Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the coldest inhabited place on earth, a town in Siberia where, if the generator failed, everyone would die within four hours – where the seasonal melting of the highest permafrost caused by the warmth of buildings gave the architecture skewed, Lovecraftian angles – and where the coffins, due to the same process of thawing and refreezing, would gradually make their way to the surface, re-emerging twenty to twenty-five years after the burial.
The world in which the events John Vaillant describes takes place – a remote region of Siberian Manchuria – is similarly surreal. Trees explode in the cold, as the heat and pressure of the sap bursts the frozen exterior, while flora and fauna of the cold North (deer, wolves, pines) mingle with those of the tropical South (leopards, large and exotic insects, and, the animal in question here, tigers). Indeed, Vaillant suggests that the region was a refugium – an isolated area which remained uncovered by snow and ice during pitiless glacial periods. But this is also an area of flux ethnically, in the mingling between ethnic ‘Russians,’ indigenous people, and Chinese; but, even more shapingly, in the aftermath of perestroika and the frontier-capitalist instability which resulted (Vaillant suggests that there are very numerous parallels between this area and the American frontier, both in terms of this lawlessness, human and natural danger, and in terms of colonialisation and resource exploitation). But although this environment may seem bizarre to ‘we moderns,’ in fact, despite the encroachments of nature in the form of logging, mining, roads and guns, life here is in many ways akin to our ancestral patterns, wherein the forces of nature continually pose an existential threat and where hunting (and not agriculture) forms an important part of most successful survival strategies. In this arena, the danger that tigers (and other wild animals) can pose is not just, as more usually, a convenient justification for humans’ meat-eating habits.
This isn’t to say, though, that human-tiger relationships are such that the killing of the tiger is justified. There is, in this area, a long tradition of what can only be described as ‘honourable’ interaction between the human and the tiger – an uneasy ceasefire, but one which generally holds (it may seem anthropomorphic to refer to honour among tigers, so to speak, but even I, someone who usually considers our understanding of the mental and emotional capabilities of animals to be radically undervalued, was astonished by both the clear laws obtaining between human and tiger and the purposiveness and forethought with which tigers here behave). Vaillant’s tale is a story of the breaking of that covenant by a human, and a feline quest for revenge – one in which the circle of human targets grows ever wider, and no-one is safe.
The story, which begins with this particular tiger’s ferocious and well-planned killing of a poacher, traces both the pre-history and the consequences of this moment, and in doing so brings in not only issues of human and tiger (we might combine these in saying ‘animal’) nature, but also politics, environmentalism, colonialism, spirituality and the relationship with land itself. The hard-bitten, hard-drinking, hard-smoking, suicide-prone, stoic characters (almost all men) who make up the human cast are in some sense familiar Russian figures, but at the same time their relationship to the taiga, the way in which they read it and feel a qualitative relationship with it as an entity, partakes in a spirituality which isn’t confined only to those with indigenous heritage in the area (though obviously it functions in different ways for those who have such heritage). In ‘man vs wild’ tales of this kind I usually tend to feel less sympathy with the human characters than the author intends, but in this case, Vaillant presents not only the plight of the Amur tigers but also the travails of these people trapped in a dying society, with few economic opportunities, caught in a pincer between the corruption of Russia’s new elite and the harshness of their natural circumstances. The tiger itself, meanwhile, is a character sprung from a Greek tragedy, wronged, injured, and with furious calculation lashing out at those whose injury can only bring cyclical retribution.
Given that I’m a sucker both for cats and for nature documentaries (especially those set in extreme environments), I may be the ideal audience for a work of this kind, but certainly there was little to forgive in this book, which is well- and tautly-written, deeply atmospheric and incisive (if we put aside a few regrettable diversions into bio-evolutionary speculation and ruminations on human nature). This is a tale both sorrowful and steeped in what I can only term majesty, a report from a front line tense with dualities – arctic and tropical, socialist and capitalist, spiritual and material, colonialist and indigenous, ‘human’ and ‘natural’ – which are both symbolic and prefigurative of ‘our’ present condition.