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Tuesday, 26 March 2013


After Midnight's Children, more Magic Realism. And, after The Life of Pi, more tigers. Here is a whole novel based around the relationship between tigers and humans, tigers on the loose, tigers as both threat and symbol of the natural world, in all its brutality and beauty.

Though you need patience with this book. The story progresses from two points in time. The main story is set a couple of years after the Balkan war of the nineties. Natalia, the narrator, is a doctor going into a neighbouring country to organise vaccinations for children there. And in alternating chapters we hear the story of Natalia's grandfather, and his life in the small village where he was born, and his adventures with the tiger's wife, a deaf-mute woman who does everything in her power to insure that an escaped tiger is not killed by the village people.

So it takes a long time to build momentum. There are two stories being told, with different chronologies and a lot of digressions, and so while the narrative is never tedious, it does like to wander off into apparently unconnected accounts of the various local characters in the grandfather's village. It is necessary to stick with the novel to begin to see some kind of connections between all the narratives.

And yet it is questionable whether it is worth the wait. The writing flows easily, it takes no effort to read the book and the stories are rich and deep and detailed, spanning decades, taking in city and country, real and supernatural. Yet there are in truth too many digressions, the narrative going back and forward in time, mentioning this character and that until it is hard to keep track of exactly who is who, and difficult to find characters to care about.

Finally there is a resolution of sorts at the end, an attempt to tie up loose ends. This linking the two chronologies of the story, however, is lacking, incomplete, providing more questions than answers.

Also, the novel can't seem to make up its mind whether the world it describes is just as we see it, or whether it is reality suffused by magic, like in the universe of Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
There is an attempt at magic realism through the character of the Deathless Man, who, as the name suggests, cannot die, yet it is hard to see the point of this bit of fantasy in what is in general a fairly realistic, unsuperstitious perspective. In fact the writer says, on p.310,
"when confounded by the extremes of life....people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening."
It is made clear that the villagers superstitions are just that, irrational, based on ignorance and fear, yet there is also this man who cannot be killed popping up throughout the narrative. It is out of place, this appeal to the supernatural.

So this book is a mixture. The story is too diffuse to be effective, and failed to hold my attention or engage me. And it is trying to have its cake and eat it, regarding the existence of magic and the supernatural. Yet it is well written, rich, with individual characters and narratives that are fascinating in themselves. 

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