Nearly everything about Tiger is “incredible,” in the sense of hard to believe, remarkable, and extraordinary. The book perfectly matches form to content, as the subject, the Amur (or Siberian) tiger defies easy understanding, and the form, a meandering blend of history, geography, biography and anthropology, likewise resists categorization.
I found myself captivated by the narrative through-line, the story of a particular tiger and the people he eats. A story that probes why this tiger hunts the people he does, and whether and how to assign blame for the attacks that take place (both person on tiger and tiger on person). Indeed John Vaillant (the author) castigates humans and their rapacious greed for meat and fur, while nevertheless addressing the systemic economic and social factors that make poaching not only viable, but necessary for (some) poachers survival. I was no less captivated by the meandering side plots of Russian-Chinese relations, Russian settlement, taiga geography (the Boreal-Jungle! how rich a descriptor), and eco-animal history. And perhaps most taken with the poetic descriptions of the tiger and his habitat, descriptions that truly “captured” the tiger in his size, majesty and awe.
That the titular Tiger in this story is a protagonist might strike some readers as a stretch, he receives no internal or focalized narrative voice, and yet, the reader has little doubt about his motivations, his affective responses to situations, we feel – emphatically in my case – for this tiger. I mourned his death, if not in an of itself, than for its necessity.
The epilogue to the book, too, is remarkable. Affecting again in its description of current conservation efforts and the impediments they encounter, in particular, the admission of tiger ‘farms’ a notion made deeply disturbing precisely because Vaillant has done such tremendous work in exploring the majesty, beauty and indeed the humanity of the tiger.
So this part ought to be troubling – that I feel so deeply for the tiger because Vaillant makes him out to be human – so let me nuance that by pointing out that the text similarly confuses the border between the human and the animal, arguing for the animality of humans, to the point that the biology of the species matters far less than the actions it takes: both humans and animals can claim humanity in the sense of generosity, empathy and remorse, while both humans and animals can also animalistic in their appetites, instinctual reactions, and callous disregard for the existence of others.
Truly a remarkable work, and one that I think I’m ready to name the best so far in 2011. Strongly urge you to get to the library to get a copy of this book.