A tiger's tale burns bright for this talented Balkan novelist
Tea Obreht's first taste of literary celebrity came last June when she was named by The New Yorker as one of the 20 best American fiction writers under 40 on the strength of a handful of short stories. But the fanfare that ensued was nothing to compare with the international scrutiny that's been directed toward the 25-year-old author since her debut novel about the Balkans, The Tiger's Wife, hit global bookshelves.
It reached a new level of intensity on June 8 when she became the youngest author to win the Orange Prize for Fiction. 'It's really something to get your head around,' admits Obreht, who was hailed by the Orange Prize judges as 'a truly exciting new talent [and one who] has dazzled readers around the world with the maturity and grace of her narrative'.
'I'm not really sure why it has touched so many people,' she says. 'But as a writer you hope to come from a place of emotional honesty, and I think that perhaps this has resonated with readers because parts of it are about dealing with loss. That's something we all have to go through.'
It was the loss of her own grandfather that prompted Belgrade-born, New York-based Obreht to begin, in the spring of 2007, what was then a short story about a young, deaf, mute woman and her relationship with a tiger.
'It was a very difficult thing for me to process. We were very close and he knew that I wanted to be a writer. So several months after my grandfather's death I started writing and there was a little boy in this story and that little boy somehow turned into the grandfather of the narrator in what became The Tiger's Wife.'
The book owes much of its power to a potent blend of magical realism and reality. It is narrated by a young doctor called Natalia who, together with a female friend, is journeying across a Balkan border, redefined by the 1990s wars, to deliver vaccines to an unnamed town. She then hears that her grandfather, also a doctor, has died in a nearby town while on a mysterious errand. She sets out to discover why.
For Obreht, who was just seven when her family left Belgrade for Cyprus at the start of the Bosnian war in 1992, the book was a way of reconnecting not just with her grandfather but with the Balkans itself. After 18 months in Cyprus, she then lived with her family in Cairo for 3? years before settling in the US, and didn't revisit the Balkans until 2003.
'I wanted to put aside all preconceptions, and the obligation to history basically, and just be obligated to the essence of the conflict and the spirit of the location,' she says. 'This is the first time I had ever written about the Balkans, and I was quite surprised at the way the war acted as a kind of character in the novel.'
Even more striking than her portrayal of war as a backdrop to the novel is the way Obreht managed to create a kind of alternative map of the Balkans: a map of age-old superstition and myth and petty village rivalry that is strangely truer in defining Balkan conflict than any cartographer's pen.
'I think that the source of so much conflict is just human selfishness and pettiness, and throw in superstition and then see what you get, ' says Obreht. who credits the finished novel to a 2009 trip to Serbia and Croatia to research a non-fiction article for Harper's Magazine on vampire mythology. 'I ended up travelling to places that were noted for having vampire-related history that sometimes didn't appear on maps. It was a life-altering experience, and it vastly changed the book for the better.'
The journey enabled her to re-connect with a regional mythology and a kind of village life she never knew. 'What I realised is that religion and religious beliefs that pertain to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim canon are not as relevant as these ancient rituals and beliefs that date back to pre-Christian times.
'Beliefs in demons and demonic presences all very much remain, and in Serbia there are isolated pockets where people still practice a kind of black magic.
'So it exposed me to certain kind of superstitions that made their way into the book. Basically stories in villages like that are recycled until they become truth.'
Obreht believes all truths we ever understand come to us through stories. 'Everything that you hear about anybody else and moments that happened to other people, that's story. We accept certain truths about people and certain truths even about regions through stories,' she adds.
' They are the secret rivers in all our lives.'