From Margaret O'Brien: John Vaillant's The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

The Tiger is mesmerizing. From the first moment, when we follow Sergei Markov as he treks home through the forest towards his ghastly fate, John Vaillant weaves a spell. This is a story told with a novelist’s eye for narrative, a historian’s capacity for analysis, a scholar’s reflectiveness, a conservationist’s underlying frustration and hope.

The eponymous tiger is one of a couple of hundred Amur tigers left in what Vaillant describes as the “surreal” region of Primorye Territory, in the Far East of Russia by the Sea of Japan, not far from the Chinese border. To Vaillant, Primorye occupies its own strange sphere “between the First World and the Third.” Here, western Russia is known as the “Mainland,” and the tayozhnik (forest dwellers) lead an existence beyond hardscrabble.

Markov—the tiger’s first victim—is one of the tayozhnik, and his story is one of the strands Vaillant weaves. Life is brutal in 1990s Russia, where perestroika has meant the disintegration of the economy, where “everything in Russia is on sale,” and where visitors are routinely asked, “What brings you to this asshole of the world?” Markov and his fellow forest dwellers survive there on an almost feral level.

Juxtaposed with Markov’s story is that of Yuri Trush, who as squad leader of the conservation agency Inspection Tiger is charged with the investigation of Markov’s death. Trush’s personal history, and his affinity for the land and its creatures, represent “a lonely act of faith in a largely faithless system,” in a country where the rule of law is incompatible with the need to earn a living. Both men are brought vividly to life, as is the landscape they inhabit and the dreadful journey they both take through it. They endure the looming terror and unnamed horror of the waiting tiger, a Grendelian monster who is yet not a monster but what the indigenous Udeghe people call an “amba,” a revered supernatural being who reigns supreme in the taiga. For reasons we will discover, the tiger has now chosen to hunt a specific human prey.

While the death of Markov and Trush’s investigation are the basis of The Tiger, Primorye itself and its fantastic primeval landscape loom as large as any character. The indigenous peoples of Primorye, including the famous hunter Dersu Uzala (subject of the 1975 Kurosawa film of that name) had always acknowledged the tiger’s supremacy. The nomads of the Mongolian grasslands described in the Chinese dissident Jiang Rong’s Man Asia prize-winning novel Wolf Totem (Penguin 2008) alsorevered the wolf and resisted its destruction by the Han Chinese. Jiang Rong’s depiction of that world is far less nuanced than Vaillant’s picture of the struggles and motivations of the forest dwellers. The ancient reverence for the tiger gives way to desperation and the irresistible urge, when inundated with images of the prosperous West on every satellite TV, to make a “big score” and poach a tiger to meet the insatiable (mostly Chinese) appetite for every part of the kill.

Vaillant has produced an astonishing book. It is a Poe-like thriller, an analysis of post-perestroika economic disintegration (with plenty of black humour included), a treatise on biodiversity, an overview of paleoanthropology, and a completely absorbing read. But its essence is an intricate and measured plea for humans to understand and value our co-existence with the natural world, whose vagaries we can never foresee.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Knopf Canada, 2010) won British Columbia’s $40,000 National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the country’s richest prize for non-fiction, in February 2011, and in March the CBC Bookie for best overall book of 2010. More information on John Vaillant's website.
Margaret O'Brien works as a librarian in a public high school on Vancouver's east side. In a previous life she was an independent bookseller.
Photo: Zenon Samila
Margaret O'Brien
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