First Sentence: In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.
Initially I feared I might not enjoy this book as it is set in the Balkans and I have pretty much no knowledge whatsoever of the Balkans, or of the conflicts one usually associates with that whole region. I needn’t have worried however as this is a remarkable book which transcends any notion of time or place. It is a timeless story of death, of loss, and ultimately, of hope. Natalia is the narrator, and her grandfather has died after a short illness. In order to come to terms with her loss, Natalia starts questioning her grandfather’s life and pieces together the two stories that made him who he was: The time he spent in Galina, his childhood village with the Tiger’s Wife, and the three encounters he had with Garvan Gailé (or Gavo), the Deathless man. As the mystery of these tales deepens she begins to feel closer to her grandfather, even though she will never see him again. This is a wonderful book, full of memorable anecdotes and incredible writing. Needless to say it is preoccupied with death, so if that sounds off-putting it may not be the book for you, but I do believe it is ultimately a story, not of loss or sorrow, but of joy and love, and also, a story in the real sense of the word: Memorable, full of fully formed, unforgettable characters, and bolstered by a plot that just makes you want to keep on reading. Wonderful.
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Last Sentence: The sound is lonely, and low, and no one hears it anymore.
Last Sentence explained: The sound is the tiger. At the end of the book, after the separate tales of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife are completed, the tiger is still unaccounted for. Even though we know it is an impossibility that he is still alive, Natalia says he still dwells in a cave in Galina and has forgotten everything about his past except for the tiger’s wife whom he calls out for every now and again. This is the sound. The ending is obviously a reference to the enduring nature of myth and stories and is not to be taken literally. The tiger is clearly not still alive, but will always be alive inside the hearts and minds of the villagers of Galina. This is of primary concern throughout the novel: how stories shape our lives and ultimately become us. When Garvan Gailé (the deathless man) and Natalia’s grandfather (the doctor) are dining together the night before their elderly waiter is going to die, and the night before the restaurant they are in is going to be destroyed in the war, Gavo explains why it is better for the waiter not to know about his imminent death:
Tonight, he will go home to his family and talk about serving the last meal of the Hotel Amovarka, and tomorrow when he is gone, those still alive will have this to talk about. They will be talking about it after the war has ended. Do you see?
It is this legacy which is most important. The doctor’s own life has been shaped primarily by two stories. The first happens when he is a child and the war breaks out, resulting in a tiger escaping from the citadel and settling in the woods beside his village. In this village there lives a deaf-mute girl who was married off to a man who, due to a life filled with frustration, beats and abuses her. Around about this time the doctor gets The Jungle Book , a book he will carry with him his whole life, and a book which will play an important role in the tale of the Deathless man. He is particularly fond of Sher Khan, so while the whole village is fearing the tiger, he is protective of it. The deaf-mute girl becomes known as The tiger’s wife as the villagers know she has, at the very least, encountered the tiger. When her husband disappears, everyone assumes she has fed him to the tiger and, given that she is pregnant, is now carrying the tiger’s child. They begin to be truly terrified of her and they call upon the apothecary to deal with the situation. Once again, as the village begins to fear the girl, he feels protective towards her. This story ends with Natalia’s grandfather (still a child) unknowingly bringing the tiger’s wife the apothecary’s poison and killing her. This is the story Natalia finds out after her grandfather’s death, and it is this story, according to her, which makes him a man.
This notion of being either man or child is essential to understanding the grandfather’s philosophy on death. While Natalia is studying to become a doctor, her grandfather gives her the following warning about caring for the dying:
‘When men die, they die in fear’, he said. ‘They take everything they need from you, and as a doctor it is your job to give it, to comfort them, to hold their hand. But children die how they have been living – in hope. They don’t know what’s happening, so they expect nothing, they don’t ask you to hold their hand – but you end up needing them to hold yours. With children, you’re on your own. Do you understand?’
The story which made Natalia’s grandfather a child again, and enabled him to die without fear, but rather, with hope, is the one he told her during his lifetime, the one about the deathless man.
The first time the doctor encounters the deathless man, he has been shot in the head twice but is still alive. Gavo, you see, is Death’s nephew and has been punished by death for flouting the laws of death with his loved one (he allowed her return to life), and is now damned to never die. Gavo has a coffee cup which, when drunk from, enables him to tell by the direction of the coffee grounds if and when the person who drank from it will die. Needless to say, the doctor does not really believe Gavo’s tale and looks for proof. They make a wager and the doctor agrees to give Gavo his copy of The Jungle Book if he can prove that he really is ‘deathless’. Several proofs follow during their three separate encounters, but the doctor remains unconvinced and does not relinquish his book. After his death, when Natalia retrieves his possessions, The Jungle Book is no longer where he always kept it, sewn into his coat pocket:
[…]the book is gone – not lost, not stolen, gone – and to me this means that my grandfather did not die as he had told me men die – in fear – but in hope, like a child: knowing that he would meet the deathless man again, certain he would pay his debt.
She does find a page from the book in his coat pocket: a page with Sher Khan on it. Wrapped in this page is some thick, coarse hair, and written on the page is ‘Galina’, which leads her to his childhood village where she learns the story of the tiger’s wife. These two tales, the tale of the deathless man and the tale of the tiger’s wife, make him into the person he eventually becomes. It is interesting to note that when she finally hears the end of the tiger tale, the following exchange occurs with the person who is telling her the story:
‘Where is the girl buried?’ it suddenly occurs to me to ask him.
‘What girl?’ he says.
‘The girl’, I say. ‘The tiger’s wife.’
‘What has that got to do with anything?’ he says.
It is touching that what may be incredibly important to one person’s life may be insignificant to another…
Random quote about war:
“Bodies lay in piles by the roadside and hung like pods, split open and drying, from the branches of the trees.”
Random quote about pain and fear:
“My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate, and that, when they’re gone, we’re left with the concept but not the true memory – why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once?”