Friday, May 31, 2013
Review of The Tiger by John Vaillant
I really loved this book. I know this may not be politically correct but I have loved hunting stories since I first read Peter Hathaway Capstick's Death in the Long Grass. That book was full of ripping yarns told in a workmanlike style. This book though was more of a social document. The story of a part of Russia devastated by the end of communism, the impoverished and struggling populations who live in cobbled together homes, drive beater cars but literally need to hunt to survive; the alcoholism,the despair, the book shows each gritty uncomfortable detail. And alongside this story of the collapse of an entire nation's economy and morale are these people who live in such close proximity to the taiga. They have a strange symbiotic, mystical relation to the forest. The author is at pains to show this is not merely the product of superstition and lack of education. Quite the contrary. He shows a community that is actually eco aware in a way we westerners are not.
The most intriguing character is the tiger itself. The book chronicles its quest for revenge against a human who raided one of its kills, and its need to reestablish balance in the forest: "One does not take from the taiga without giving back." The images of fierce and tough Russian hunters, and the tiger who eerily stalks them, won't soon leave your mind. The author is an accomplished journalist and he knows well how to leave images that stick. The tiger, after having found its prey, literally squats on the porch outside the peasant's door and waits for him to emerge. They play a waiting game. This 500 plus pound killing machine not just hunts a human, but does so to reesatablish a balance.
This is a tight and thrilling narrative, but you wont forget the poor and impoverished peasants. The Russian game wardens who have to navigate hunting licenses, illegal weapons, starving people, poachers, and attempts on their own lives as well as the dangers of wolves, bears and of course tigers, are a new model of toughness for me. Their history, especially since the collapse of the soviet union, is moving and strange.
My favorite story is the forest and game official who raised a wild wolf in his Vladivostok high rise apartment. The neighbors knew but no one dared say anything and official couldn't bear to leave the animal to die. An example of the kind of circus post perestroika Russia has become.