Podcast • April 7, 2011

Téa Obreht’s Tale of the War Zone: The Tiger’s Wife

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, ...

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.

Podcast • February 8, 2011

Rana Dasgupta: This Era of Catastrophe and Euphoria

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb him, about life and art. One is the sadness, loss, defeat and disorder that every new order creates — notably including globalization in our era, seen from anything other than the perspective of “mobile money.” Just as compelling somehow is his contrary theme: the flood of human energy and the reckless, irresistibly fascinating “ballistic” speed of innovation and change.

Dasgupta’s real-surreal novel Solo (reviewed here, here and here) won the Commonwealth Prize in London last year. It was singled out by Salman Rushdie, no less, for its “exceptional, astonishing strangeness.” What strikes me in conversation, however, with the astonishing news bursting in from Egypt as we speak, is how familiarly the book and author resonate with events. The sudden contagion of rebellious courage and confidence in dusty, despotic old Cairo fits neatly into the Dasgupta frame of life.

Solo is a novel in two “movements.” The first is a deft, elliptical recounting of the 20th Century from the far backstage of events. It is the mostly sorry tale of Ulrich, an obscure Bulgarian chemical engineer, blind, lonely and blue in in Sofia, in the 100th year of his life. It’s the tale, too, of Bulgaria’s 20th Century devolution from the Ottoman Empire through monarchy, then fascism, then Soviet Communism, then crony capitalism and cheapo turismo. Out of the ruins, so to speak, burst Ulrich’s gaudy “daydreams” of New York, Los Angeles and the global century in the second half of the novel. Boris — a violinist fantasized by Ulrich into world stardom — is an orphan inspired by Gypsy culture and a musical genius on the order of the mythic Orpheus. But the power to imagine Boris and his music is an expression of Ulrich’s hidden genius, too, part of the life he never got to live.

The book itself is an attempt to think about what global culture would be like, which is not to say a culture without any roots, without any human feeling to it. It’s not some sort of digital abstract culture; it is a highly felt culture which in a way tries to restore the human perspective, the human duration into this thing that we call globalization…

I have ambiguous feelings about globalization: I would want my work, and my life, to to be absolutely in this moment that we are living, absolutely conscious of it and aware of it, but, at the same time, to be highly cynical of it and to be deeply in touch with the eternal human story, never to lose sight of the myths, the enormous human resources that have got us this far. I guess I would be highly ambivalent, try to remain fully conscious of the enormous catastrophe we are living through. But never to play down either the enormous excitement and euphoria that modern life offers – of moving through time at this level of change…

One does also have to think about the people who can speak for this global system… the aristocracy of this system, the people who have this kind of effortless movement around it, who celebrate its values, and often who live in places that give them the sense of a rather serene system… They’re kind of in the idylls of global capitalism. Of course that’s not the only experience of it. At the rock-face of it, this system feels like the most destructive system ever to exist. And that turbulence is the weak point of this system… My novel is to some extent about that. It’s about entropy, it’s about the feeling that the creation of order always creates a greater amount of disorder around it. For the people who live in the midst of that disorder, the people who feel themselves to be part of that disorder, it’s a very very different kind of world.

The place to feel and contemplate our 21st Century condition, Rana Dasgupta is saying, might not be
Davos, say, but better the ravaged Congo.