Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reader's Diary #734- John Vaillant: The Tiger

When Kate Taylor interviewed me for the recent Globe & Mail article on reading challenges, she seemed intrigued that my interest in starting a Canadian book challenge sprung from my involvement in a Russian Reading Challenge a few years back.

I was glad she took me back to that time, I had all but forgotten my occasional infatuations with Russian lit. What was it that attracted me to that country and its literature? I'm still not sure, but I think much of it had to with the glimpse into a society so totally unfamiliar to me. What I knew about Russia before reading Russian lit:
1. To dance like a Russian you have to fold your arms and kick while squatting on the floor
2. During the Cold War Russians were evil, but after the Cold War they weren't so bad
3. Russians created vodka
4. In Soviet Russia, television watches you

So what did I know after reading all the Russian lit? That's a much more difficult question, partly because what I read was so dated. Almost everything I read was written prior to the 1900s. And while I realize you need to know something of a country's history to know who they are now, I'm not sure 10 19th century Russian novels helps me understand the modern Russian, no matter how good War & Peace or Crime & Punishment was. That's it! Russians prefer their titles to have antonyms!

It took a Canadian book about a tiger to give me some insight into contemporary Russian life. Granted it's just a small section of Siberia that Vaillant focuses on and I realize that generalizing in this way is the equivalent of a Russian reader thinking they understand life in Montreal after reading a book set in Yellowknife.

Interestingly, life in Arctic Russia is nothing like life in Arctic Canada. For one they have tigers. And while I won't say that tigers alone shape the Siberian-Russian personality, the interplay of tigers, Russian history and current economic standing, geography and ecology make the entire situation unique. A firm understanding of Canada's North and even of the polar bear would help but little in comprehending the plight of the Siberian tigers and those that co-exist with them-- or try to.

I wanted to not like this book. Presented as a "true story of vengeance," a story of a tiger who takes revenge on a poacher, I was all prepared to criticize the book for assigning human personality and motives to an animal, a huge issue I had with Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. I was also a bit nervous that Vaillant would turn the Tiger into a Jaws fiasco, and instead of helping people understand the animal would just terrify them and seek the destruction of tigers even more. I needn't have worried.

There's not an angle or question that Vaillant doesn't explore or answer. While I'm not still not totally convinced I'd classify the tiger's actions as vengeful, I cannot say I'd rule it out either. This may not sound like much, but it's enough to win me over. It's not a black or white book (or black or orange?) and it's remarkably respectful. It's a tiger story, it's a human story, it's an ecology story. But it's not hippyish, it's honest. It attempts to explain in a matter that is not forgiving, but empathetic.

It may not be a Canadian story, but it's told in a very Canadian way.

A Canadian-Russian connection. Who knew?

(Interestingly, my stats always indicate that Russian readers are in the top 10 of those that check out my blog. This past week alone I've had 30 readers from Russia-- yet I've heard from zero of them in my comments. So to my Russian comrades Здравствуйте!)


Wanda said...

Harvey Brassclick's boss seemed to know about a Canadian-Russian connection in Steve Zipp's 'Yellowknife': "We've got a lot in common with Russia, you know."(p.207) It was a brief but interesting visit "Harvey" made to Siberia and since I only ever use 'Armchair Travel Lines' to do my globetrotting, perhaps I should pick up this book too.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: I'd forgotten that scene actually. I guess I'll have to visit Russia myself someday, I'm not finding the "lot in common" through books yet. But that's okay, Russia has been on my bucketlist of places to visit before I even knew the term bucketlist.

Allison said...

I'm always disappointed with the number of visitors to comments. Someone for Puerto Rico checks my site 10 times a day but never comments. Weirdness.

Perogyo said...

This has just shot to the top of my TBR! I too have a deep love of Russian literature. So little of it is modern though. I spent so much time in university puzzling through translations of Pushkin and Gorky, but none of it really reflects on the Russia of today. I must make an effort to find more modern Russian lit, but I'll start with this.

So strange that I was obsessed with Russia in uni but have never gotten there as I got stuck in Japan on the way!