Téa Obreht’s Transnational Disremembering within the Mythical Realism of The Tiger’s Wife

Abstract

This paper discusses Téa Obreht's 2010 novel The Tiger's Wife within the context of transmigrations and post-national conceptions of both the real and mythical translocality. Through analysis of Obreht’s discourse of disremembering, which is in Aleksandar Hemon’s definition a recognition of one’s own experience under the new narrative, the paper will explore the transnational dimensions of the Slavic-American identity of The Tiger’s Wife. The aim of this paper is to focus on the new understanding of transnational relationality as well as on a reconception of reality that disremembers Obreht’s or, on a larger scale, human experience within the mythical realism of The Tiger’s Wife.

Keywords: transnationalism, the Slavic-American identity, disremembering, Aleksandar Hemon, Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife, mythical realism

To disremember, according to Aleksandar Hemon, a celebrated Bosnian-American writer with an immigrant experience, is to recognize one’s own experience under the new narrative. He points out that it especially refers to the “people who have come through a form of actual, physical slaughter, and to the extent the construction of narrative is memory, then the narrative, for them, has to involve a quantity of amnesia. More amnesia that is involved in most narrative” (Interview by Richard Wirick). Disremembering blends non-fiction and fiction, genocide documentation and utopian imagery, and implies an alternative interpretation of reality. Hemon’s 2008 novel The Lazarus Project is a transnational project of disremembering. In The Lazarus Project, Hemon intertwines a double narrative of the multilayered parallel universes of the past and the present by following the narrator Vladimir Brik, a post-war Bosnian who lives in the United States, as he questions his life. Brik traces the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who is a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova, and an alleged anarchist. At the same time, Brik questions both the inner and outer aspects of his reality. In the first-person narrative, he explains that he needs to re-imagine what he could not retrieve, and to see what he could not imagine. For this reason, he disremembers his own experience within the story of Lazarus that also implies resurrection and a new birth story. This paper will analyze Téa Obreht’s evocative 2010 novel The Tiger's Wife from the point of view of a Hemonesque narrative concept of disremembering and, within the discourse, an Obrehtesque interaction of myth and truth.

Obreht’s debut novel The Tiger's Wife can be seen as a new project of its own transnational disremembering within the context of transmigrations, to use Nina Glick Schiller’s term. In that way, Obreht’s post-national conceptions of the real and mythical translocality are intertwined, framing a transnational relationality of the Post-Yugoslav space in the text of the novel and, only in the author’s life experience as seen as the contextual paratext, America’s interconnectedness with the Slavic world. Myths and realistic illustrations of the eternal here and now are bound in Obreht’s poetic truth of The Tiger’s Wife. The novel depicts the South Slavic world, culture and civilization through mythology, which has always been entwined with a distinctly Slavic conception of cosmic understanding. Mythology is very much rooted in Slavic culture(s) and tradition(s), so it is not always possible to tell “rationalist” from “”romantic’ versions” (Baldick 163) of a myth, or myth from the truth. Additionally, the process of evolution of how a story moves from truth to myth – or, even, vice versa – is often bound up in the process of storytelling in Slavic culture(s) and tradition(s). In that way, Obreht’s mythical realism is the result of the integration of a myth, which “tends to signify a fiction, but a fiction which conveys a psychological truth,” (Cuddon 526) and realistic tales and stories. Thus, her transnational disremembering within the mythical realism of The Tiger’s Wife conveys miscellaneous messages about the human condition in a brave new world, operating at both Slavic and planetary level.

