I have so many pages dog-eared in this beautifully written book, it’s hard to decide which ones I want to reread. Were I to write a book about the art of constructing a sentence or the art of making sense of war, I would certainly include Tea Obreht’s prose. I’m not sure how—at age 25—she could weave such well-crafted prose into magical realism to create a complex story about a part of the world that makes little sense to anyone, including well-researched historians. Her writing—which morphs from realism to folklore and the mystical—reminds me a little bit of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Martel’s Life of Pi.
This is a story about the Balkans—but unlike Simon Winchester’s Fracture Zoneor Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, Obreht chooses fiction, legend, and the mystical to paint essentially the same picture as the nonfiction authors do: Balkan people, culture, and history shattered by confusing wars, shifting boundaries, and religious fanaticism. The narrative shifts back and forth between present and past, with the present-day story focusing on Natalia, a young doctor who delivers supplies to an orphanage across the border and finds out that her grandfather has died. This news shifts the narrative into the past, into the life of her grandfather, also a doctor, who used to take her to the zoo and who carried a copy of The Jungle Book in the pocket of his coat, and who told her many stories—stories about the deathless man, stories about the tiger who escaped from the zoo in the early years of WWII bombing, and stories about the tiger’s wife, the only villager who doesn’t fear the tiger. These stories are the crux of the novel, and though sometimes they go on a bit too long, they are far more compelling than Natalia’s story of border checkpoints, medical school obstacles, and orphanage children. Through her grandfather’s stories we try to make sense of life through the lens of death: death by war, death by ignorance, death by disease, death by animal, the digging up of death, and the man who escapes death. I’m not sure that clarity is the end result, but Obreht certainly makes us think.
My favorite passage, one which sums up the break-up of Yugoslavia and the history of the Balkan conflict comes from Natalia who reflects on the differences between her grandfather’s life and her own: “War had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. Previously shared things—landmarks, writers, scientists, histories—had to be doled out according to their new owners. That Nobel prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure. And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal” (161). In speaking of her grandfather, however, we get a different picture: “All his life he had been part of the whole—not just part of it, but made up of it. He had been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent of another. None of this had mattered before the war” (161).
Neighbors who once shared coffee, later shared only violence and tragedy as borders shifted and entire cultures were wiped out in the name of religion. This is the post-war world that Natalia tries to navigate, and in doing so, she helps us understand why this volatile area of the world offers no easy solutions. (fiction)