On December 5th 1997 in the remote village of the Russian Primorye territory, a vicious and startling tiger attack took place. The tiger, mad with blood-lust and rage, attacked and almost totally consumed a hunter and trapper named Vladimir Markov. But this tale isn't as simple as it first seems. When Yuri Trush and his team of investigators arrive at the scene of the attack, they find not only the startlingly gruesome remnants of Markov, but also discover that this particular tiger seems to have been inflamed with a desire for vengeance against Markov due to injustices committed by the hunter. Now injured and haunting the countryside for more human meat, the tiger is not only dangerous to humans and animals alike, but cunning enough to lure other unsuspecting humans right into its traps. The group of rangers responsible for catching this tiger have never dealt with a situation quite like this one before. Going by the name Inspection Tiger, these men are usually working on illegal poaching cases, and most of the time it's their job to protect the tigers from the men who want to kill them. This time, it's their responsibility to protect the men from the tiger, and it seems that this tiger isn't willing to play by the rules. Melded into this tense and absorbing storyline is the story behind Russia's total economic and political collapse in the years after perestroika and the total reorganization of the lives of Russia's people. Living on the fringes of society and exploiting the the wilderness for sustenance, this group of disenfranchised people are not only frightened by the wild tiger in their midst, but are also mistrustful of Inspection Tiger, making this a complex melange of danger that drastically affects the local population. Both gruesome and shocking, The Tiger tells a frightening story based on one of humankind's most primal fears and expounds on the miraculous killing machine that is the Amur Tiger.
A few months ago I was perusing the blogs and checking everything out and I came across The Boston Bibliophile's mention of this book. Though I had seen it mentioned before, I wasn't all that interested in it and had decided to pass it up. But something overtook me when I was reading Marie's thoughts on it. Her enthusiasm was so great that I immediately went over to the publisher's site to check it out. From that point on, I was hooked and knew that I had to read it. I can't put my finger on what it was about this book that so intrigued me, but whatever it was, it was hard to ignore. When my copy arrived and I settled down to read it, the people in my house were constantly being bombarded with tiger lore and myth until finally they politely told me to go away and be quiet. This book was such an interesting piece of non-fiction that I had trouble tearing myself away from it, and as such it was one of my best reads of the year.
Everyone is familiar with tigers. But do you really know just what makes a tiger such a lethal killing machine? Is it the claws that are described as having a double edge as sharp as a surgical scalpel, or the fact that its claw is needle sharp at the tip and closely resemble the talons of a velociraptor? Or is it the fact that its fangs are the size of a human index finger and are backed up by rows of slicing teeth? Perhaps it's the fact that when a tiger attacks it uses its tail as a stabilizing device, making its aim truer and its balance steady. Now imagine all this wrapped around five hundred pounds of muscle and turned against a human with a measly hunting rifle filled with buckshot. Factor in that this particular tiger was not merely angry but infuriated with Vladimir Markov. Even in the in the most optimistic outcome, Markov never had a chance. As Trush and his men begin to canvas the area, they discover that Markov may have engaged in some serious breaches of etiquette toward this tiger and that his infractions may have been the last straw that finally pushed the tiger into the realm of insanity. Furthermore, the tiger was not willing to stop at the death and consumption of Markov and decided to go around systematically destroying not only his property but menacing any others whom he had contact with. This was a serious tiger with a serious grudge.
As Vaillant relates his tale, he also fills in the gaps regarding the area and its inhabitants, showing his readers just why the people of the Primorye can't stay out of the forests despite the danger. Though communism is over and perestroika reigns, most Russians are finding it more difficult to survive amidst these changes than ever before. Money is almost valueless and some workers aren't being paid at all. The people of the Primorye are surviving by living in tight-knit communities where hunting and gathering are the only real ways to survive. Because of this economic climate, poaching is a highly lucrative occupation, with tigers being number one on the poachers' lists. It seems that there are not only lingering political tensions between Russia and China, but that China has an insatiable appetite for Russia's resources. This creates a situation in which Russia is exporting all its valuable resources to China in return for sub-par imports. The Chinese value tigers above all else, for their myths and lore tell them that the tiger is a spiritually powerful animal, and that by ingesting its body, they too will become more virile, strong, and dangerous. When the price for a whole tiger is upwards of $50,000, you can begin to see why your average hunter would risk the animal's fury.
Within these stories are housed the legends, lore and myths of tiger-kind. Vaillant explains how one can be "tiger-tainted" and how certain tribes believe that tigers share a generational memory of enemies. Some believe that if you respect the tiger and never interfere in its life, it will leave you to your own devices and never attack. Still others believe that tigers have been known to share its kills with humans but to take this meat will leave you forever indebted to this frightening creature. Some Chinese myths claim that even devils and demons are afraid of the tiger. Men's attitudes towards this remarkable creature vary greatly, from those who abandon a village if a tiger is seen wandering in it to those who have been confronted with a tiger only to punch it in the nose, but it's clear that the tiger is a supreme force to be reckoned with and not an animal to be taken lightly.
The blending of the animal and sociopolitical information in this book was really a wonder to behold. Just when one section seemed to be ramping up, Vaillant would switch over to the other, creating a constantly heady balance of human structure and tiger structure that I found delectable. In no way do I think that my review of this book does it justice. It's consuming and scary, deft and involving, and it's also meticulously researched. Not only are there eyewitness accounts of all the events, but there are some stunning photographs that will put the fear of God into you regarding the tiger and its attack. All of these elements are wound seamlessly around each other and they're not only relevant but somehow mystifying and hypnotizing. Vailllant succeeds brilliantly in weaving together all the aspects of this story and creates a tale that is not only carefully crafted but terrifyingly suspenseful and riveting.
I'm sure you can tell by now that I loved this book, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have to read only one non-fiction book this year, this is the one to read. Not only was it a beautiful piece of non-fiction, it had the added bonus of being incredibly creepy and unpredictable. What Vaillant does in this multi-layered and suspenseful tale will not only regale the most critical reader, it will also make you think about the tiger in a completely different way. Not only can these animals be cunning and unpredictable, Vaillant shows us that they can be incredibly smart and gentle when optimal conditions arise. A wonderful book full to the brim with excitement and information. Highly recommended and not to be missed.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.