Namely, Obreht is a Slavic-American writer of Bosniak and Slovene ethnicity. She was born as Tea Bajraktarević in 1985, in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia – the country that no longer exists, except in the stories/histories – in the city which is now the capital of Serbia. The former Yugoslavia was the country of Obreht's childhood and earliest memories. She lived with her mother and her maternal grandparents in Belgrade. Her family of mixed ethnicity was not uncommon before the ex-Yugoslav war(s), but became the most endangered family composition once the war broke out. The war started in 1991. In 1992, Obreht, at the age of seven, moved with her family, first to Cyprus, and later to Egypt. When she was twelve, her grandparents returned to live in Belgrade. She, however, settled in the United States with her mother, first in Atlanta, GA, and then in Palo Alto, CA. Obreht is now a citizen of the United States. She currently lives in Ithaca, NY. In her life, she was especially close to her grandfather Štefan, a Slovene, whose surname was Obreht. He died in 2006, a year before she started writing her debut novel, and on his deathbed he asked her to write under his surname. She dedicated her novel to him. Being at its core a story about a granddaughter’s love for her grandfather, The Tiger’s Wife is not Obreht’s autobiography, but it is emotionally autobiographical. In that way, it is also a story about both mythical and historical hatred embodied in the presence of endless war(s) in the Balkans. The creator of a myth about The Tiger’s Wife says that the novel is “a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationship to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans” (Interview by Ted Hamilton). Obreht was listed as one of the best writers under forty by The New Yorker magazine and was named as one of the best five writers under thirty-five by the National Book Foundation in 2010. In 2011, she won the Orange Prize for Fiction for The Tiger’s Wife.

In the way of Christian Moraru’s general observations about “American Literature Unlimited,” Téa Obreht is an American writer of a new geoliterary order. The transnational dimensions of Slavic-American identity in The Tiger’s Wife – to use Moraru’s words about, as he states, some of the best American writers of our time from Don DeLillo and Chang-rae Lee to Azar Nafisi and Jhumpa Lahiri, and their works – “this georhetoric of stylistic delimitations and cultural-imaginary unlimitations opens up, critically and inventively, America and the world individually and to one another, greatly stretching their reach in time, space, and meaning” (3). With her whole life experience, as she herself says, Obreht belongs to the American culture, and the United States is, as one of the “full-blooded American[s]” (109) in Hemon’s The Lazarus Project points out, a nation of immigrants. Obreht’s identity is tied to immigrant America, and she feels a bond with all the fragments of her past and her childhood. Her memories of her previous homes are the part of her poetics of space in the way of Gaston Bachelard’s poetics as follows: “Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost” (6). Obreht lost her grandfather, and she also lost the country of her first home. The loss of her grandfather has been the most difficult for her. However, she did not lose the stories. Like Natalia, the first-person narrator and the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht grew up listening to her grandfather’s stories. Those stories, the poetics of the Balkans, intertwine with the other stories of Obreht’s identity. Her past, to paraphrase Bachelard, resounds with echoes, and even though she thinks in English, both her thoughts and her language express a translingual phenomenology of her soul. She writes in a distinctively transcultural and transnational style of an American immigrant writer with a unique “linguistic continuum” (Dimock 177). It provides her with “the basis for a limited freedom. It is the freedom of an alien life form: a form of extension and duration not matching those of the nation and perhaps not coming to an end with the nation’s demise” (Dimock 177). Obreht’s book is not a typical immigrant novel. Seen separately from its writer and her life experience, the novel does not look like an immigrant narrative at all. There is not a single story, a reflection, or even a sentence about immigrants and immigrants’ perspective in The Tiger’s Wife. However, when seen as a story within Obreht’s life story, the novel becomes a mythical immigrant memoir based mostly on reality, as well as on fictional stories that become a reflection on life and death, and an alternative interpretation of reality in a Hemon-like disremembering. She says the following:

In trying to write about several generations, I wanted parts of the story to have a voice that was contemporary and to perhaps not be as fantastical. The way the fantastic ended up working in the novel is as something that is very much sharpened by war. I wanted to have a contrast to that. That's where the contemporary parts come in. (Interview by Jennie Yabroff)

Obreht’s life experience gives an immigrant context of nostalgia to the text of The Tiger’s Wife. In general, Svetlana Boym sees nostalgia as a symptom of our age, a historical emotion, and explains it by making three crucial points. She begins by arguing that “nostalgia and progress are … doubles and mirror images of one another” (8). Second, she states that “nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, but it is actually a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams” (8). Boym, in a broader sense, understands nostalgia as being a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. She points out that “[t]he nostalgic desires [are] to turn history into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition” (8). In relation to William Faulkner’s conception of time, Boym concludes that “the past of nostalgia … is not even past. It could be merely better time, or slower time – time out of time, not encumbered by appointment books” (8). Finally, her opinion is that nostalgia can be retrospective as well as prospective. “Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness,” she concludes

nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory. While futuristic utopias might be out of fashion, nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension – only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes it is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. (8)

It means, as Boym explains, that “[t]he nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space” (9).

