by John Vaillant
Vintage Canada, 2010
“The tiger will see you a hundred times before you see him once.” —Taiga hunter
In the boreal Siberian forests (the taiga), mighty creatures roam. Siberian tigers, the world’s largest cats, rule “Mother Taiga” with mystical, physical power like Russian tsars of old. In a remote area near the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway, a part of the country more geographically tied to China than to Moscow, humans co-exist with these massive creatures in a push-me, pull-you struggle between tiger preservation and human preservation.
“. . . strange things happen in the presence of a tiger.”
John Vaillant’s story of The Tiger begins in December of 1997 with Vladimir Markov, one human struggling to preserve himself in post-perestroika Russia. Markov hears “. . . a rumble in the dark that seems to come from everywhere at once,” and it is the last sound he hears. His death by tiger brings Yuri Trush and the “Inspection Tiger” team to the area to try to piece together the series of events that lead to the attack.
Vaillant’s forceful writing illuminates the interwoven threads of the story: the isolation and the poverty of the people, the poaching, the drive to preserve the tigers, the injustice that might have fed the tiger’s vengeance, the mysticism, and the hope for the future. He describes in chilling, vivid detail what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a tiger attack, an attack by claws “comparable to the talons on a velociraptor, and “fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth.” He doesn’t shy away from the necessary raw telling of the details of death by man-eating tiger: “Even as his friends and neighbours lowered that disturbingly light coffin into the ground, Markov’s flesh and blood were driving a hungry, wounded tiger through the forest . . ..”
“Maybe some sort of bio field exists.” “Maybe tigers can feel some connection through the cosmos . . ..” —Yuri Trush
The Tiger balances respect for the humans involved with respect for the Siberian tiger. Vaillant’s thorough investigation into why a tiger would effectively run “a trapline of human beings” unveils empathy for the killer animal and for those killed. Above all, we learn that tigers are smart and that it is a good idea not to get on the wrong side of one. They have been rumoured to sit and wait specifically for a someone who has fired shots at them. Many people believe that the spirit of a tiger will avenge its death, or that tigers can “read people’s minds and influence their thoughts.”
Vaillant did a lot of research for this book, and he spares us none of it. Each new twist in the tale comes with historical and psychological background information to help the reader understand the circumstances and the motivations (both tiger and human) more fully. In some cases, he could have used a lighter hand with the research; I skimmed here and there through ponderous details of Russian history.
Overall, this is a compelling book, expertly written, and richly layered with visceral drama and guarded hope. The people of the taiga strive for “The Coexistence Recipe” for survival with a beautiful, powerful, dangerous animal that by one estimate has killed up to a million Asians over the past four hundred years.
“Hope dies last.” —Russian proverb
Posted on November 7, 2012, in Book reviews, Books I bought, Non-fiction and tagged John Vaillant, magic of tigers, Moscow, protect tigers, Russia, Siberia, Siberian tiger, taiga, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, Trans-Siberian Railway. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.