Book Review: The Tiger, by John Vaillant

(I had done a mini-review of this on my end-of-the-year post, but thought it merited its own entry)

I found myself flipping through the Globe and Mail book section one weekend in the fall of 2010, and found myself staring at a review for a non-fiction book called The Tiger, by author John Vaillant. Let me begin by saying that I am a prolific reader, yet not someone fazed by what’s new so much as what interests me. To this extent, given my eclectic tastes, I will switch from Turgenev to Bukowski, from John Ralston Saul to Stanislaw Lem, and so on. I sometimes don’t have a lot of time to read books, period, owing to a fairly full schedule of projects (which includes working on a novel). As a result, I sometimes feel a little out of touch with the contemporary world of books, especially when there are people on Twitter who are aiming to read fifty books this year.

Getting back to me and the review, I glanced at the synopsis and was struck by how meaty it was: the Russian far east, a vengeful killing machine, a dark exploration of our ties to nature. It seemed to be everything I was looking for (especially as a Russophile) and gave me an opportunity to actually read something published in the year that I was reading it.

It is, in short, a fabulous book. Fabulous, above all, because of the depth of Vaillant’s research into his subjects and his skill at balancing this collective learning against the white knuckle tension that is at the heart of the story. The Tiger begins with the stalking and subsequent killing of a tayozhnik – a Siberianism for forest dweller – named Markov and the series of events it sets in motion against the backdrop of the merciless taiga (or “boreal forest”) surrounding the little logging town of Sobolonye.

The tension is established early, not by Markov’s demise so much as the complex relationship between humans and tigers in this paradoxical part of the world, much of the relationship predicated on the aboriginal teaching that a tiger will never attack a human, so long as the former respects the latter’s spiritual and physical superiority. This superiority is laid out in full measure: from a zoological perspective, the tiger is perhaps the most sublime killing machine that exists in the world of mammals and Vaillant spares no time outlining how every inch of the beast exceeds any comparable hunter on the planet – both in physicality and mentality. The tiger thinks. The tiger learns. Most compelling of all, the tiger remembers.

It is this last quality which lends much tension, because, as the tiger is tracked by a team of professional hunters over the course of two weeks, the question is repeatedly asked: did Markov bring this on himself? And how?

The Tiger is a stunning combination of layered storytelling and educational insight into the evolutionary relationship between man and animal. Indeed, given the barren environment of the setting, it feels sometimes as if the conflicts between man and animal are staged in a prehistoric past rather than their modern setting in the late 90s. There are also some sad truths made about the aftereffects of the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union and the perennial designs China has on the taiga’s natural resources – tigers included.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant (ISBN: 978-0307268938) is published by Knopf and is readily available in your local, independent bookstore.


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