[T]hen there was a different smell he hadn’t noticed before, a thick, dark musk, and just as he realized this the light went out. In the sudden darkness, he heard a low, heavy, sound, like breath all around him, a single deep rumble that strung his veins together and trembled in his lungs. The sound spread around his skull for a while, making room for itself. Then he dove into the little butchering room and crawled under a tarp in the corner […] Something in the darkness moved, and the butcher’s hooks, hanging in rows along the rafters, clinked against one another, and my grandfather knew it was the tiger. The tiger was walking. He could not make out the individual footfalls […] He tried to quiet his own breathing, but found that he couldn’t. […] He could feel the tiger just beside him, through the wooden planks, the big, red heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs, the weight of it groaning through the floor.
Not all of my holiday was spent in north Norfolk; my daughter and I also holed up at my parents’ house where I abandoned all the books I’d crushed into my suitcase to pick over my mother’s bookshelves. The Tiger’s Wife is one of the novels I stole borrowed. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Since I am probably the last person in the English-speaking world to read this, I won’t witter on much about the plot. In the aftermath of a bloody war of partition in an unnamed Balkan country, Natalia is travelling to across the new border to inoculate children in an orphanage when she learns of her beloved grandfather’s death in mysterious circumstances. The novel is woven from memories of her grandfather and the war together with the story of the deathless man, which her grandfather told her, and the story of the tiger’s wife, which she has re-created from – what? It’s the story her grandfather kept to himself, she implies; he chose to tell her the story of the deathless man instead. (Or did I miss something?) She claims to have gathered ‘the facts’ about it, but there aren’t really any facts and with one exception nobody from the Galina of 1941 is still alive to describe the tiger’s sojourn to her. So it must come from her imagination, it must be her way of consoling herself for her loss.
Towards the end of the novel, Natalia relates the youth of the apothecary of Galina, part of which he spent criss-crossing the country as the accomplice of a conman named Blind Orlo. Blind Orlo told fortunes, while the apothecary ‘read’ the punters and signalled useful information to Blind Orlo so that he could say what they wanted to hear. But the apothecary discovered that he had a talent for medicine.
It was a gift, they said wherever he went; they had never seen such a calm, authoritative, compassionate young man. It was a gift to them all, but it was a gift to the apothecary as well: as healer he was the giver of answers, the vanquisher of fear, the restorer of order and stability. Blind Orlo, with his lies and manipulations, had power, yes; but real power, he came to understand, lay in the definite and concrete, in predictions backed by evidence, in the continued life of a man you claimed you could save, and the death of a man you pronounced was certain to die.
Blind Orlo is a liar, but he is also a storyteller. The apothecary finds, as Natalia and her grandfather, both doctors, also do, that the definite and the concrete have their limits. There is a place for stories, myths, superstition, lies, call them what you will, especially in the face of senseless, violent death. This is true even when you know they are untrue.