I had the great privilege to read an amazing graphic memoir this week. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, published in 2014.
In this graphic memoir (or “illustrated memoir,” in case that term is unfamiliar), Ms. Chast details the physical and mental decline of her parents, who both lived into their nineties. Her father died in 2007, and her mother died in 2009. The psychological and emotional demands of providing nursing care, and then hospice care, are examined in this book with great humor, compassion, honesty, and wit. It’s an amazing book.
Ms. Chast is an illustrator and cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker since 1978, and her artwork in this memoir is truly phenomenal. There were times I laughed so hard that tears streamed down my face, times when I could not stop giggling with that profound sense of — yes, someone gets it! I’m not alone! the tissues! the Fig Newtons! the sundowning! the love and the pain and the array of items to shop for in the adult care aisle, other people totally get this!! — and times when I was just deeply moved by Ms. Chast’s bravery in sharing her life with me, a stranger, who was awed by this beautiful gift of her memoir.
I read the book having never before heard Roz Chast speak in public, but after I finished the book, I watched this video of Ms. Chast giving a reading at Politics & Prose, a Washington, D.C. bookshop that is sometimes mentioned on the PBS NewsHour —
If you’re curious about what the interior pages of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? are like, this video will give you a bit of the flavor of this brilliant memoir.
The central dilemma, for Ms. Chast and her parents, as well as for most people (like, 99.99% of us) — is that no one likes to talk about death.
Death, death, death.
The big, looming nothingness that faces us all.
Big, looming —
Death is SCARY!!! Ahhhhh!!! Run away, run away!!!
Even people who are confident they are headed to a gorgeous Paradise of the Hereafter once they die — even these people do not like to talk about Actually Dying.
And if you write literary fiction, then it’s pretty much a Rule of the Universe that death has to be the Big Bad of the story — the central terror of the tale — the looming crisis that drives everything. In literary fiction, the characters fear death — because what is more scary than death??
Well, there is also the fear that talking about “bad things,” like Death, will make them contagious. I think that fear is oftentimes equally strong. People have this strange, seldom acknowledged terror of “bad things” going airborne and spreading like viruses.
While it IS true that the company you keep has a powerful influence over you (for instance, hanging out with gang-bangers can often lead to gang-banging) — it is not true that discussing topics like cancer, gangrene, and epilepsy will lead to more cancer, gangrene, and epilepsy.
And yet, we all have this unspoken, unconscious avoidance of “bad things” because they might be contagious, in the same way most of us avoid gang-bangers. Maybe not all of the time, but sometimes, for all of us, I believe this is true.
Anger, rage, fury, resentment, self-righteousness — “bad attitudes” can certainly be contagious. Cancer, gangrene, and epilepsy, fortunately, are not. Humans, however, being the emotional, irrational creatures we are, oftentimes fail to separate such things in our minds. Including me. I’ve suffered through a lot of denial and avoidance in my life. It’s ugly. Then again, I never turned into a gang-banger, so at least there is that.
But let me get back to Death, and the fact that most people fear Death, which translates into the fact that most people don’t like to talk about Death.
Which also means that a lot of people don’t like to talk about Aging. Because Aging is the warm-up of Death, so Aging is often as terrifying as the eternal nothingness of the end.
That was what Roz Chast — and most of the rest of us — face when we are confronted with aging and death — people don’t want to talk about it, because they are scared, and that makes dealing with it — or navigating through the challenges of caregiving — more difficult.
Which means that the subject of aging and death, as I have already mentioned, makes for great material in fiction.
That brings me to the 2010 literary novel The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht, which won the British Orange Prize for Fiction in 2011.
I first read this novel in 2010, and I reread the book this month, and discovered I had a lot to say about the novel now, especially having read the book in tandem with Can’t We Talk About Sometime More Pleasant?
Quoting the gist of the plot from Wikipedia, The Tiger’s Wife is set “in an unnamed Balkan country, in the present and half a century ago, and features a young doctor’s relationship with her grandfather and the stories he tells her. These concern a ‘deathless man’ who meets him several times in different places and never grows old, and a deaf-mute girl from his childhood village who befriends a tiger that escaped from a zoo.”
The deathless man is not a vampire — he doesn’t kill people in order to keep himself alive — he just cannot die. His name is Gavran Gaile. His lack of being able to die was actually a punishment from Death himself, who is Gavran’s uncle.
(Anyone who hasn’t yet read The Tiger’s Wife, and would prefer not to read spoilers, should stop reading this post right now, because spoilers abound.)
Why did Death need to punish his nephew?
