Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Tiger

Given how long the process of writing, editing, and publishing a book is, it always surprises me when anything approaching a trend crops up. Certainly, trends like The Year of the Short Story are a little manufactured (not that that makes them bad), but what I'm talking about are books that come out with similar themes or central figures. Last year, for example, it seemed tigers (and other jungle animals) were the big thing. Strangely, at the time I didn't read any of the tiger books that came out, but in the space of three weeks recently read both the big ones pretty much back-to-back. I didn't plan it that way, but as it turned out I think I read them in the right order (if such a thing exists), and will therefore write about them in the same way. Up first, John Vaillant's non-fiction award-winner The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

I loved Vaillant's previous non-fiction book The Golden Spruce, so when The Tiger came out I was really excited to read it. The hardcover edition was, while beautiful, also enormous, so I ended up waiting for the softcover version, which offered the dual benefit of being much easier to carry around and also post-hype. The Tiger is set up as the story of a man-eating Siberian tiger and the men tasked with hunting and killing it. But, much like in The Golden Spruce, Vaillant uses that narrative arc to weave in a million smaller, farther-reaching details about Siberia, Russia, tigers, hunting and a number of things you didn't even realize you were interested in. 

Most of the story takes place around Sobolonye, in the Bikin Valley, in the most eastern part of Siberia, in the late-1990s. The area is sparsely populated, desperately poor, and practically lawless. Poaching is one of the few ways people manage to feed their families, and although the poaching mostly involves the wild boar and deer, some hunters are desperate enough to try their hands at hunting the tigers that still roam the area. The tigers are endangered, of course, but that just makes them more valuable to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, just across the border. Vaillant's lengthy and nuanced explanation of the plight of the tiger – the history of tiger hunting, its use in traditional medicine, its protected status in Russia – are fascinating. It would have been easy to just write a book about a tiger hunt – nothing but suspense and death and adventure in the snowy forest – but that story would be unremarkable. Instead, the hunt and death and adventure that Vaillant tells us about is cloaked in the history of the region and the people who live there, which allows the tiger to both exist as itself and as a metaphor, much as it has in the mythologies of the Natives of the region.

All of that being said, it is the tiger at the centre of the story that drives everything forward. The book opens with Vaillant's first-person recreation of the original attack – he later breaks down the various theories about what actually happened, but as introductory pages go, this one sure packs a punch – and as the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that this is not your regular tiger. Tigers are smart, they can learn and adapt, and in Siberia, the long winters and harsh conditions have given them an uncommon ability to survive. A regular tiger will kill a human if it feels threatened, Vaillant says, but this tiger started killing for revenge. Although we obviously cannot know what the tiger was thinking, Vaillant's portrayal of the cat – presented alongside countless anecdotes about big cats interacting with humans around the world and throughout history – paint a vivid and elegant portrait of a dangerous and captivating animal. 

Vaillant's other main character is the man tasked with tracking and killing the tiger, Yuri Trush. Athough not dangerous in a vengeful way, Trush is as complex and powerful as the tiger, making this true story almost mythic in its pitting of man against beast (or, depending who you sympathize with, beast against man). 

The Tiger is structured around the hunt, and Vaillant uses the time between the tiger's two kills to build up the historical narrative that is so integral to the current conflict. But, as the days grow shorter (the book takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas) and the timeline grows tighter, the intensity of the hunt builds until you're forced to read at breakneck speed, barely pausing to breath, because the tiger could be anywhere. When the inevitable confrontation occurs, though, Vaillant slows everything down; a second becomes a minute and, as if the page is a lens, he pans around the attack, allowing you to see it from every angle before speeding everything back up to realtime. It's an incredible finish and it will leave you gasping.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
by John Vaillant
First published in 2010 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

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