It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.
As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshipped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.
This ancient, tenuous relationship between man and predator is at the very heart of this remarkable book. Throughout we encounter surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how early Homo sapiens may have fit seamlessly into the tiger’s ecosystem. Above all, we come to understand the endangered Siberian tiger, a highly intelligent super-predator that can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds, and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.
Beautifully written and deeply informative, The Tiger circles around three main characters: Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger; Yuri Trush, the lead tracker; and the tiger himself. It is an absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga.
You gotta love a good tiger.
"Like a fist, or a cross, the tiger is a symbol we all understand. [It] functions simultaneously as a posterchild for the conservation movement and as shorthand for power, sex, and danger." (p.297) Add to that, the tiger's "apparent imperviousness to just about anything sets this animal at a godlike remove." (p.257)
As I was saying, a good tiger goes a long way - Richard Parker from the ubiquitous Life of Pi leaps to mind, fully-formed at the thought - but a bad tiger? Surely that's even more fertile territory for a story. As New Yorker and National Geographic contributor John Vaillant asserts, "Ongoing in the debate about out origins and our nature is the question of how we became fascinated by monsters, but only certain kinds. The existence of this book alone is case in point. No one would read it if it were about a pig or a moose (or even a person) who attacked unemployed loggers. Tigers, on the other hand, get our full attention," (p.190) and so too they do.
The tiger at the steaming heart of The Tiger, Vaillant's second non-fiction novel after The Golden Spruce, is a captivating creature, majestic, unimaginably powerful and assiduously intelligent; quite impossible to avert your eyes from as it stalks what the Chinese called the shuhai - literally 'forest sea' - of Russia's easternmost extreme. There, the tiger is symbolic, too, of a way of life, a sense of persistence against the odds - of survival when (not to mention where) life should not be sustainable. For by all rights, "If Russia is what we think it is, then tigers should not be possible there. After all, how could a creature so closely associated with stealth and grace and heat survive in a country so heavy-handed, damaged, and cold." (p.19)
The Tiger hinges on an account of one so-called 'cannibal' tiger's reign of terror over the people of Sobolonye, a small and unimaginably isolated community of former loggers decimated by perestroika. Many of those who remain in Soboloyne can only make ends meet by poaching, and there is no greater prize - nor a prize more illicit - than a tiger. For a single skin, and for the organs' presumed medicinal qualities, the Chinese have been known to pay sums in excess the annual wages of a man in this climate. Thankfully, a sense of respect for the tiger stays the trigger fingers of most such hunters, and if - I should say when - that fails, there's always Yuri Trush: the head of one division of Inspection Tiger, which is to say a charity-funded organisation dedicated to keeping the poachers of Siberia at bay.
The tables, then, are rather turned when Trush is charged with the investigation of Vladimir Markov's death. A logger-come-hunter-come-poacher, Markov has been brutally mauled by a tiger at the site of his tumbledown caravan in the woods, a "sinister" act, akin to "first-degree murder: premeditated, with malice aforethought, and a clear intent to kill." (p.128) And it seems, in short order, that this almost mythical creature has developed a taste for human flesh."
"The horror of a thing is usually derived from its presence, however distorted or fragmentary, but here in the scrub and snow by the Takhalo was a broken frame with no picture in it [...] these clothes were only a few days old, and their owner had ceased to exist. To end a person's life is one thing; to eradicate him from the face of the earth is another. The latter is far more difficult to do, and yet the tiger had done it, had transported this young man beyond death to a kind of carnal oblivion." (p.234)
Vaillant is meticulous in his presentation of the thrilling narrative which begins and ends each chapter of The Tiger, and though his tendency towards extended digression might seem pace-breaking to begin with - particularly in terms of a front-loaded assortment of the potted histories of near every "character" to crop up - one gradually comes to understand that the terror of the tiger is largely a framing device for a story of post-perestroika Russia, rather than the other way around.
In any event, in both senses The Tiger makes for fascinating and deeply rewarding read. Vaillant's prose is precise, yet at a comfortable remove from clinical; his ambition is great and the scope of this text admirably far-reaching, from questions of language and philosophy to considerations of biology and environmentalism; and in his stop/start relaying of the tale of this crazed Amur tiger, he instills in the reader the very question which has made story-telling so great through the ages: what happens next? The tension this narrative evokes in that regard is positively palpable. Perhaps Vaillant's latest will test the patience of some readers in it for a quick fix, but persist with The Tiger and you will surely discover a terrific - and indeed timeless - tale.
by John Vaillant
UK Publication: September 2010, Sceptre US Publication: August 2010, Knopf