All the above mentioned features of nostalgia are elements of the immigrant narrative of Obreht’s novel and – in a kind of Faulknerian metaphor bound to a diasporic notion of symbolic third-space – its mythical realism. Boym, furthermore, gives a typology of nostalgia. Between the two main types of nostalgia she distinguishes, the restorative and the reflective, The Tiger’s Wife is mostly colored by reflective nostalgia. By Boym’s definition, “[r]eflective nostalgia does not follow a single plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones” (13). In contrast to reflective nostalgia, she defines the restorative form as being “at the core of recent national and religious revivals” that deal with “two main plots – the return to origins and the conspiracy” (13). In Obreht’s text, restorative and reflective nostalgia overlap in their frames of reference, just as Boym offers as a possibility in her analysis of nostalgia, “but they do not coincide in their narratives and plots of identity” (15). In other words, they use

the same triggers of memory and symbols, the same Proustian madeleine cookie, but tell different stories about it. Nostalgia of the first type gravitates toward collective pictorial symbols and oral culture. Nostalgia of the second type is more oriented towards an individual narrative that savors details and memorial signs, yet perpetually defers homecoming itself. If restorative nostalgia ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialize time, reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and temporalizes space. (Boym 15)

Like Hemon, Obreht uniquely thematizes nostalgia in an overlapping space between individual and collective memory, history, oral tradition and fiction. It is her individual “retroactive utopia” (Racic) that is a nostalgia for a place the way it used to be, although in some ways she knows it was not like that, or the place that does not exist anymore. In her own way, Obreht disremembers – in Hemon’s definition – her own transnational experience within the story of Natalia.

The Tiger's Wife brings features of both Balkan and planetary oral culture into the creation of a new myth, but it gravitates toward an individual narrative. Its time and space, or characters, cannot be traced by facts. History becomes “her” (Natalia’s/Obreht’s) story, so the story, and not history, should be followed in The Tiger’s Wife. Otherwise, the readers get lost just as was the experience of an appreciated Serbian-American poet, essayist and translator Charles Simić. In his (re)view of Obreht’s novel, he says that the

problem is that the story has a very confusing historical time frame. For instance, a famous early-nineteenth-century Serbian collector of epic ballads, folk songs, and fairy tales, Vuk Karadjić, is among the balladeers Luka meets on the Mostar bridge. I don’t know what to make of this. It’s as if one were to read a story in which Mark Twain interviews Allen Ginsberg for the San Francisco Examiner.

The Mostar bridge that Simić mentions can be seen as the famous Old Bridge in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it does not necessarily have to be so. It is the same case with the other locations Simić recognizes in the novel, with one particular geographical correction about a certain village where a part of the novel is set. The village, “where two small children playing by a waterfall had glimpsed the Virgin in the water,” (Simić) is probably based on Međugorje, but Međugorje is not in Croatia as Simić mistakenly locates it in his review. It is a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. More precisely, Međugorje is one of the largest pilgrimage sites in the Herzegovina region, located around 25 km (16 mi) southwest of Mostar, famous due to many reported visions of the Virgin Mary that began in 1981. Thus, The Tiger’s Wife is an unusual allegory within an allegory with many intertwined layers of a story within a story. To use Hemon’s thoughts on the future of exile in a general sense, “language” (“Budućnost egzila” 14) is the only true and virtual location/(home)land of Obreht’s narrative.

The Tiger’s Wife is not a singular story. The time scale(s), geopolitical frame and all the other horizons of Obreht’s novel transform temporal and spatial coordinates of an unnamed Balkan country as seen as the former Yugoslavia, yet imaginary, and therefore a universal unit of analysis. Neither is The Tiger's Wife a single story. As a storyteller, Obreht rejects the idea of “a single story,” a danger that a Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses in her 2009 TED Talk as well as in her famous 2013 novel Americanah, which opens yet another linguistic continuum in planetary literature. In many ways, Obreht’s expression in this novel is colored by the influence of magical realists Mikhail Bulgakov and Gabriel García Márquez, as well as of Toni Morrison, for example. She also speaks of the influence of the Bosnian writer and the former Yugoslav Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić, and then Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway and the British children's author of Norwegian ancestry Roald Dahl. The style or genre of The Tiger’s Wife, however, does not define magical, but mythical realism. On the one hand, her novel is based on a mythic fiction by employing character archetypes previously defined in mythology, folklore and legends. The story about the deathless man, the one in which magical elements are merged with a realistic world, belongs to that category. As the storyteller, Obreht transforms the story and, therefore, transforms its myth, too. On the other hand, she invents a myth about “the tiger’s wife”. To disremember nostalgia and her Slavic-American experience, Obreht creates her stories of The Tiger's Wife based on Slavic mythical realism that is yet based on her recognition of reality under a new and alternative narrative – her need to re-imagine what she could not retrieve, and to see what she could not imagine.

