The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht guslar

In the nations once collectively known as Yugoslavia, a guslar is a living tradition. An oral poet, a singer of epics, a carrier of legends. Téa Obreht hails from the former Yugoslavia. She might very well be a guslar. Her debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is the stuff of legends. Tigers, curses, a bear-man, a deathless man and, yes, a guslar, too.

“What do they call that, boy?” she asked loudly, though she already knew, and touched the bottom of his fiddle with a sandaled foot.
“This is a gusla,” he said, and found himself grinning.
“Poor little fiddle,” said Amana […] “It has only one string.”
Luka said: “They might offer me a bigger fiddle tomorrow, but still I would not give up my own string.”
“Why? What can it do?”
For a moment, Luka felt his face burn. Then he said, “Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories.”

Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2011)


Among the many stories woven into The Tiger’s Wife, three involve tigers.

The first tiger escapes from a zoo during a bombardment of the City. It is not clear when the escape takes place. There have been so many wars and so many enemies, some of them former neighbors and friends. After a journey of many miles, the tiger meets a deaf-mute Moslem woman married to the guslar, Luka. Only Luka is no longer a guslar. He has become a butcher and a wife-beater. Two captive creatures meet over a stolen ham hock and fall in love.

The second tiger is an integral part of the narrator Natalia’s childhood. She lives in the City with her mother and grandparents. Her grandfather is the most important person in Natalia’s life. Inside his pocket coat lives the third tiger.

In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers. He puts on his hat, his big-buttoned raincoat, and I wear my lacquered shoes and velvet dress. It is autumn, and I am four years old. […] Always in my grandfather’s breast pocket: The Jungle Book, with its gold leaf cover and old yellow pages. I am not allowed to hold it, but it will stay open on his knee all afternoon as he recites the passages to me.

Magic realism

The Jungle Book, in turn, leads to another fantastical figure, the deathless man, Gavran Gailé. By reading the dregs of a coffee cup, Gailé can predict whether a person will die soon. Once they are dead, Gailé collects their souls and brings them to the crossroads for his uncle to collect. Gailé is a busy man. There are many ways to die in The Tiger’s Wife. By the swipe of a bear claw, the bombardment of a rubber factory, or the indignity of cancer.

In her Reading Group Notes, Obreht recommends One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Clearly, Obreht places herself within the genre of magical realism. At the same time, these fantastical events take place against the backdrop of constant war and the limbo moments in between. Natalia’s grandfather is a child during the Second World War. Natalia is a teenager when Yugoslavia implodes.

We were seventeen, furious at everything because we didn’t know what else to do with the fact that the war was over. Years of fighting, and, before that, a lifetime on the cusp of it. Conflict we didn’t necessarily understand–conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn’t go anywhere, do anything, be anyone–had been at the center of everything.

40 Days

In the tradition of Natalia’s world, a soul must be allowed time to say goodbye to all that was meaningful to it in life.

That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river. The living know that, at daybreak, the soul will leave them and make its way to the places of its past.

For 40 days, the soul is allowed to roam free. To lure the soul back, however, it is necessary not to clean or tidy or dispose of any of the deceased’s property. A soul might not otherwise find its way home.

Laying the dead to rest, re-living the past, weaving stories together as a true guslar should: myth and grit converge. The fantastical elements divert, to be sure, yet they also feel deeply appropriate. After all, the realities of war can be quite Kafkaesque. An elephant that roams the streets of a city; a tiger that gnaws off its own legs rather than endure another night of bombing; Natalia and her friend crossing the border to vaccinate orphans as an act of expiation for a war that is none of their doing.

Most of all, I enjoy the sight of a grandfather and granddaughter standing at the emotional center of a novel. I wish there were more stories like this.

My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself–and will, for years and years.

25 Aug 2022 | Karen Kao