I just finished The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, an Orion Book Award finalist about the hunt for a man-eating tiger in remote eastern Siberia in 1997. On one level, it's your basic hair-raising thriller about a rogue beast and the brave and frightened men who track it. There's plenty of grisly forensic evidence, a few spine-chilling moments, and on more than one occasion the hunter becomes the hunted. Along with the trackers, the reader is drawn into the physical and psychological realm of this near-mythic and elusive creature whose calculating intelligence and patience allows it to outmaneuver its captors while remaining virtually invisible in the forest.
But it's the forest itself, the tiger's domain, the strange land of the Siberian taiga and the people who live there, that elevates this story from man vs. beast to an intimate exploration of the natural world and its relationship with contemporary culture. By drawing attention to their interdependence, author John Vaillant renders the setting every bit as compelling a character; the tiger and taiga are indivisible. The land defies conventional description, so he dubs it a "boreal jungle" to evoke its exotic mix of flora and fauna. It's the sort of ragged wilderland you might expect to wander through in Middle Earth, but instead of elvish villages it's dotted with hunting shacks and charmless Soviet-era outposts, an aesthetic of metal boxes at odds with nature where villagers are laid low by poverty and the lawlessness wrought by perestroika. And the occasional man-eating tiger.
Capturing the strange beauty of this region has been a goal of some of our greatest filmmakers. Werner Herzog, always on the hunt for the strange and beautiful, recently teamed up for a documentary about the hunters of the taiga titled, of all things, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, which I hope to see on DVD soon. Further back, in 1975, Akira Kurosawa brought this haunting landscape to life in one of my all-time favorite films, Dersu Uzala, which was adapted from the writings of the well-known Soviet explorer, Vladimir Arseniev, about his friendship with the trapper he hires to accompany him.
In 2014, The Tiger (and the taiga) will come to the big screen again, with no less than Darren Aronofsky at the helm and a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga, who also wrote Amores Perros and Babel. The lead tracker will be played by Brad Pitt, whose film choices have gotten more and more interesting lately. His is not the sort of face you expect to find in the Siberian wilderness, but then I felt the same way about Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson and got over it fast.
Until then, your can discover more about the taiga and its tigers in Peter Matthiessen's Tigers in the Snow and National Geographic's Tigers of the Snow.