Spring is upon us, time for birds and beasts to take human mates and deathless men to walk the earth, or so two new books would have us believe. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht and Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente have more in common than their March release dates. Both feature tales of animal husbandry and a deathless man. Slavic folklore provides a common foundation for both books but one is written as a fable and the other as a fairy tale, a distinct difference.
“In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.” How I envy the narrator right from the opening line of The Tiger’s Wife! My introduction to the story came earlier, however, in the form of a terrific excerpt in The New Yorker. Tigers are one of my favorite subjects, and Obreht is a master tiger-handler (in fiction, at least). Her proficiency as a young writer is enviable, though it shouldn’t be held against her. In some small details (“For about a third of a mile”) Obreht is almost too proficient, and it threatens to squeeze the air out of the story as it shifts from the narrator grappling with the news of her grandfather’s passing to stories from her grandfather’s past.
“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life – of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University. One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.”
Therein lies the crux of this novel: Natalia’s seeking to understand her grandfather with whom she shared so much – a home, a profession, a ritual – yet about whom she knew so little. Like Ruta Sepetys in Between Shades of Gray, Obreht returns to her Eastern European roots to tell a magnificent tale of people caught on the wrong side of shifting borders. Magic and medicine, science and superstition, belief and fear of the unknown are all at war, just as the country is divided by civil war.
“War is not for winning,” Koschei tells Marya in Deathless, “It is for surviving.” Borders are in continual flux as war is waged between the realms of the Tsar of Life and the Tsar of Death. In The Tiger’s Wife there are land mines, but in Deathless even a leaf can be a hidden trap, green with life on one side and silver with death on the other. The books share similar folk remedies – rakija-soaked sheets in the former and mustard plasters in the latter – as well as similar folklore: Baba Roga/ Baba Yaga, Leši/Leshy, Death and Deathless. That is to be expected from two similar Slavic cultures, yet the traditional stories spawn infinite variations.
Deathless is an updated retelling of the tale of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna set in the era of world wars and Russian revolutions. That premise was enough to draw me in, and the excerpts on the publisher’s website (along with the promotional comic book) completely captivated me.
As a young girl, Marya watches through the window as birds transform into military officers who proceed to marry Marya’s older sisters. “And so Anna went dutifully to the estates of Lieutenant Zhulan, and wrote properly worded letters home to her sisters, in which her verbs were distributed fairly among the nouns, and her datives asked for no more than they required.” The melding of paradigms is delectable! This is lush, indulgent story-telling. Valente’s re-imagining of traditional Russian folktales are vivid and lurid, filled with the blood of life and death. As for Marya, her destiny lies with Koschei the Deathless, who comes for her. She becomes his wife and his wolf (volchitsa). The novel turns on a single question: who is to rule? Husband or Wife? The Old ways or the New? Life or Death? The story vanquishes the characters every time it is retold.
“That’s how you get deathless, volchitsa. Walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world, until even if you vanished, the tale would keep turning, keep playing, like a phonograph, and you’d have to get up again, even with a bullet through your eye, to play your part and say your lines.”