Although the Acrobat plays a pivotal role in his furry friend's life – more on which later – it's the tiger of the title who is very much the heroine of Susanna Tamaro's parable-like novel, pleasingly translated here from the original Italian by Nicoleugenia Prezzavento and Vicki Satlow, with accompanying illustrations by Tamaro.
It begins with the tiger’s birth, “in the Far North, between the Arctic tundra and the snowy forests of the taiga, which stretches out from the West to the Far East, where the sun has risen since the beginning of time”, and thereafter follows her through her wanderings across the snowy wastes, encounters with mankind, years spent in captivity at a circus – where she meets the Acrobat – and her subsequent escape back to the wilds, with the Acrobat’s help, from where she came. Raised, along with her brother, by their mother, there’s something different about Little Tiger from the start. She finds herself preoccupied by her thoughts, distracted when she should be hunting, her prey all too easily escaping her clutches. One day, her mother asks her what’s wrong: “She should have said she was thinking, but tigers do not know what thinking means,” it is not a part of their existence.
They are the king and queens of the taiga, the mother teaches her cubs, but the only creature they must always turn on their heels and run from is man: “Out of all the animals, man was the only one able to put an end to their days. It was not very large, nor did it have nails or teeth worthy of those names. What he had, though, was a long rod out of which came fire, and with it he could kill tigers.”
The cubs are confused by the information that man does not kill tigers in order to eat them, as is the natural order that dictates life and death in the wild.
What Little Tiger learns later in her travels, however, is just how sought-after her beautiful fur is. It is these travels that provide the momentum for the narrative, which takes the shape of a traditional picaresque, although "loveable rogue" is hardly an apt description for our tiger heroine.
Instead, she is a lonely nomad, destined, it seems, not to live as other big cats, ruling their kingdoms with their might and power, but rather to endure a life plagued by existential questions: “Dreadful is the loneliness of those tigers who have chosen the path of the wanderer. Here today, gone tomorrow, chasing shadows and dreams, chasing the nagging thought that is forever whispering: ‘Keep going, this is not the place yet.’”
She’s not only separated from others of her kind, her very nature is at odds with that of her forbearers. She has little interest in hunting beyond gathering what meat is absolutely necessary to keep her alive. What she hunts for instead are answers to plug the “unfathomable void” that exists within her, one that’s “only capable of generating questions”.
Eventually, after years of drifting along by herself, she comes across a hut, and within it a man who is as alone as she is. Is he someone like her, she wonders?
She patiently bides her time, watching the hut for days, waiting for an opportunity to find out: “Those long days spent watching the hut had taught the Tiger that she was more comfortable waiting than she was ambushing. She had no desire to tear or mangle, or to display any form of supremacy. The hunger that so consumed her was, rather, for knowledge. So, alert, head erect, forelegs crossed, her long tail softly flicking across the surface of the snow, she began to wait to meet the Man.”
Although I enjoyed the rather gentle, undemanding story of The Tiger and the Acrobat, I must admit that I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It's fable-like quality makes it seems insubstantial or incomplete.
One of the strangest things about it though is how it doesn’t engage in fantasy in the way we might expect in a book about an animal attempting to live among humankind would. When the tiger and the Man finally meet, it is not assumed that conversation between them is possible; they’re only able to communicate because of the willingness each demonstrates to listen to the other. “But men and tigers don’t speak the same language,” the confused Tiger says. “They don’t speak it if they don’t want to,” the wise man replies. “I inhale; you exhale. The whole universe breathes. For this reason, every voice is the same.”
Unlike books like Yoko Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which was published earlier this year, and explored the timely human issues of migration, citizenship and climate change through the prism of her animal protagonists, it doesn't feel like the tiger in The Tiger and the Acrobat is standing in for anyone other than herself.
That said, her search for meaning and authenticity – her quest, if you will, to live the life that is truest to her own needs and nature – is as alien as this is to the rest of her kind: “My whole life I’ve been lost,” she says towards the end of the book, “looking for my own path.”
This, with the importance of the relationships she forges en route – from this first kindred spirit in the forest, the man who teaches her about life beyond the taiga; to the Acrobat who sets her free from her life behind bars at the circus; to the kindly Rag-Man who’s dreamed all his life of being a tiger, “I wanted to be the strongest, the bravest, the most noble,” he explains, and who helps her escape those pursuing her – is something many will surely be able to empathise with.