Here it is, Q- Philes– John Vaillant’s The Tiger: a True Story of Vengeance and Survival is finally out this week. It is better than good– my favorite book of the year so far, and a likely classic in my rare favorite genre, that which documents (to use a book title) “the edge of the wild”, that interface where humans and “nature” are not artificially separated but in conflict or cooperation, acting on each other.
Tiger is a non- fiction book that reads like a novel, set in “Primorye”, the Russian Far East– not “Siberia”, despite its desperately cold winters– but rather a huge block to the east and south of Siberia, a rugged place of mixed deciduous forests, few roads, a flora and fauna mixing the temperate and the subtropical (like leopards and tigers), inhabited by a never- prosperous populace now eking out their lives by such expedients as beekeeping and subsistence poaching.
Its protagonists are a single huge tiger, a ragged bunch of drunken poachers, and a patrol of anti- poaching rangers dedicated to protecting tigers over a huge area, with no money and inadequate tools. The beginning, as an unnamed hunter and his dog approach a dark cabin on a freezing evening, is a masterpiece of tension and quiet terror; the ending is utterly cinematic but real (the book is based on over 200 interviews). In between, Vaillant skilfully cuts from one “protagonist” to another, building an almost unbearable tension even as he dramatizes the serious issue of Asian poaching.
He manages to evoke sympathy for a man- killing tiger that outdoes any in Corbett (at one point he drags a mattress out under the shelter of a spruce to await his next victim in comfort; waits for another IN HIS BED; toward the end,`a la Kipling’s “Letting In the Jungle”, he appears to be contemplating the elimination of a village), but also for destitute subsistence poachers tempted by the Han Empire’s eternal appetite for animal parts, and above all for the underpaid, overworked, and threatened Russian rangers, who use SKS’s in 7.62 X 39 (on brown bear, moose, and sadly tiger if they must) because they are the BEST rifles available! (Regular readers will recall previous posts on my love/ hate for this working man’s rifle and cartridge– more later, but I would never use it for such animals if I didn’t have to!) On the other hand, a scene where a poacher pulls the trigger on an ancient Mosin and, instead of the firing pin falling, in the words of James McMurtry it “didn’t, quite…”, doesn’t end well; perhaps the rangers are doing the best they can.
(In fact, my only extremely minor quibble with the book is re firearms: if you know a bit it can be momentarily confusing; if you don’t, though, you won’t even notice. But a poacher’s badly- handloaded 16 gauge single- shot shotgun is not a “rifle”, and using a thing like that to try to poach an Amur tiger is the exact kind of drunken Russian foolery that is likely to bring on Nemesis, on wheels, with no brakes…)
But really, a quibble– this is an amazing book, one to stand with Arseniev and Corbett, its worthy predecessors. Annie Proulx sent me an early galley, asking that I return it as soon as I finished, and I was so blown away I asked– well, demanded!– another copy from the press, to quote to my friends until the real thing came out months later. On the Amazon site she says:
“The Tiger is the sort of book I very much like and rarely find. Humans are hard-wired to fear tigers, so this book will attract intense interest. In addition to tiger lore and scalding adventure, Vaillant shows us Russia’s far east and its inhabitants, their sometimes desperate lives interwoven with the economics of poaching and the politics of wildlife conservation… This is a book not only for adventure buffs, but for all of us interested in wildlife habitat preservation.”
Another good writer, Sy Montgomery’s friend Liz Thomas, adds:
“In it are chilling accounts of human encounters with tigers—but these encounters, however fearsome, convincingly demonstrate the role that these enormous cats continue to play in the natural world. Equally compelling are the people of Primorye, those who of necessity must hunt the tigers, and those who would preserve them. To call this book a page-turner is an understatement.”
I rarely quote other writers in praise of a book I like– as anyone who knows me knows, I am secure in my opinions (!) But in this case, I think this book is so good I want to remind readers that writers I respect and who like MY writing– “friends of Q”– are as over the top about The Tiger as I am. Run don’t walk…