Monday, June 8, 2009

Tea Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

Run, don't walk, to the newsstand and buy the June 8 & 15 copy of The New Yorker, the summer fiction issue. The "debut fiction" is a very impressive debut indeed by a very young person, born in 1985, Tea Obreht. She was born in Yugoslavia.

"The Tiger's Wife" is a kind of oral history/folk tale that recalls the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, in that it is set in a rural village in Eastern Europe. The narrator "heard" the story from various sources, mostly her grandfather, but there are events in the story that the grandfather didn't know, says the narrator. It's never exactly clear where the story is happening. And it's not clear what parts of it are "true." In that respect, it also reminds the reader of magical realism, as in the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where nothing is really certain, and some pretty incredible things happen.

On the other hand, the setting of the story in time is very specific: April of 1941, when German bombs were falling on "the city." A tiger, who is not exactly in a zoo but behind some kind of bars, escapes because of the bombing and wanders through the city (Belgrade?) and out into the country, to the village where the narrator's grandfather lives with his grandmother. He is a boy of nine when the events in the story happen.

Evidently this story is part of a longer novel, to be published in 2010. I tried to pre-order it through Amazon, but it is not available as yet.

The illustration for the New Yorker story is also pretty great: it's by an Italian graphic artist named Lorenzo Mattotti. It looks like it was done with colored pencil or pastels.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Heart of Dryness, by James Workman

This is a long and very detailed account of how a band of Kalahari Bushmen defied their government--the government of Botswana--and won the right to continue living in their desert home. The author, an American, spent seven years in Botswana, and he made many visits into the Kalahari to visit with and interview this extended family, headed by an elderly woman. She is a central figure in the narrative.

I thought that this book would tell more specifically about how the Bushmen survive in such a dry climate. But really, it's mostly about the legal wranglings in the courts of Botswana about whether the Bushmen should be allowed to continue living in the Kalahari. The government felt that their presence interfered with tourism, for some reason, and also with diamond mining, although it's never clear why the Kalahari was not big enough for all three--wildlife for tourists, diamond mines, and Bushmen--to coexist together.

Eventually it came down to a struggle over the right to water, because the government, which had been providing water for Bushmen inside the game preserve, cut that water off. The Bushmen began trucking water in, but that too was prohibited. There was an international outcry over the apparent attempt at genocide directed at the Bushmen. In the end the Bushmen were successful at getting the right to truck water in, and many of them returned to the preserve.

The small band of die-hards continued to live in the Kalahari throughout the water cut-off, finding water as they always had traditionally, by foraging for moist food and game. I thought it was interesting that in the desert, food is water, and water is food.

Workman extends the "lessons" of this Botswana story to the rest of the world and to the future, but there his argument seems a bit weak. First, it's not clear what the lesson is: don't leave your land, no matter what? Find ways to survive without piped-in water? Second, even if the lessons were clear, it's not obvious that this particular situation will be very much like future water shortages in other parts of the world. We had a bad drought in the Southeastern US two summers ago, but the tap water continued flowing. We didn't even have any rationing. In desert cities of the West, sometimes water is rationed, but I doubt that any municipalities in the US will just cut off water to people living in a desert. I could be wrong.

One useful lesson I gleaned from the book was: separate urine and feces when handling human waste. The Bushmen do that: they use the urine for tanning hides, and feces are buried in sand, where they dry up. That makes sense and could be applied in the States when water gets really short and the ten gallon flush comes to be seen as the luxury it really is.