The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
by John Vaillant
Reviewed by Nathan Weatherford
Tigers are cunning creatures, and the structure of John Vaillant's The Tiger does their craftiness credit. The subtitle reads "a true story of vengeance and survival," words chosen to immediately grab one's attention, aided by the ragged, red claw marks scratched into the cover behind them. But, while visceral thrills abound throughout the book, what Vaillant is attempting proves much more elusive (and ultimately more compelling) than any mere story of bloody attacks.
The drama surrounding the titular tiger unfolded in the far east of Russia during the late 1990s, in and around the village of Primorye. At the beginning of the book, we're introduced to Yuri Trush, area head of Inspection Tiger, a group charged with ensuring that these endangered animals are protected in the wild. He's called upon to investigate a brutal mauling: Vladimir Markov, a hunter/poacher living in the wilderness, has been killed and completely dismembered by what could only be a tiger. Vaillant doesn't mince words when it comes to describing these fiercely beautiful, frighteningly deadly creatures:
To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor.
This description comes along fairly early in the text, a calculated move that puts the proper fear in the reader and serves to make the rest of the story that much more involving.
Prior to reading the book, I assumed the plot would go as follows: scary tiger kills hunter; remaining hunters want vengeance, decide to track tiger, and kill it. An interesting story for its remote location, and not lacking in suspenseful moments, but a story containing nothing new that would distinguish it from any other predator/prey tale. However, Vaillant uses this particular tiger incident as a springboard to discuss everything from anthropology to psychology. I found his meditations on the relationship between tigers and the people of Primorye fascinating. There, tigers have enjoyed an almost god-like status for as long as humans have been in contact with them, and it's generally accepted that if you harm a tiger, you've signed your own death warrant, for there's no escaping such an absolute killer. One of the most chilling scenes in the book unfolds when Trush first arrives at Markov's cabin to investigate the death scene and finds a snowy patch melted right next to his door (proof that the tiger had been lying in wait for Markov for quite some time, as temperatures are usually well below zero there). Markov's tracks lead straight to this patch, almost as if the tiger was compelling him to meet his doom.
Vaillant also does a great job of establishing the internal conflict of the tiger poacher. To kill a tiger is not only a violation of national laws -- it would be an easy decision were this the case, as the Russian government has enough trouble enforcing law in the wilderness of the far east, and tigers are extremely valuable on the black market (all told, a complete corpse can fetch around $50,000); for natives of Primorye, it goes against their core beliefs about the tiger's mythic essence. Tigers and humans are supposed to avoid one another, to evince a mutual respect of each other's powers and territories. Unfortunately, Primorye's economy has been so bad for so long that, for many, it's their only chance at hitting the jackpot and living above a bare subsistence level. When shooting a tiger, poachers shoot to kill, and must be prepared to face the consequences if and when they miss.
By the end of the book, Vaillant has successfully shown that, while tigers may not be as smart as humans in most ways, when it comes to stalking and killing prey, they're still able to turn circumstances to their advantage quite easily (and with a conniving zeal bordering on the magical). It's not hard to see why early humans developed such primal awe for these creatures that can literally ensnare even the most knowledgeable hunter in a perfect ambush, and this awe has passed down through countless generations. The Tiger is proof positive that it can still manifest itself today, even at a book's remove.