Saturday, July 9, 2011

The tiger's touch

What is it with tigers and English literary prizes? I couldn't help wondering when I heard that Téa Obreht was the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011 for her debut novel The Tiger's Wife.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not dissatisfied that a 25-year-old author won a major fiction prize for a novel not written in her mother tongue, but in a language she learnt later in life, as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia. I think it's an astonishing feat that deserves all the praise - and the prizes - the author can possibly get.

But it is the third time in a decade that a novel featuring a tiger - a real tiger or a tiger used as a metaphor - receives a coveted literary award. In 2002 Yann Martell, born in Spain and living in Canada, won the Man Booker Prize (as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Governor General Award) for the wildly imaginative Life of Pi. This tells the rather tall story of a 16-year-old boy trapped on a lifeboat somewhere in the Pacific Ocean along with a huge Royal Bengal tiger. Oh yes, also on the small boat are a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg and a female orang-utan...

Then, in 2008, the Indian writer Aravind Adiga struck the literary jackpot, winning the Man Booker for his debut novel, The White Tiger. This time not only a picture of a tiger on the cover, as with Life of Pi, but also the word tiger in the title, just to make sure the tiger's touch really works.

It has to be noted, though, that this novel is not about a real tiger. 'The White Tiger' is the nom de guerre of an entertaining criminal character called Balram Halwai, who tells his life story in a series of letters written to a Chinese politician. Don't ask. Just read it - if you haven't yet - because it turns a lot of comfortable conceptions of India and Indian-English novels inside out. I say this as a dedicated fan of Indian-English fiction and authors such as Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Salman Rushdie, Anita and Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh and many many more. Adiga has a savagely angry voice of his own among all these literary greats.

And now the astonishingly young and gifted Obreht has made it a tiger's hat trick with another prize-winning work of fiction featuring a tiger on the cover, in the title and on the pages.

Moral of the story? If you're an aspiring writer, don't, please don't, write a novel featuring a tiger in the hope that you're going to get lucky. Surely the tiger trend must be nearing its end? After more than a decade of tiger fiction, wouldn't it be nice to be entertained by other fascinating feline creatures such as lions or leopards? But then again, The Leopard has been done, brilliantly, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa - and turned into an equally brilliant film by Visconti. And Henning Mankell wrote The White Lioness and C.S. Lewis gave us The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe more than fifty years ago...

So, if you absolutely have to have a wild animal in your next novel, make it an elephant or a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus. Start a new trend! It's about time that we stop this rampaging literary tiger in its tracks.

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