The main frame story – or the spine for the reading of The Tiger's Wife, as Obreht puts it – concerns young doctor Natalia Stefanović in the present-day, a narrative which deals with the post-war reality of the unnamed Balkan countries. Natalia is on her post-war mercy mission with another doctor, her friend Zóra. They volunteer to inoculate war orphans across the border in a new independent country, a former province of their homeland that recently succeeded following a civil war. While Zóra is dealing with the absurdity of the new borders, Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather has died under mysterious circumstances in a village not so far away from their final destination. In an attempt to discover the circumstances of her grandfather’s death, Natalia traces the footsteps of his recent past. Now on a personal mission, she finds herself crossing the borders of the different levels of the past and the present. While trying to understand the circumstances of her grandfather’s passing, she pieces together the story of his life and tries to comprehend it. On another level, she tries to understand the story of the life and death of her homeland. Just like Obreht, Natalia loved her grandfather immensely. Unlike Obreht’s grandfather, who was an aerospace engineer, Natalia’s grandfather was a prominent doctor until the war broke out. Then, he was suspended from practice because he was “suspected of having loyalist feelings toward the unified state” (Obreht 49). His wife, Natalia’s grandmother, just like Obreht’s own grandmother, was a Muslim. Both Natalia’s and Obreht’s grandfathers were Orthodox Christians. When the war broke out, their family of mixed ethnicity was thought to represent the microcosm of the unified state.

The part of The Tiger’s Wife dealing with Natalia’s present day is, actually, Obreht’s last piece of her narrative’s puzzle. This was the part she wrote last, and she rewrote it entirely after she came back to the United States from a research trip to the Balkans in 2009. At this time, she travelled through small villages of Serbia and Croatia to speak with locals about vampires in preparation for an article entitled “Twilight of the Vampires: Hunting the Real-Life Undead” for Harper’s Magazine. That trip made a huge impact on her writing, as well as on her understanding of the self. She says: “I don't think I re-entered the culture with any kind of sensitivity until I took that vampire trip. I felt finally at home” (Pitz). It seems that during that trip she “learned, too, that when confounded by the extremes of life – whether good or bad – people would turn first to superstition to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening” (Obreht 312).

The stories about the tiger’s wife, along with the tales about the deathless man, are the stories within the main frame story of The Tiger’s Wife. Natalia explains those narratives in this way:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other; which he told to me, is of how he became a child again. (Obreht 32)