Because Gavran prevented a young woman from dying. He had fallen in love with this woman, and they ran off together. Then the woman grew fatally ill again, and once again Gavran took action to keep her alive — and this pissed Death off FOREVER. The young woman died, and Gavran was cursed with eternal life, thereafter becoming the deathless man.
After this sad twist of fate, Gavran meets a young Balkan man working as a doctor, and over the course of several decades, they continue to meet in random places, and the doctor grows older and older while Gavran stays the same age, and then one day, the doctor dies. But while the doctor was still alive, he told his granddaughter all about the deathless man, and she loved her grandfather so much that she decided to be a doctor just like him.
And so, the “young doctor” narrating the book is named Natalia, and we know how much she loved her grandfather because, after his death (in 2009 or so — the grandfather dies in “the present day” of the story), Natalia goes to her grandfather’s childhood village and learns about the tiger’s wife, a story that the grandfather had never shared with Natalia. Natalia discovers this story only after he dies, motivated to learn why he was obsessed with watching the tigers at the zoo all his life. Natalia is like, Hmmm… what is up with my grandfather’s obsession with these tigers? He always told me that fascinating story about the deathless man. Maybe I’ll go to Grandfather’s childhood village and ask around.
That’s the central crux of the novel — Natalia knows the story of the deathless man from her grandfather. But she doesn’t understand why he went to the zoo every day to stare at the tigers. So she journeys to her grandfather’s childhood village after he dies, and learns the story of the tiger’s wife, which her grandfather never shared with her.
The story of the deathless man and the story of the tiger’s wife are strongly linked together — even though Natalia doesn’t spend time discussing this link for the reader. It’s a link you discover for yourself in the book, and you have to draw your own conclusions about it.
Which is what I’m doing in this blog post. *Spoilers abound.*
The woman Gavran Gaile gets in trouble for keeping alive is a young Muslim named Amana Effendi, and while it isn’t clear whether Amana is a practicing Muslim, she was born to a Muslim (“Turkish”) father, and that IS made clear.
As a young woman, before Amana meets Gavran, we are told she does not want to ever get married or have children. She’s also living way back in ye olden days, circa 1930, which is not that different from today, when a woman’s failure to marry and bear the fruit of her womb is like, Oh My Gawd Da World Be ‘A Comin’ to an End!! Because what is the point of “being a woman” unless you bear children?
Amana’s dad isn’t super happy about his daughter’s “I don’t need a man” attitude, but he laughs and jokes about it with all his pals, cause he has the kind of money that allows him to laugh and joke about being stuck with an unmarried daughter — i.e., a permanent “mouth to feed” in his household — which is no laughing matter, not in ye olden days, and not today, either.
Then Amana meets a young man named Luka, who grew up getting the sh*t beat out of him by his father, a butcher, so Luka fled to the city so he could write songs and play the gusla.
When I first read The Tiger’s Wife, way back in 2010, I had no idea what a gusla looked like.
Rereading the book this month, in 2015, I have the advantage of Wi-fi. So I can show you a picture of a guy playing a gusla —
It’s this traditional Balkan musical instrument with like, one string or something (at least, that’s what it says in The Tiger’s Wife), and Luka writes beautiful music and plays his one-stringed gusla really well, and he and Amana start to sing together and become friends.
Not sexual friends, because Luka is gay and Amana doesn’t want anything to do with the whole love-sex-marriage-babies thing. She’s adamant to remain a virgin. Amana and Luka are platonic buddies who sing and make music together, and they do this until Luka finds out the following three things —
1. His father is dying.
2. His father is in need of someone to take care of him.
3. His father has an inheritance to leave behind.
In order for Luka to gain his inheritance from this child-beating dickhole, Luka decides he should marry Amana (who he will never have sex with, thus maintaining her lifelong vow of virginity), then he’ll take her home to his backward Christian village of peasants (where his dickhole father lives), take care of his dad till the old man kicks the bucket, and then Luka can take his inheritance money and move to the city. In the city, Luka plans to be a famous musician and maybe open a music school and do other stuff with his passion for playing the gusla.
Then — suddenly! — Amana falls deathly ill (oh no!). She is locked away in her room right before she and Luka plan to marry and go off to the backward village together.
Gavran Gaile, nephew of Death, pays a visit. Gavran is known to visit the bedsides of those who are deathly ill, to let them know whether they will die or recover from whatever ails them.
Gavran and Amana fall in love. (Plot twist!)
Amana doesn’t know what to do!
So she turns to her deaf-mute sister, who comforts her.
Then Amana runs away with Gavran, and her Muslim father takes the deaf-mute sister, who is maybe 14 or 15 years old, covers her face with a veil, and marries her off to Luka instead.
