National Post, September 11, 2010
By Brad Frenette
Wander through the natural history exhibit at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and you will encounter a lean young Bengal tiger, mounted in attack mode, canines exposed, eyes fixed in a glassy stare. It might well summon Shakespeare’s Henry V, who calls on his men to imitate the fearsome creature: “Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,/ Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;/ Then lend the eye a terrible aspect.”
However, if you were someone who has spent the past few years studying the massive man-eater, your take on the ROM specimen might be more prosaic:
“This is a small one,” says author John Vaillant, peering through the glass case surrounding the animal.
His book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, takes the reader into the taiga of Russia’s Far East, a vast boreal forest where, in the winter of 1997, a man-eating Siberian tiger is stalking poachers outside a remote village. The tiger’s first victim is Vladimir Markov, a desperately poor poacher who hunts with homemade bullets and barters meat for life’s essentials. It is likely that Markov had previously wounded the tiger, and that this tiger was bent on retribution. So it stalks him, tracking him to his shack, where the hunter is “thoroughly and gruesomely annihilated,” in Vaillant’s words.
“What’s amazing about this case is that it’s so well documented, almost like a murder,” says Vaillant, in describing the abundance of forensic detail available to him. “There were photographs, footage, maps, notes and interviews — all these things that I could draw on in addition to survivors and witnesses and investigators. I could describe people’s clothes, and who people were in relation to each other. It got rid of the guesswork.”
Vaillant’s approach is to use an incident to examine a larger complex system. In his first book, The Golden Spruce, he tell the story of former logger Grant Hadwin who, in protest against the timber industry, swam across a river in the Queen Charlotte Islands with a chainsaw and cut down a revered tree. The book, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2005, examined the pressures that brought Hadwin to take down the mythic tree. In The Tiger, Vaillant documents the death of Markov, then follows a charismatic warden named Yuri Trush who tracks the Amur (or Siberian) tiger. This story provides the frame in which the author considers how the tiger fits into the ecosystem of the Far East, and how the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China have brought new tensions to both tiger and human populations.
“To just write about a tiger hunt,” he says, “does a disservice to the victims and to the tiger. So much of what created the situation is the context in which it happened. I’m trying to create a multidimensional picture that has mythology, psychology, spirituality, heavy industry, politics, morality. It was a tragedy that expressed larger ideas. The pressures that caused it, formed it, are much larger and being felt by millions of people all over the world.”
A native of Boston, the 48-year-old writer moved to Vancouver more than a decade ago when his wife got an “offer she couldn’t refuse” to do her master’s degree at the University of British Columbia.
It’s clear that Vaillant’s mission is to go beyond conventional journalism in his books, and for him that approach is essential: “These are intense circumstances and amazing people. I want you to see what I saw and feel what I felt. You are trying to cross these barriers of distance and mindset and geography. It’s an exercise in vicarious empathy — empathizing with people who aren’t there. Fiction writers tend to be better at it. But non-fiction writers are starting to catch on.”
As for his subject, which has been at the beating heart of fictional works from Rudyard Kipling to Yann Martel, Valliant understands its lure.
“No one is unimpressed by a tiger,” he says. “They are sexy, beautiful, dangerous, charismatic, mysterious. They have it all. I wasn’t looking to do a tiger story. The fact that this story has the drama it has — and a tiger, too — as far as storytelling goes, it’s a good thing.”