While the most powerful story of the novel is about the deathless man, most likely describing how Natalia's grandfather became a child again, the heart of Obreht’s novel is the story about the tiger's wife, most likely describing how her grandfather became a man. However, both stories can function in dual ways. The one about the tiger’s wife is partly based on a fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” (“La Belle at la Bete”) by French writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont published in 1740. Yet, the myth, its open-ended tale, is entirely Obreht’s. It is the story of a zoo tiger and the deaf-mute butcher’s wife who befriends him. The tiger escapes during the bombing of what Obreht calls “the City” during the Second World War – that is a city modeled on Belgrade – and then stalks the mountain village of Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood. There, he meets the butcher’s lonely and molested wife on his nightly visits to a smokehouse belonging to her husband. Animals in general have a special role in The Tiger’s Wife. Among other things, the mythologized reality in the novel is being shaped through humans who acquire animal characteristics as well as through animals that take on the traits of humans. The tiger, for example, can be seen as a kind of immigrant. Like myths in general, this story can be read in many ways. Some of the possibilities are that it is Obreht's story about life and death, about Eros and Thanatos. Or, perhaps, it is about the importance of stories in which we can find, in the words of African writer Mia Couto, “the presence of those who seem to be absent.” In any way, it is an allegory of disremembering. Near the end of the novel, Natalia discovers her dead grandfather’s note to her that is written on a yellowed page torn from the back of his missing Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he carried throughout his life in his pocket. The note contains a child’s drawing of the tiger and, above it, the word Galina in her grandfather’s handwriting. Galina is his birthplace and the name of one of many imaginary places of Obreht’s mythical space of the Balkans. Her grandfather’s note is, as she says, “how I know how to find him again, in Galina, in the story he hadn’t told me but perhaps wished he had” (Obreht 335). Moreover, the interaction between Thanatos, the drive of death and destruction, and Eros, the drive of life and creation, is represented throughout the story and colors all vignettes within the novel. The mythical reality of The Tiger’s Wife narrative depicts a dual nature of humanity in a linguistic continuum of a never ending war. At one point in his life, Natalia’s grandfather sadly concludes that the war “was there when I was a child and it will be here for my children’s children” (Obreht 301). Obreht’s narrative technique of a story within a story with fluid time-space coordinates exhibits both the myth and the reality of war that never ends. The concept of eternal recurrence of a war binds the past to the present in The Tiger’s Wife. The novel transforms reality of the Balkan wars into a never-ending myth. The end of war, as Obreht writes through her mythologized self in the character of Natalia,

provided the delusion of normalcy, but never peace. When your fight has purpose – to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an 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. (283)

Obreht observes both the past and the present reality from a distance, and sees it clearly. However, her depiction of the places, landmarks or events is confusing, so even a native of the region will get lost in space and time trying to define any of those signifiers. For example, not a single town or a village mentioned in the novel can be found on any map. All their names are imaginary; all the temporal and spatial coordinates are disorientating. Obreht does this on purpose. Just like Natalia’s grandfather, she has no side; she is all sides. Her universality is a declaration of humanity. Also, her myth disremembers her own as well as human experience, and keeps Hope alive. Thus, her reconception of reality implies “new sincerity” that is transnational, “paradoxical and dialectical” (Kelly) in a way of affective self-discovery.

The story about the deathless man is based on Slavic and German folklore, and such a story, in Obreht’s book, is “usually about a man who somehow tries to deliberately or on accident end up cheating death” (Interview by Jeffrey Brown). The deathless man in The Tiger’s Wife is the physician Gavran (a raven in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) Gailé who claims to be immortal. His deathlessness is not a gift, but punishment for trying to cheat death to save the life of his beloved woman. He gathers the dead on behalf of Death, his uncle, hoping that he will forgive him. The deathless man does not represent only Thanatos. Like all human beings, according to Freud, he has both drives, Thanatos and Eros. Obreht says that “he was supposed to be sinister, but he ended up comforting” (Interview by Jeffrey Brown). Natalia’s grandfather keeps meeting him throughout his life. Obreht’s idea is that the grandfather, as a doctor, has to be confronted with this notion of death. She explains that doctors have the most access to the line between the supernatural and the real – between life and death – and they have to navigate that line every day, not in magical, but realistic ways. The story about the doctors and death in The Tiger’s Wife, as Obreht puts it, happened “organically” (Interview by Lynn Neary).

These two worlds in her book – the one based on science and reality and the other shaped by mysticism and folklore – mingle and sometime intersect in her book. Obreht says in an interview with the novelist Jennifer Egan that

mythmaking and storytelling are a way in which people deal with reality. They’re a coping mechanism. In Balkan culture, there’s almost a knowledge that reality will eventually become myth. In ten or twenty years you will be able to recount what happened today with more and more embellishments until you’ve completely altered that reality and funneled it into the world of myth.

Obretht’s use of mythical realism is, therefore, a transcendental recognition of her own experience under the new narrative. In order to understand her memories, she creates a myth out of them, which is, metaphorically speaking, inscribed in her genes. Moreover, Obreht’s The Tigers Wife, just as Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, is a story of resurrection that converts “information into knowledge in order to make it humanly useful” (Schine). Both novels are the projects of narration as well as the project of humanity. They are both journeys through history, through her/his story, and to the inside of the human self. And both stories start from scratch, like an immigrant.

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