Thursday, June 18, 2020

Téa Obreht / A Mythic Novel of the Balkan Wars

Illlustration by Monika Aichele

A Mythic Novel of the Balkan Wars

By Liesl Schillinger
March 11, 2011

Think back to the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, with their profusion of names that are difficult to pronounce and acts that are painful to recall: the massacres at Brcko and Srebrenica, the bombing of bread lines in Sarajevo, the destruction of Mostar’s 400-year-old bridge. The Tiger's Wife: A Novel (9780385343848): Obreht, Téa ...None of these appear in Téa Obreht’s first novel, “The Tiger’s Wife,” yet in its pages she brings their historic and human context to luminous life. With fables and allegories, as well as events borrowed from the headlines, she illustrates the complexities of Balkan history, unearthing patterns of suspicion, superstition and everyday violence that pervade the region even in times of peace. Reaching back to World War II, and then to wars that came before, she reveals the continuity beneath the clangor.
A metaphor for the author’s achievement can be found in her tale of Luka, a dreamy, brooding butcher’s son from a mountain village called Galina. A decade after World War I, Luka leaves Galina and walks 300 miles to the river port of Sarobor, where he hopes to master the gusla, a single-stringed Balkan folk instrument. Arriving there, he finds that gusla music is nearly forgotten, overtaken by rollicking modern tunes played by lusty, boisterous bands. Still, he seeks out old men who know the traditional songs, falls under the spell of the “throbbing wail of their voices winding through tales remembered or invented” and acquires their art. Although his gift is for lyrics rather than music, “there are those who say that any man who heard Luka play the gusla, even in wordless melody, was immediately moved to tears.” When a woman asks why he doesn’t prefer an instrument with a greater number of strings, he responds, “Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories.”

Credit...Beowulf Sheehan

The principal collector of Obreht’s multiplicity of stories is her narrator, Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who lives with her mother, grandmother and grandfather in an unnamed Balkan city early in the 21st century. Natalia likes to see herself as somebody with an edge: too rational to be cowed by old-fashioned superstitions, too modern for corny old-fashioned folk music. She prefers Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

As a little girl, Natalia adored her grandfather, a respected doctor and professor, and tagged along on his regular visits to the zoo, which was formerly a sultan’s fortress. “Past the aviary where the sharp-eared owls sleep,” they would walk to the moat where tigers loped, their “stripe-lashed shoulders rolling.” There she would listen, rapt, as her grandfather spoke of a girl he once knew who was known as the “tiger’s wife.” At the time, Natalia thought this was a fairy tale. After all, her grandfather always carried a copy of Kipling’s “Jungle Book” in his breast pocket. To his granddaughter, he was a fount of fantasy, her own private bard. In “The Tiger’s Wife,” Obreht weaves the old man’s richly colored reminiscences like silk ribbons through the spare frame of Natalia’s modern coming-of-age, a coming-of-age that coincides, as her grandfather’s had, with a time of political upheaval.
When Natalia is a teenager, war returns to the Balkans. The zoo closes, and a curfew is imposed. Natalia and her friends immerse themselves in “the mild lawlessness” that surrounds them. Among other things, this means spurning her grandfather and dating a young tough who sells black-market contraband. But late one night, missing the old man, she agrees to follow him on a wild goose chase whose purpose he won’t explain.
After following him through dark, empty streets, suddenly she sees what he sees: an elephant, a refugee from a defunct circus, being walked to the city’s embattled zoo. “None of my friends will ever believe it,” she exclaims in regret. “You must be joking,” her grandfather replies, rebuking her: “The story of this war — dates, names, who started it, why — that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this — this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. . . . You have to think carefully about where you tell it, and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?” Chastened, Natalia asks if he has other stories “like that,” stories “from before.” The question will transform her into a bard herself.

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