In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.
So this wonderful and haunting book opens. Imagine a daughter who goes with her grandfather to the zoo every week. They observe and take delight in many animals, but the tigers take pride of place in their focus and conversation. The grandfather carries an old copy of The Jungle Book with him, and in fact, he carries it everywhere he goes, as if it holds secrets worth keeping. In a Balkan country that has seen so much war and devastation in the 20th century, a grandfather talks of tigers, of old stories which tread the border between reality and legend, of "the deathless man" and "the tiger's wife." A granddaughter, now a doctor like her grandfather had been, recounts life with her grandfather, the stories he told, the mystery of his death, and the strange people and events with which he lived as a boy growing up in a small village.
We meet intriguing and sometimes pathetic characters whose lives are wrapped in an impenetrable tangle of facts, events, gossip and local legend: the Apothecary, Luka the Butcher, a gypsy family digging for cursed bones, Darisa the hunter/bear, the Tiger's Wife and others. But winding through it all is the figure of the tiger, who lives in the strange, shifting space of fact and imagination. The tiger carries a sacred combination of strength and subtlety, of beastliness and beauty. And yet, like so many others, humans included, the tiger is mortal and subject to the vicissitudes of life, especially war. When the zoo is caught up in the bombing of the city, and all the animals experience brutal shock and trauma without being able to understand it, one tiger begins to chew his own legs off and gnaws at them until they are gone and his life is taken in necessity and mercy. This image captures the horrific consequences of war in an intensely powerful way because, as the author says, animals have a "biological honesty" which give their reactions a kind of primal innocense which humans don't often have.
My family has a kitten, and from the time my daughter brought her home, I have been smitten with "Kitty." A big part of the reason for this is because of the vulernability and honesty I feel from her. She does her best to understand a world that is often beyond her. She is subject at times to things she does not understand, things that overwhelm her, from vacuum cleaners to grooming offices. I feel that vulnerability in her, even if she does not realize it all. She lives by the honesty of instinct and learned prowess, but she is vulnerable, and something in me wants to protect her. It may even be true that I allow myself to feel with her something of my own sense of vulnerability. As I read this book, I felt a similar sense of vulnerability for the tigers and people portrayed in it.
It is a story is about the place and value of secrets, of revealing moments of experience which reflect the beauty and vulnerability of life with such intensity that they must be guarded, if possible, from misunderstanding and distortion. At one point, the grandfather takes his grandaughter downtown in the early morning hours before others have risen. He shows her the oddly amazing scene of an elephant being led down the street by a handler who is luring it on with a treat in his hand. The elephant is being taken to the local zoo before the town is peopled with morning business. The granddaughter remarks that she is eager to tell her friends all about this stranger occurence, but her grandfather urges her not to waste such a gift on them. Then he explains:
Eventually, my grandfather said: "You must understand, this is one of those moments."
"One of those moments you keep to yourself," he said.
"What do you mean?" I said. "Why?"
"We're in a war," he said. "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. Only to us."
It is the kind of secret which reveals the value and intensity of life, and it is not easily shared, because such sharing leaves it vulnerable to misunderstanding and abuse. Such risk lies at the heart of every story told where the story both captures something meaningful and yet leaves out so much that is vital. Stories often hide mortal secrets by transmuting them into the common biases and dispositions of those who tell and hear them. We learn this truth again and again as the granddaughter traces the histories of the towns and people behind the stories she learned from her grandfather.
Eventually we learn about the town in which the grandfather grew up, with its cast of characters and transformative events. We learn of the secrets behind the stories, of what got lost and remains lost. We learn about the tiger's journey, the strange woman who came to be known as The Tiger's Wife, and the heartbreaking secrets which made up the vulnerable interactions of their lives in a town called Galina. The book's final sentences evoke the mortal secrets which make up their lives:
There is, however, and always has been, a place in Galina where the trees are thin, a wide space where the saplings have twisted away and light falls broken and dappled on the snow. There is a cave here, a large flat slab of stone where the sun is always cast, My grandfather's tiger lives there, in a glade where the winter does not go away. He is the hunter of stag and boar, a fighter of bears, a great source of confusion for the lynx, a rapt admirer of the colors of birds. He has forgotten the citadel, the nights of fire, his long and difficult journey to the mountain. Everything lies dead in his memory, except for the tiger's wife, for whom, on certain nights, he goes calling, making that note that falls and falls. The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.
That last line, the last one of the book, haunts me. The ache of something lost, of secrets which die with their holders, of special moments destined to be lost no matter how intense and transformative at the time. Our secrets, our most intense and vulnerable moments, are transferred into superstitions, gossip, stories, legends and myths. They are not only open to misunderstanding and distortion, they are also mortal and subject to the eventual passing away of all things.
The mortality of our lives and of our secrets is what haunts me. Those special moments which we alone know, or which we share with a few special others, die with us and get swept along until they are lost in the movement of history. It is a hard thing to consider that my moments with others, my deepest experiences of vulnerability and meaning with my family or friends, the highlights and lowlights of my life, will not be kept forever in some special place or eternal record. Do I have the courage to live with vitality and passion and sacrfice, knowing that the value of what I undergo and share will one day get lost in the haze of history as later generations move on? Can I live knowing that my secrets are mortal?