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Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Téa Obreht. (43 minutes, 20 mb mp3)Beowulf Sheehan photo

Tea Obreht thinks out loud. She laughs with sunny abandon. She digresses. She actually listens to a reader’s puzzles. She parses the finely-wrought text of The Tiger’s Wife for us with authority but also curiosity, delight, discovery. Tea Obreht’s conversation has the precocious free flow and solid substance her writing does. But let’s not be misled by her light touch: the
first novel by this young woman from the Balkans is about the landscape of permanent war — the very geography of tribal and personal violence — and the stories we make up to navigate it. Her writing is in touch with hell, just as she is surely in touch with Dostoevsky. In The Brothers Karamazov, the nihilist Ivan suggests to his baby brother Alyosha, the soulful seminarian, that his own dark view of life is rooted in what he’s heard about the Slavic reaches of the Ottoman Empire — about a part of the world Tea Obreht is contemplating a century later:

They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them — all sorts of things you can’t imagine. People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it…
From “Rebellion,” Chapter 4 of Part II, Book V of The Brothers Karamazov

The spirit of mayhem seems to flow out of the ground in Tea Obreht’s landscape. “The diggers” make the point anecdotally in The Tiger’s Wife. In an elderly couple’s backyard vineyard, a peasant clan turns up and starts shoveling. Eventually their leader explains that in wartime a dozen years earlier he’d buried a cousin there and that the unsolemnized death was now making his children sick. So they exhume a smelly suitcase full of bones and perform last rites of a sort on the cousin’s heart. But everywhere in The Tiger’s Wife the dead haunt the living. And so rises rumor, and then gossip, which matures into folklore and fables.

The paired stories on which Tea Obreht has built The Tiger’s Wife are told by an older doctor to his grand-daughter; they are presented in turn as the framework in which the man invented his life. The first, a sort of fable, involves a tiger that escaped the city zoo during the German bombing in 1941, and settled in the forest ridge near grandfather’s town when he was an impressionable lad of 12. The second invention is a Deathless Man who keeps showing up in the grandfather’s life, making it his odd business to tell people clearly when they are about to die. “So they can prepare,” he says. “I do not direct the passage — I just make it easier.” The tiger seems to represent to grandfather an escape from reality, the Deathless Man a reconciliation with it.

I think that story-telling and myth-making are a huge part of the book and that it became very obvious fairly early on that that was what the book was going to center on. I think that in the book, and perhaps in life, stories are a way for people to get through very difficult situations, and I certainly did not want to focus on the realities of the war, but the way people tell themselves about something after the fact.

That is, the way people perhaps think about their own lives and the lives of loved ones, and even the lives of strangers in order to make themselves see that person in a particular light, how that light changes when you learn something else that you perhaps didn’t know about an individual, and how our beliefs change through stories, and what stories we’re willing to believe at different times in our lives. I think that all came together. Of course I can say this after the fact, like I really knew what I was doing during it.

Téa Obreht with Chris Lydon, April 6, 2011.