Luka doesn’t know he’s marrying the deaf-mute sister until after the vows are recited, the veil is lifted, and he’s all — wait, that is NOT Amana!
Only now it’s too late!!
They are married.
He goes home to his backward village, to live with his dickhole abusive father. Only now he is taking along a deaf-mute for a wife, whose name he does not even know.
His dad starts sexually abusing the deaf-mute wife, so Luka doesn’t run off to the city as planned. He stays in the backward village with his dickhole dad. To try to protect his wife from being raped nonstop.
(Because that is why we are told Luka’s backstory — to have compassion for him. He just wanted to be a gusla player, sing songs, and make music. And he would have, if not for Amana — because on the day Luka met her, “he met the woman who would destroy his life” [page 199]. Because women ruin *everything* — obviously. Damn women. Poor Luka!)
In staying in the backward village, and working as a butcher, living with his dickhole dad once again, Luka SNAPS.
One day, Luka’s RAGE against the INJUSTICES of his life (the lies! the trickery! the betrayal!) explode out of him, and he starts to beat the f*cking sh*t out of the deaf-mute girl he was forced to marry.
He became a rager and wife-beater, just like his old man. Poor Luka!
No more gusla-playing for him! His dreams have been dashed. And it is ALL the little deaf-mute Muslim girl’s fault! Bring on the violence! The smashed bones! The snapped teeth! The cracked skull! Beat that girl till she’s asleep for days on end, suffering with a concussion, clinging to life — because THIS is ALL HER FAULT.
The backward villagers know Luka is beating the f*cking sh*t out of his wife, but they do nothing, of course. No one meddles with a man’s personal business.
So, the reader is left to wonder on her own —
If Gavran Gaile had never cheated his uncle, and kept Amana alive — maybe Luka would not have been forced to marry the deaf-mute sister instead.
And then maybe the deaf-mute girl would never have been beaten and beaten and beaten by Luka (poor Luka! with all his dashed hopes! all his lost dreams! poor Luka!) because if Luka’s hopes and dreams had never been lost by Amana’s betrayal, the deaf-mute girl would never have gone to live in the backward village full of misogynist, Muslim-hating a**holes.
But, because Gavran cheated Death, kept Amana alive, and ran away with her, Luka was tricked into marrying Amana’s deaf-mute sister instead, and that deaf-mute girl ends up living in a backward Balkan village full of people who are predominately a bunch of misogynist, Muslim-hating a**holes.
In that village, the deaf-mute girl ends up meeting an escaped tiger living wild in the woods. The tiger’s zoo was bombed, and the tiger ran away into wilderness, and then the scent of the deaf-mute girl drew the tiger to her, and the tiger comes to see her every day after sunset. No one knows about these visits. At least, not at first.
One day, Luka beats his wife (just like always!), and then ties her up outside all night, in the hope that she’ll die and he won’t have to be a rager anymore. (Poor Luka!)
But somehow, his wife gets free. (Maybe the tiger frees her!)
And somehow, Luka disappears. (Maybe the tiger killed him! No, I’m just kidding. The narrator — Natalia — believes the deaf-mute girl shot him in bed, after she freed herself from her bonds. But that is Natalia’s projection, not a known fact.)
Once Luka disappears, the backward villagers decide that the deaf-mute girl killed her husband, and that she now spends her nights with the tiger — a demon they’re trying to kill. Then she ends up pregnant, either from Luka raping her (before he died), or one of the backward villagers raping her. So the villagers rename her “the tiger’s wife” — and this brings me to my favorite lines in the book, lines of dialogue spoken by one of the backward villagers (on page 225 in the hardback copy) —
“Point is, that tiger come all the way up to the door of Luka’s house, and then he get up and take off his skin. Leaves it out on the step and goes in to see his pregnant wife.”
And this is the heart of the book.
A deaf-mute child who is misunderstood, hated, and abused, who loves and is loved by a ragged, forlorn tiger, an animal that is also misunderstood, hated, and abused. Both the girl and the tiger are targeted for destruction. The backward villagers, in their misogyny, Islamaphobia, and fear of the unknown, decide they must kill the girl and the tiger.
Because really, what those villagers fear are their own deaths. So, like Luka with his raging violence, lashing out in rage becomes the answer.
The tiger is killed by a traveling middle-aged man known as Darisa the Bear, who grew up so terrified of death that he became a taxidermist, and then a murderer of bears (so he could taxidermy the dead ursine bodies).
Darisa kills, and is killed by, the tiger. (Though we never see the tiger’s dead body. We just know that the tiger is shot. We also never see Darisa’s body. We just know all that was left of him was a lot of blood on the snow.)
