Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife” is a hybrid combination of both the fantastical and the real. By engaging with the various genres of the fairy tale, fable and realism, Obreht’s work extends the notions of genre in fiction, to a hyper-realistic portrayal of the Balkan Wars. When considering the two key tales in Obreht’s work, that of the “Deathless Man” and “The Tiger and the Tiger’s Wife” Obreht reveals a fantastical world immersed in Yugoslavian myth and ancient superstition. In contrast, there are elements in “The Tiger’s Wife” such as the protagonist Natalia and her grandfather’s relationship and work in medicine which add a realistic dimension to “The Tiger’s Wife” as well as an element ...view middle of the document...
And yet as a young child, Natalia remains ambivalent of the exact meaning of “The Tiger’s Wife”, instead she interprets her grandfather’s story as a “fairy tale”. Even whilst Natalia remembers as a child, a man being attacked by a tiger, she remains absorbed within her grandfather’s story and his “Jungle Book”, a motif that appears throughout the novel for its sentimental value, again reflecting the grandfather’s obsession with the ‘tiger’. Thus, it is this initial scene in the novel, which prepares the reader for Natalia’s desire to understand the “Tiger’s Wife”; a ‘fairy tale’ caught within the harsh reality of war.
Natalia’s search to understand the meaning of her grandfather’s life, can be read as an extended elegy, in which life and death, truth and superstition, become intertwined in her own life and the lives of the Galina townsfolk. In coming to terms with her grandfather’s death, Natalia is confronted by the superstitions of her grandmother.
“For her, the forty days were fact and common sense, knowledge left over from burying two parent and an older sister, assorted cousins and strangers from her hometown, a formula she had recited to comfort my grandfather whenever he lost a patient in whom he was particularly invested – a superstition, according to him, but something in which he had indulged her with less and less protest as old age had hardened her beliefs.”
Although Natalia is sympathetic to her grandmother’s belief in the “40 days of the soul”, she realises that dealing with grief can be seen as a “formula” when such rituals and superstitions exist. Therefore, in the search to understand life and death, ‘the forty days’ marks the start of Natalia’s realisation that superstition can bind communities together and reinstate the individual’s sense of hope in the world.
“The Deathless Man” serves as a pivotal story in “The Tiger’s Wife” and as a memory from Natalia’s grandfather’s past. The reader is introduced to the “Deathless Man” from the grandfather’s point of view, recounting a call from the townsfolk to determine if a man in a coffin had actually died. Throughout the novel, Obreht alternates from Natalia’s dialogue in the present, to that of the Grandfather’s first-hand experiences.
“It is not so serious,” he says, smiling. He reaches around and fingers the bullets in the back of his head, and the whole time he is smiling at me rather like a cow. I can picture his fingers moving around on the bullets, and the whole time he is touching them I am reaching for his hands to stop him, and I can imagine his eyes moving around, in and out of his head, as the bullets push his brains about. Which, of course, isn’t happening. But you can see it all the same. Then he says: “I know this is probably very frightening for you, Doctor, but this is not the first time this has happened.” p.63
In this passage, the Grandfather’s sense of reality becomes blurred, as his encounter with the Deathless Man, propels him to think of the consequences of...