Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tiger - A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

I am sitting here in my fully adjustable office chair in a large, environmentally controlled dwelling listening to one of thousands of songs that I have downloaded instantly over a high speed network connection. The cursor on the LCD monitor in front of me flashes rhythmically, awaiting my next thought. Ready to serve my whim. It is all ready to serve my whim. For I am Homo Sapiens, winner of the millennial-old battle for biologic supremacy on planet earth. Master of the iPod, social network and internal combustion engine. There is nothing that nature provides that is not mine by right. It is all mine and I am legion.

This is precisely the sort of illusion that is eviscerated -violently, and explosively- in John Vaillant's true story of the Russian far east and the tigers that live there in fragile co-existence with dirt-poor subsistence villagers and indigenous people.  Predatory big cats, like the one central to this story have been our partners in evolution. They are, as John Vaillant so eloquently argues, the reason that we hide in caves when the sun goes down and have an abiding fear of the dark that still exists in our collective, primeval minds. 

Much like his first book, The Golden Spruce, there is a focus here, but it is not a very tight one. Mr. Vaillant uses the central narrative as a nucleus from which he spins arguments about conservation, political and social injustice and, at one point, one of the most fascinating philosophical discussions on the nature of empathy I've ever come across.

The Tiger is a perfect illustration of the "truth is stranger than fiction" principle. It is a horror story, a love story, and a Shakespearian tragedy of monumental proportions. We eat. And we are eaten. A more epic story of man's place in the natural order has not been penned since Grendel came knocking on Beowulf's keep. 

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