JOHN VAILLANT’S TALE of a beast that methodically stalked, killed, and devoured a post-perestroika poacher in the southeast corner of Russia makes it clear why William Blake’s most widely anthologized poems pit God’s lamb not against a lion, but a tiger. Vaillant’s intimate portrait of this animal is one part deftly delivered, seamlessly amalgamated journalism to two parts brutally beautiful prose and storytelling prowess — and it renders in our imaginations a creature so calculatingly cunning (at the home of one victim, the big cat drags a mattress outside and lounges on it while waiting for its next victim to return home), and so powerful, it can take down the Russian brown bear, cousin to North America’s grizzly.
It is credit to the animal that it has survived at all in a landscape bearing the fresh scars of political oppression and the resulting economic impoverishment — especially given the lust of the neighboring Chinese for Amur tigers’ parts, from penis to paw. Vaillant’s careful brushstrokes of this backdrop offer up a profoundly clear understanding of how the dualities of the world — the meek and the fierce, the predator and the prey, the haves and have-nots — are intricately, exquisitely bound to one another. And so as Vaillant’s central subject prowls the pages as both protagonist and antagonist — one that hunts and is also hunted, at once both revered and vilified — the tiger serves as wrecking ball to our perceived dualities. Vaillant has us understand this not so much in the spirit of Blake’s theological intentions of good and evil, of heaven and hell — nor does he relegate the tale to that which is merely biological. Rather Vaillant dares to take us down under, into the part of human unconscious that still, even as we are separated from the natural world, engages intimately with archetypal animals face-to-muzzle — even those that are exotic, endangered, extinct. Because Vaillant tackles this mystical aspect of the tiger and its eternal presence in our own psyches, the reader’s own primal nature is prodded. And this may be the book’s greatest achievement: when the author awakes in us that ancient connection of mutuality and respect between man and beast, only then do we stand a chance of saving those on the brink of annihilation.