Powell's has been kind enough to hand me the mike this week. The occasion for this indulgence is The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, which came out a few days ago. It's a relief, really, because the suspense has been killing me. This was a three-and-a-half year trip: from the realization in Banff, Alberta, that, holy cow, this story is completely out of hand, I have to write it, to Beijing, Vladivostok, and into Primorye, the Siberian tiger's last stronghold. And, finally, to this moment: all of us here together, packed into this little blog.
The Tiger is set in Russia, in the dead of winter, during the chaotic aftermath of perestroika. Near Russia's far eastern border with China, a Siberian tiger is hunting, and a man is hunting, too. The man is a poacher, desperately poor, and he shoots the tiger and wounds it. The injured tiger remembers this man, follows him home, trashes his stuff, and kills his dogs. Then it lies down by the poacher's door and waits. But that is only the beginning; things get weirder and scarier from there. As the inspector who was sent in to investigate this case said to me, "There are many people who don't believe this actually happened. They think it's some phantasm of my imagination. But it was real. There are the facts."
A lot of people have asked me how I came across this story, and it was thanks to the Banff Mountain Festival where I saw a documentary called Conflict Tiger. I didn't know much about the film going in — something about poachers and Siberian tigers — but I was hooked from the opening shot: a wide-angle panorama of snowbound forest paired with this shrill, skirling soundtrack. About 15 minutes later I felt — and this is precisely what I felt — a bolt of recognition to the forehead: sudden, exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Thematically speaking, I had visited this country before in my first book, The Golden Spruce. But that true story of humans and nature in collision didn't have a tiger in it. The film lasted an hour, and I was riveted to my chair, squirming as quietly as I could. As soon as I got home, I called the director, Sasha Snow (his real name), and liked him immediately. We work in different media, on different continents, but it was clear that we were tuned to the same frequency. He encouraged me to go to Russia myself. Since then, we have become friends, to the point that he is now making a documentary of The Golden Spruce.