writer whose control of the language is such that the details are at once subordinate to the narrative and yet somehow delightful in and of themselves. I’ve recently been finished reading Tia Obréht’s engaging and frequently astonishing novel The Tiger’s Wife. I won’t say much about the plot here; suffice it to say that it’s set in Yugoslavia, concerns in a general way the efforts of a young woman to discover the circumstance of her grandfather’s death, and manages, in a quite surprising and convincing way, to meld elements of realism and fantasy and mythology.

What I most enjoyed about the book, and what I want to try to explain here, is the paragraphs. The individual sentences in the book are not stylistically remarkable. What is remarkable is the way Obréht is able build momentum through the patient accumulation of details, any one of which could be literal, but all of which taken together contain the lyric power of song. Here, for example, is her description of the main character’s arrival at a village she has set out to find:

There was no way to get up the slope behind Barba Ivan and Nada's house, so I walked north toward the main square where the silent spire of the monastery rose out among the roofs. Early morning, and the restaurants and shops were still shuttered, grills cold, leaving room for the heavy smell of the sea. For about a third of a mile, there were only houses: whitewashed stone beach houses with iron railings and open windows, humming neon signs that read Pension in three or four languages. I passed the arcade, a firestorm of yellow and red and blue lights under an awning laden with pine needles. The Brejevina camping ground was a moonlit flat of dry grass, fenced off with chicken wire.

A greenish stone canal ran up past the campground, and this was the route I took. Green shutters, flower boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full of patching bricks or cement or manure; one or two houses had gutting stations for fish set up, and laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone's front yard. (84-5)

The first paragraph is straightforward enough. We’re being led through a landscape, and it’s just one thing after another, more or less what we might be seeing in the order we might be seeing it in if we were walking with her. But what delights me is the way she works into the scene, the way her imagination goes into overdrive and starts dropping in details which are both surprising and convincing: the tarped car, the chickens, wheelbarrows full of bricks, gutting stations for fish, pegged rows of socks, and there, at the end of the line, “soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly...” I gotta tell ya, I love that donkey. That donkey appears at just the right moment and cements the whole sequence in my mind. It makes me laugh out loud.

There are pages and pages of passages in the book that are delightful in just this way: they render with imaginative grace and precision scenes which are startlingly beautiful. One of the subplots in the book—in fact, the one that gives the book it’s title—has to do with a tiger who escapes from a zoo in the aftermath of a bombing attack on the city. Here is Obréht’s description of the tiger’s flight through the city that night:

People must nave seen him, but in the wake of bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shopwindows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper.

By the time he reached Knez Petrova, looters were already swarming the Boulevard. Men were walking by him, past him, alongside him, men with fur coats and bags of flour, with sacks of sugar and ceiling fixtures, with faucets, tables, chair legs, upholstery ripped from the walls of ancient Turkish houses that had fallen in the raid. He ignored them all.

Some hours before sunrise, the tiger found himself in the abandoned market at Kalinia, two blocks up from where my grandfather and my grandma would buy their first apartment fifteen years later. Here, the scent of death that clung to the wind drifting in from the north separated from the pools of rich stench that ran between the cobbles of the market square. He walked with his head down, savoring the spectrum of unrecognizable aromas—splattered tomatoes and spinach that stuck to the grooves in the road, broken eggs, bits offish, the clotted fat leavings on the sides of the butchers' stands, the thick smell smeared around the cheese counter. His thirst insane, the tiger lapped up pools from the leaky fountain where the flower women filled their buckets, and then put his nose into the face of a sleeping child who had been left, wrapped in blankets, under the pancake stand.

Finally, up through the sleepless neighborhoods of the lower city, with the sound of the second river in his ears, the tiger began to climb the trail into the king's forest. I like to think that he went along our old carriage trail. I like to imagine his big-cat paw prints in the gravel, his exhausted, square-shouldered walk along my childhood paths, years before I was even born—but in reality, the way through the undergrowth was faster, the moss easier on paws he had shredded on city rubble. The cooling feel of the trees bending down to him as he pushed up the hill, until at last he reached the top, the burning city far behind him. (94-5)

Again, what pleases me most about this passage is not so much the narrative line. As far as that goes, she could have just said, “The tiger fled to the hills.” It’s the movement of the tiger through the city, the horror of the bombardment conveyed through the tiger’s sensations, and the placement and accumulation of the details. The tiger “put his nose into the face of a sleeping child who had been left, wrapped in blankets, under the pancake stand.” Under the pancake stand!! Seriously, how cool, how artful, is that?

One last example: at one point the villagers, having become aware of the tiger’s presence among them, decide they are going to have to hunt it down, and in order to do so, they need a weapon. What follows is a history of how that particular weapon came to be available:

There was only one gun in the village, and, for many years, it had been kept in the family home of the blacksmith. It was an old Ottoman musket and it had a long, sharp muzzle, like a pike, and a silver-mantled barrel with a miniature Turkish cavalry carved riding forward over the saddle below the sight. A faded, woolly tassel hung from an embroidered cord over the musket butt, which was a deep, oily mahogany, and rough along the side, where the name of the Turk who had first carried it had been thoughtfully scraped off.

The musket had made its way to the village through a series of exchanges that differed almost every time someone told the story, and went back nearly two centuries. It had supposedly first seen battle at Lastica, before disappearing in the mule-pack of a defecting Janissary from the sultan's personal bodyguard, a soldier-turned-peddler who carried it with him for many decades while he roamed the mountains, selling silks and cook pots and exotic oils. The musket was eventually stolen from the Janissary peddler by a Magyar highwayman, and, later still, dragged out from under the Magyar's body by the mounted brigade that shot him down outside the house of his mistress, whose blouse, wet with the highwayman's blood, was still unbuttoned when she begged the brigadiers to leave her the gun as they took her lover's corpse away. The highwayman's mistress mounted the gun above the counter in her tavern. She dressed in mourning, and developed a habit of cleaning the gun as though it were in use. Many years later, an old woman of sixty, she gave it to the boy who carried milk up the stairs for her, so it would protect him when he rode against the bey's citadel in an ill-fated uprising that was swiftly crushed. The boy's head ended up on a pike on the citadel wall, and the gun ended up in the possession of the bey, who hung it in a minor trophy room of his winter palace, between the heads of two leopards with crooked eyes. It stayed there for almost sixty years, through the reigns of three beys, hanging opposite a stuffed lynx—and then, as time passed, a sultan's last battle outfit, the carriage of a Russian queen, a silver tea-set honoring one alliance or another, and eventually a state car belonging to a wealthy Turk who, shortly before his execution, had forfeited all his possessions to the citadel.

When the citadel fell, shortly after the turn of the century, the gun was taken away by a looter from Kovac, who carried it with him while he went from town to town, selling coffee. In the end, switching hands in some skirmish between peasants and Turkish militia, the musket went home with one of the survivors, a youth from the village, the grandfather of the blacksmith. That was 1901. Since then, the gun had hung on the wall above the blacksmith's hearth. It had been fired only once, in the direction of a sheep rapist, and never by the blacksmith himself. Now, my grandfather learned, the old gun would be used to kill the tiger. (118-9)

That passage is, to my mind, a kind of glorious self-indulgence on the part of the author. It’s not critical to the plot. It doesn’t move the story forward. What it does is put on display the virtuosity of a writer whose imagination is just so powerful and so flexible and so adept that it’s a pleasure just to watch it work. Reading Obréht brings some of the same pleasures to the reading brain that watching the Olympics brings to the televison-watching brain: the same mixture of respect and admiration and delight at the prospect of being present to a performance at a very high level of proficiency.

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