I didn't know what to expect when I picked up The Tiger by John Vaillant. My friend John-Fred Pope told me it was about a man hunting a tiger, and this is true. But I also got real encounters with the tiger and all the people whose lives were tied up with its own. I got a better understanding of Russian conservation and economic difficulties. Perhaps most far-reaching was the author's ability to receive reality and to pass it along. At the risk of backseat editing, a better title might have been The Tiger: A True Story of Russia and Everything Else.
Vaillant's chosen protagonist is Yuri Trush, an environmental policeman in the post-Soviet region of Primorye (Primorsky Krai). He tempers his enforcement methods with a religious sense of compassion and justice both for the environment and all its creatures, human and otherwise. For the poor who break the law, he has sympathy. For the privileged, he has less. "Trush represents a lonely act of faith in a largely faithless system" (45).
Even minor "characters" get major treatment. In later pages, Vaillant describes a striking incident involving Anatoli Khobitnov, who was part of the same special unit as Trush:
Khobitnov once shot a leaping tiger between the eyes at twenty-five yards, a feat more troubling than impressive until you realize that the tiger was seriously wounded and had been terrorizing a village for weeks, and that Khobitnov was wounded, too: he made the shot having taped his rifle onto the cast covering his broken left arm, which had been mauled three weeks earlier by a tigress. (241)
The protectors of Primorye's environmental balance will naturally get this treatment. But Vaillant's sense of wonder comes through in the smallest note of writing, once he deems a thing worth noting. Take for example the first man killed by the titular tiger, the poacher Vladimir Markov. Nobody knows if he provoked the tiger maliciously. But Markov was the friendly neighbor you wanted in both good times and bad, with a solid sense of humor as a bonus. As times worsen, he spends more time in the taiga, or Primorye's "Boreal Jungle" (23), but maintains his sense of balance in nature. Markov's neighbor says that "he was a good man . . . he knew everything in the forest--everything. He could find any root. He even saved some bear cubs once" (81). Even Primorye itself becomes a sort of character in Vaillant's hands:
The day they were given [searching for a lost hunter] was crystalline, brittle, and bitterly cold. The taiga was at its winter finest and seemed made for the eyes alone: the sunshine was so brilliant, the snow so pristine, the sky so depthless, the stillness of the forest so profound that speech or motion of any kind felt like an intrusion. Here, even the softest sounds carried an echo, and the search party’s presence, announced by the irksome, eightfold squeaking of their boots, seemed out of place--an affront to the exalted silence all around them. Burdened as they were by their dark concerns, these men were strangers here. (214)
And of course, Vaillant covers the tiger itself, the various relationships of man to tiger, and their seeming shift into unnatural territory in Markov's case, in great detail. For instance, the balance experienced by the indigenous Udeghe and Nanai peoples in Primorye: "Despite the fact that they made their home in a landscape regularly patrolled by tigers, there is no record . . . of tiger attacks on a scale with their Chinese and Korean neighbors" (91). I might never have cared this much about tigers if not for this book, and that's not an exaggeration.
Of course, that's just a short list of the people and places one meets in The Tiger. This isn't just a true story; it's real. Vaillant refuses to reduce any of his human subjects, or any of his other subjects, to abstract accidents of history. Because he basically falls in love with everything and everyone he writes about, we can fall in love with them, too.
Where to find this:
Quotations from John Vaillant. The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Vintage Books: New York, 2010. Dashes in quotation marks are approximated.