John Vaillant connects us to the primitive and the primeval in his mesmerizing account of a tiger killing in far eastern Russia in the depths of winter 1997. The Tiger is nature writing of the highest order and more; it’s also a meditation on perestroika gone wrong, what it takes to keep a region going, and the relationship between predator and prey. It’s nonfiction as riveting as any detective story.
“The Tiger” brings us into the heart of Primorye, a “remote and slender threshold realm in which creatures of the subarctic have been overlapping with those of the subtropics since before the last Ice Age.” Dotted with tiny, barely surviving communities, it is about the size of Washington State and the crossroads of four distinct bioregions – what Vaillant calls a Boreal Jungle, where timber wolves and reindeer share terrain with poisonous snakes, and the Amur tiger, an “apex predator,” rules.
One of these tigers killed Vladimir Markov, a poacher attempting to profit from the trade in illegal tiger parts that blossomed between Russia and China in the early 1990s. Yuri Trush, the head of a Russian federal Inspection Tiger unit, is charged with tracking down the suspected beast. That tracking is the frame of Vaillant’s stark, curiously noble probe of a fragile balance between man and nature that has been grievously disrupted in the Primorye territory. It also is about the relationship between Umwelt and Umgebung, German words for, respectively, the world each being occupies individually and the greater world we all share.
Calibrating that balance is critical; though man and tiger battle each other in Primorye, they also need each other, Vaillant suggests in his epilogue, noting that as of December 2009, “fewer than four hundred tigers may remain in the Russian Far East.”
Vaillant’s insights into animal behavior – he writes as if he’s inside the tiger’s head – make “The Tiger” particularly enthralling. Such tigers, he suggests, think and conspire; the one that killed Markov did so because Markov had plundered one of its kills, triggering a vendetta that also resulted in the deaths of several other men in the area.
Read the whole book and don’t miss the acknowledgments, where you’ll learn that Vaillant, a journalist for the likes of The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Men’s Journal, doesn’t speak Russian and had to rely on a translator. That didn’t seem to stand in his way; the narrative flows easily and is so rich that it’s hard to tell the difference between Vaillant’s direct observation and a kind of osmosis. Some might cavil that Vaillant digresses; I view his detours as a way to contextualize a story that seems straightforward but actually is remarkably complex. The narrative also showcases Vaillant’s superb reportage, particularly regarding Trush, the self-effacing, purposeful hero of this book.
“Trush stands about six-foot-two with long arms and legs and a broad chest,” Vaillant writes. “His eyes are colored, coincidentally, like the semi-precious stone tiger’s eye, with black rings around the irises. They peer out from a frank and homely face framed by great, drooping brows. Though frail and sickly as a boy, Trush grew into a talented athlete with a commanding presence, a deep resonant voice, and an ability to remain composed under highly stressful circumstances.” And with that portrait, Vaillant sets the stage for an epic encounter that unfolds dramatically and inexorably, climaxing in a stunning encounter between Trush and the tiger. You can probably guess how it turns out. What you can’t imagine is the excitement of the story and the learning you’ll accrue on your way.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.