Year of the Tiger

I have a lifelong fascination with tigers. When I learned there was a book recounting a real tiger attack similar to a fictional one I had written I was keen on reading it.  When I discovered the author, John Vaillant, would be giving a reading sponsored by the university’s English department, I became more interested. I began reading The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival in the days leading up to the event and I knew I had to attend.

Before the reading commenced I received my validation; you know you’re in for a special event when the slideshow screensaver is comprised of Lego Star Wars sets! Vaillant alternated between describing the scenario while showing slides and reading some intense excerpts from the book. There was more information than could be covered before he had to stop and sign books, which he did with a stamp bearing the Chinese symbol for tiger.

If only the Chinese fascination with tigers ended at symbols perhaps the Amur tiger population would not be so threatened. Vaillant uses the singular incident of a vengeful tiger in the vastness of the Russian Far East as a pinpoint focus for a story with a much broader perspective. His research is as far-reaching as the implications. He traveled to the far reaches of remote Russia for first-hand accounts, but he didn’t stop his journey there. Vaillant traces the confluences of ecology, evolution, socioeconomics, and superstitions that have shaped man’s co-existence with the Amur tiger. As he reiterates, it is up to man to see that the tiger continues to exist.

The Tiger is, like its subject, a marvel. It has both the pacing of a thriller and the synthesized content of a scientific summit. It is well-meant and well-written (if overtly and overly on occasion). It is a hybrid that defies classification, as the author intended. Valliant is likewise a rare breed, one who is adept at compiling research and compelling writing. He’s contemplating adding another strain by writing a novel, but he’s conflicted. How can a person set aside the time to write when time is running out for so many species?

Vaillant raised this question at the lunchtime conversation the day after the signing. At the time he was speaking with a group of writing instructors and students who rapidly reassured him (and themselves) of the validity of the pursuit of writing. Had he been speaking to a group of conservationists he may have received a different, yet equally valid response. I finished reading the book that night, and in doing so I arrived at a better understanding of the question with which he is wrestling. Reading about the dogged determination of a man like Yuri Trush, the Inspection Tiger team leader who investigated the tiger attack on Vladimir Markov, is enough to make anyone feel that their own involvement is inadequate. Trush is a Man of Action, a doer of deeds, while the one who chronicles those deeds is a Man of Acute Consciousness. Writing about conservation is valuable (I have an interest in tigers and in Russia, and yet I had not heard of this extraordinary attack before), but it’s a challenge to quantify how valuable.

During the introduction to the reading we were instructed to turn off our cell phones and refrain from tweeting or blogging, as no one wants to read it anyway. There is a sense of futility in writing about the book which was written about the measures taken by others (and a sense of defiance too). After all, one only need to view the book’s website to read quotes by the likes of Simon Winchester and Annie Proulx. What more can I contribute?

In the mid 90s I made a modest financial contribution to the Siberian Tiger Project to sponsor a tiger. That tiger was most likely Zhenya, a large male that was slain by poachers in 1999. Does that mean my donation was futile? I don’t believe so; it is belief that sustains conservationists and writers alike. Conversation is a part of conservation. Sasha Snow’s film Conflict Tiger inspired John Vaillant to write The Tiger, which is inspiring readers like me. If this review inspires one more person to pick up the book then the conversation continues. The tiger is a master of the art of disappearing; it’s up to mankind to see that it doesn’t disappear forever.

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One Response to “Year of the Tiger”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write this meta-review. I have the same struggle as a writer that you do writing about writing. What is the appropriate action; which medium (media), etc.
    I haven’t resolved it yet.
    If you’re interested in tigers and related issues, pls stop by:
    http://www.facebook.com/JohnVaillant?v=wall&ref=ts

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