EASTERN BLOCS Whereas Russian émigré Gary Shteyngart is a laff a minute, Balkan-born Obreht is as serious as cancer.
Jonathan Safran Foer was the last 25-year-old to gain entrée to the pantheon of Important Literary Writers. Everything Is Illuminated cleared the trifecta of hurdles on the path to literary apotheosis: sold to a major publisher, excerpted in the New Yorker, reviewed effusively in the Sunday New York Times.
Nearly a decade hence, another Eastern European family saga written by a 25-year-old appears poised to outstrip the bespectacled whiz kid's. Even if the Times pans The Tiger's Wife (it's unreviewed as we go to press), Tea Obreht's debut has already been excerpted in the New Yorker. It's also landed her — with Foer, now a grizzled 34 — on that magazine's list of "20 under 40."
But whereas Foer won plaudits for writing about the Holocaust using sly tricks of language and form, Obreht has been praised for showing reverence: to her magical-realist forebears, to her own ancestors, and to her homeland, the former Yugoslavia. The Tiger's Wife follows a dutiful granddaughter on her quest to find out more about her recently departed grandfather, an arrogant, good-hearted surgeon who left a legacy of surreal, allegorical encounters with a man who could not die and with a deaf-mute, the title tiger's wife.
Obreht writes deftly about Grandpa's surreal adventures. Set in the shadow of war, these interludes are wrought so exquisitely that they take on an almost hallucinatory quality. The Deathless Man, a polite fellow by the name of Gavran Gailé, is unnerving. The tiger, who's left to roam the countryside after the zoo he calls home is bombed to smithereens, embodies the horror of what happens when civilization simply breaks — to say nothing of his haunting wife.
Set in the present, granddaughter Natalia's journey is not so exquisite. Early scenes in which she stays in the ruined house of a formerly bourgeois couple feel labored, especially when the resident parrot starts reciting poetry. But the narrative recovers as it moves back into the past. By the time she gets to the story of the tiger, Obreht has found her stride. What's more, she's reclaimed magical realism in the service of the good. Although Roberto Bolaño's works are still being translated at a staggering rate, his well-recorded hatred for magical realism apparently hasn't cast that long a shadow. A good thing, too. Magical realism can express the unthinkable.
And in addition to being the youngest on the New Yorker's list, Obreht might be the most imaginative. Although she shares her lofty perch with two other immigrants, Dinaw Mengestu and Gary Shteyngart, she's the only one to set her novel in her native land. She shares a sense of war-torn despond with Mengestu, but the Ethiopian-born novelist writes heavy books set in the USA. And though Shteyngart, like Obreht, was born in the Eastern Bloc, he is her antipode: his ironical takes on bumbling Russian immigrants are a laff a minute, whereas The Tiger's Wife is as serious as cancer.
For Obreht to set her first novel in a country she hasn't lived in since the age of 12 shows considerable ambition. For that, perhaps, her only real contemporary is the equally ambitious, equally young Tonya Plank, a 26-year-old Minnesotan who caught the world's attention earlier this year by selling more than 180,000 copies of her 17 self-published tales of urban paranormal romance. Obreht might catch up yet — The Tiger's Wife cracked Amazon's Top 50 before its official release.