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