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Téa Obreht’s Anti-War Message

Just wrapped up a discussion of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife in my course on contemporary literature. In my remarks, I made no secret of my unease with the novel’s ideological message. After the bombing raids start in an unnamed city in an unnamed Balkan country at some unspecified time in the last 12 years, her grandfather makes clear to the narrator Natalia his view of war:

When your fight has purpose — to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of the innocent — it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling — when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored, the attachment of your name to some landmark or event — there is nothing but hate, and the long, slow progression of people who feed on it and are fed it, meticulously, by the ones who come before them. Then the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves, but always retains its capacity to surprise those who hope against it.

A little later in the novel, the grandfather explains that he has no side in the war. “I am all sides,” he says. The novelist too, by all appearances. Obreht’s method is to strip history from The Tiger’s Wife. Even when Germans “arrive” in grandfather’s village and “finally the train” begins to run through town, “the rattle and cough of the tracks” awakening the villagers at night, the Germans are not identified as Nazis and the train is not identified as going to Auschwitz (and the Jews are erased altogether). The “endless war” could be any war in which any innocents are killed in any way.

And my students were quick to notice as much. One pointed out how neatly the grandfather’s passage fits the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another student observed that this is just his generation’s basic view of war. (Obreht, who is 26, is only slightly older than the students in my class.) “We are ambivalent about it [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict],” he said. “For us, neither side is clearly in the right.”

A clear majority of my students disliked The Tiger’s Wife, although their reasons were aesthetic rather than ideological. (Loose ends were not tied up, they complained. “I will not explain what happened between the tiger and his wife,” Natalia announces three pages from the end. “I had to read a whole novel to find out you were not even going to tell me what happened?” a student cried in outrage.) But my own dislike of the novel was almost entirely ideological. Its generalized dissatisfaction with the wanton destruction of endless (and featureless) war removed the story from the Balkans and set it in a No Place, where magical stories provide a magical refuge from history. Except for scattered references to rajika and gossip about the origins of its celebrated young author, there would be no way of knowing that The Tiger’s Wife was a novel about the Balkans and no reason to care.



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