My grandfather never refers to the tiger's wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, "I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself." Because I am so 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.
In this quotation, Natalia introduces the Tiger's Wife for the first time. Although the significance of the Tiger's Wife in the life of Natalia's grandfather will only become clear later on, this statement nonetheless anticipates a meaningful link between the Tiger's Wife and Natalia. The Tiger's Wife did not inhabit a "fairy tale,” but faced events that were well beyond her control. Likewise, Natalia will find as she grows up that her society, which is being wracked by war, can become an inhospitable and uncontrollable place.
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 two stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life--my grandfather's days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, of which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.
At this point, Natalia presents the reader with a guide to much of the rest of the story that she will tell--yet her guidance remains ambiguous. It is clear that both the Deathless Man and the Tiger's Wife are important figures. What is not clear is who exactly these figures are, or approximately which function each one served: at this early stage, a reader would have trouble predicting which story is "the story of how my grandfather became a man" and which one is the story of "how he became a child again.” Natalia both indicates that she is in control of the story she wants to tell and keeps the reader wondering where exactly that story will lead.
"They behave very strangely," he says. "They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things they have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, that resistance. Such a luxury."
Although Gavo indicates that protesting against death is fundamentally useless, the point of this quote is not to insult those who are going to die; rather, the Deathless Man is trying to explain an unpleasant truth to Natalia's grandfather. (In turn, this quote allows Natalia's grandfather to convey a message about death to Natalia, who is hearing about the Deathless Man for the first time.) And the Deathless Man himself is capable of learning lessons. Over time, he will realize that the best thing to do is to give people who are doomed to die (such as the waiter in Sarobor) no inkling that death is imminent.
The tiger did not succeed, but it was something, at least. He had been born in a box of hay in a gypsy circus, and had sent his life feeding on fat white columns of spine in the citadel cage. For the first time, the impulse that made him flex his claws in sleep, the compulsion that led him to drag his meat to the corner of the cage he occupied alone, was articulated into something other than frustration. Necessity slowly drew him out of his domestic clumsiness. It strengthened and reinforced the building blocks of his nature, honed his languid, feline reflexes; and the long-lost Siberian instinct pulled him north, into the cold.
In this quote, Natalia attempts to depict the life of the tiger. Up to this point, the tiger has survived in the wilderness mainly by eating human corpses and dead animals; this scene, in which the tiger tries yet fails to catch a boar, represents the awakening of the tiger's natural instincts. However, note that the tiger is described in terms of "impulse" and "instinct,” not in terms of rational or careful thought. While Natalia pays great attention to this animal, she resists the tactic (which some of the other characters indulge to a fault) of assuming that the tiger has human powers such as logic.
My grandfather, it seemed, had been coming to seem me after all; but while Zora and I had gone the long way, sidetracked by having to check into the United Clinics headquarters before crossing the border, he had come straight down by bus, and somewhere around Zdrevkov he had been unable to come farther. Or her had heard, somehow, about the two boys, and stopped to help.
The Tiger's Wife is about storylines that intersect in unusual ways: as Obreht reveals later, the fates of the characters of Luka, Amana, and the Deathless Man are all closely intertwined. This quote, however, presents a more obvious and literal case of intersection, as Natalia and Zora find themselves in close proximity to Natalia's grandfather. Yet the idea of a deeper network of connections is clearly embedded in Natalia's mind. After all, while reflecting on how her path has crossed her grandfather's, she fully expects to see the Deathless Man himself--first in Zdrevkov, then in Brejevina.
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--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.
War, for Natalia, has resulted in social and political fragmentation. In some cases, the effects of such divisions continue to be felt: there is tension, for instance, when Natalia talks to some of the people in Zdrevkov and Brejevina, areas across the border from Natalia's home city. Although the idea that "everything would eventually return to normal" is probably a self-deception, war does not disrupt all elements of Natalia's life. In fact, she and her grandfather develop an even closer bond during periods of wartime uncertainty.
People in Galina now, they give a thousand explanations for Luka's marriage to the tiger's wife. She was the bastard child of a notorious gambler, some say, who was forced on Luka as payment for a tremendous debt, a shameful secret that followed him back from those years he spent in Turkey. According to others, he purchased her from a thief in Istanbul, a man who sold girls at the souk, where she had stood quietly among the spice stacks and pyramids of fruit until Luka found her.
This quote demonstrates how easily the truth of sensitive events can be distorted, even in a town as small as Galina. While Luka was in fact tricked into marrying the Tiger's Wife, the stories that are told about him make his role into something much more sinister. These assumptions of evil in Luka's past were influenced, perhaps, by Luka's violent personality after he returned with the Tiger's Wife. However, this is not the only time that villagers have twisted and embellished facts about a mysterious character: Darisa the Bear, for instance, was widely and wrongly believed to live among bears and to have supernatural powers.
Darisa the Bear. Behind him, knowledge of the golden labyrinth, and somewhere ahead of him, advancement toward it. And in the meantime, nothing but bears.
This quote characterizes Darisa as a character who, despite his constant activity, seems to wind up more or less in the same place. Bears define both Darisa's life and reputation, while conditions beyond his earthy lifestyle ("the golden labyrinth") appear to be clearly out of reach. Yet it would be wrong to understand Darisa's life as a process of disillusionment and dissatisfaction comparable to Luka's. Darisa enjoys making the rounds of the villages, and uses his hunting to exercise a craft--taxidermy--that he finds in many ways genuinely fulfilling.
The tiger's wife must have seen the hesitation in his face, because at that moment, her upper lip lifted and her teeth flashed out, and she hissed at him with the ridge of her nose folded up against her eyes. The sound--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--went through him like a rifle report and left him there, left him paralyzed. She was naked, ferocious, and he knew suddenly that she had learned to make that sound mimicking a face that wasn't human. He left with the bottle, without turning his back to her, reaching behind him to feel for the door, and when he opened it he couldn't even feel the cold air coming in. The heat of the house stayed with him like a mark as he walked back.
In this scene, the identity widely attributed to the Tiger's Wife clearly intersects with the way she acts. She has been assumed, up to now, to be in some way akin to the tiger, but only here--"naked, ferocious,” and making a cat-like hiss--does her physical resemblance to the tiger become more than hearsay. The Tiger's Wife also suspects, rightly, that the apothecary means to harm her. Like an animal--and like the tiger itself, which survives its journey to Galina by relying on intuition--she seems to be resorting to her immediate instincts to keep herself alive.
In the bag I found his wallet and his hat, his gloves. I found his doctor's coat, folded neatly in half. But I did not find The Jungle Book, for which I searched, mourned in that hot little room above Brejevina. It took me a long time to accept that it was gone, gone entirely, gone from his coat and from our house, gone from the drawers in his office and the shelves in our living room.
Although this excerpt records a final result--the disappearance of the copy of The Jungle Book--Natalia's testimony is ambiguous in other ways. Earlier in the novel, Natalia's grandfather pledged The Jungle Book to the Deathless Man, and lost. It is possible that the Deathless Man has come to collect his pledge. It is also possible that the copy of The Jungle Book was simply misplaced in the everyday run of events. To conclude that the first happened is to situate The Tiger's Wife as a work of supernatural writing, while to conclude that the second is the case is to ascribe rational causes to the book's disappearance--and, perhaps, to Obreht's entire composition
The Tiger’s Wife Questions and Answers
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