The man who kills the deaf-mute pregnant girl is the village apothecary, a man who escaped death by hiding the fact that he is a Muslim. (We don’t know if he was a practicing Muslim, but he was born with the name Kasim, which he changed as a young boy.) To survive in the village, no one knew the apothecary was born a Muslim, because those Islamaphobes would have killed him, the same way they target the deaf-mute Muslim girl for destruction.
How does the apothecary kill the deaf-mute girl? With poison. He gives a bottle of poison to her only friend in the village, the only person who ever showed the girl kindness — a nine-year-old boy who is too young and too innocent to understand misogyny or Islamaphobia. The apothecary, who always seemed like such a nice, helpful guy before, now tells the boy that the poison is to help the girl with her baby, so the boy goes off to see her, and helps her drink the elixir of doom.
That boy is Natalia’s grandfather.
Later, when Nazi troops roll into town, the apothecary is hung. It’s not clear why the Nazis kill him, but the moment of his death is given a lot of weight in the story.
The Nazis, of course, are one of the greatest emblems of death in all human history.
And what else were the Nazis, but a nation full of self-righteous rage lashing out?
What else was Hitler, but a man who was so terrified of Death that he massacred millions to prove he was the one still alive?
These aren’t questions the novel asks, or provides answers to. But it’s hard not to read The Tiger’s Wife any other way, if you’re reading carefully, if you take all these small vignettes and connections woven throughout the story, and draw them out into your own larger conclusions.
Of course, by the 1990s, once Natalia is born, Yugoslavia exploded with violence. All that Islamaphobia and misogyny and self-righteous rage erupted into the large-scale rape and massacre of thousands upon thousands of innocents in a brutal civil war — and that is the world Natalia grows up in, listening to the tales of the deathless man from her grandfather, who has an abiding fascination with tigers.
As a young man, Natalia’s grandfather married a Muslim woman. They had one child together, a baby girl, Natalia’s mother. And though the book doesn’t say this, the reader has to assume that the grandfather’s childhood friendship with the deaf-mute Muslim girl, who he unwittingly helped to murder — surely, that relationship played into his later decision to marry a Muslim woman himself.
The Tiger’s Wife isn’t a story about heroes. Or triumph. My heart and emotions weren’t bound up with Natalia, or her grandfather, or Natalia’s friend Zora, or the modern-day villagers digging up a hillside looking for a misburied body. No one in the modern world of the novel interested me.
The grandfather himself was as insecure about death as anyone. As a young man, he reacted with anger and denial to Gavran Gaile’s tale about being Death’s nephew. It took seeing Gavran’s lack of aging (over decades) for the grandfather to believe the deathless man’s stories were true. To me, the grandfather came across as a white, Christian, privileged crank, calling people fools and seething with a low-level fury, which is a huge sign of insecurity. And insecurity, of course, is driven by fear of death.
Even once the grandfather was old, and was diagnosed with cancer, he didn’t tell anyone but his granddaughter that he was sick with “an illness he hid like shame” (page 333). Which, of course, means that the grandfather was still afraid to die.
The only two creatures in the novel who had any kind of power to move my heart, or make me feel anything, were the tiger and the tiger’s wife, who have a bond and connection with each other that is stronger than fear, and therefore, stronger than death, and it is their fearlessness which makes them more eternal than Gavran Gaile (whose biological immortality is a curse).
In The Tiger’s Wife, death is a gift — but it is a gift that scares people. Scares people so much that, to hide their deep insecurity, they rage and lash out, destroy women, and animals, and then themselves. Wars and civil wars are all motivated by that deep-seated terror of death. In war, soldiers die, but so do civilians. Adults die, but so do children. Murderers die, but so do the innocent.
The Tiger’s Wife is a long meditation on the nature of death. The extent that we fear it, and how far we will go to try to push it away.
It’s also a novel in which every vignette and aside in the book is a story of death. Death is the theme of this book. Death and destruction. The story of the tiger’s wife is a story of Death. The story of the deathless man is a story of Death. Ditto Natalia’s life. Ditto war. Ditto Darisa the Bear, and the apothecary, and all those ignorant, backward Christian villagers. Everything that came out of their mouths was something related to Death — their ignorance grew from fear, and their fear sprang from death.
See this picture I found online of a cupcake?
Well, guess what? That cupcake is about DEATH.
I know what you’re thinking right now. Yes indeed.
“Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?”
Why, yes. Yes we can.
As long as you know that, no matter what story you tell, you’re really talking about death.
Even when you look at a cupcake.
Unless, of course, you’re not afraid to die.
In which case, that cupcake might be just a cupcake.
And innocence might still be alive. Along with the tiger. And his wife.