Friday, March 27, 2015

Tigers, Zoos and Images of Creatures Out-of-Place (Martel and Obreht)

Above you'll see William Blake's 1792 poem (and his illustrative plate) "The Tyger."  My students and I talk about how the poem's descriptions of the tiger as strong ( "fearful symmetry," "fire") are contradicted by the nervous look about the creature's eyes, and by it's asymmetrical stance in the illustration.  This tiger is fearful (frightening) and full of fear (frightened); it is scary, and scared.

I've met similar tigers in two works by third culture authors:  Richard Parker (a tiger) in Yann Martel's 2001 Life of Pi, and the tiger in Tea Obreht's 2011 The Tiger's Wife.

These tigers are zoo animals cast adrift in foreign circumstances.  Both the zoo and the adriftness amidst the foreign are powerfully evocative of TCK experience:

Zoos house animals from all over the globe; zoo animals are abroad, and they live in an "expat bubble" of other foreigners.

In both Life of Pi and The Tiger's Wife, the zoo tigers (both male, both solitary) escape.  Martel's tiger winds up on a boat with a small boy; Obreht's tiger escapes a zoo and ends up in the Eastern European countryside cared for by a young pregnant mute widow.  These tigers are vulnerable because they are out of place.  Their immense strength is subdued, almost to nothing, because they are too foreign.

Both Martel and Obreht's tigers have close relations with a single human, on whom they must rely, but the humans need the tigers too, for powerfully emotional reasons.  Martel's Pi relies on the tiger for companionship.  Without the tiger he would probably give up on his castaway life and die.  Obreht's mute "tiger's wife" and the young boy who skirts the periphery of their relationship, trying to understand it need the tiger's protection and companionship too.  They need the myth of the tiger's strength.

Rudyard Kipling (the progeny of British Colonists and thus a colonial-era TCK) and his 1894 Jungle Book is  a frequent intertext in Obreht.  The young boy who understands that the mute woman must care for the tiger (and vice versa) tries to talk to her about it using Kipling's stories to help him.

The title of Kipling's story "Tiger Tiger" in this collection evokes  Blake's Tyger and "Tyger tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night."  In Kipling the tiger Shere Khan is Mowgli's enemy and the reason the young protagonist winds up orphaned and cared for by wolves.  The tiger causes Mowgli to be who he is.

Perhaps Obreht and Martel's tigers do the same?  They embody the dislocations (the orphanings) that cause Pi and Obreht's boy child,  the mute Tiger's wife to be who they are.  These tigers, like Blake's, symbolise the power of dislocation to transform (strong and mighty), and the terrors of being alone and unfamiliar (scared and vulnerable).

p.s. Obreht's immortal man, the man who never dies, Gavran Gaile, links up with my previous thoughts on simultaneity in third culture literature:  His life persists, and is ongoing, simultaneous with the several generations that Obreht's novel encompasses.

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