With When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo returns us to the Empire of Ahn and the adventures of the story-collecting Cleric Chih, first encountered in The Empress of Salt and Fortune. In this stellar follow-up, Vo continues to ruminate on the importance of storytelling, of cultural memory, of understanding how fact becomes legend. But in Tiger, Vo also confronts the way the act of storytelling changes when the audience is, at best, not receptive or, even worse, hostile, and how different cultures may see the same story through conflicting lenses. Along the way, the author also plays with our own expectations of how the story will be told, based on our experience of the previous novella.
The novella opens with Chih making a new friend: a mammoth-riding soldier named Si-yu who has been commissioned to help Chih cross a mountain pass before an incoming storm makes the trip impossible. They plan to stop at a high shelter run by Bao-so, Si-yu’s fellow soldier. But when they arrive, Bao-su has been injured and is about to be killed by a trio of hungry tiger sisters. In short order, Si-yu, Chih, and the mammoth Piluk rescue the unconscious fellow but find themselves trapped in a barn by the tigers. The tigers announce that they will gladly let the mammoth go free but plan to eat the humans. Chih attempts to buy some time for rescue by explaining their mission—collecting stories for the abbey at Singing Hills—would be greatly enhanced by hearing the tiger sisters’ personal stories, or some of the history of their kin. Singing Hills’ library currently contains only the legends of the tigers Ho Dong Vinh and Ho Thi Thao. Ho Sinh Loan, the eldest of the tiger sisters and proclaimed queen of the region in which the travelers find themselves, decides that it would be better for Chih to tell the story as they know it, with the tigers correcting anything the human gets wrong. “Best not to get it wrong too often,” one of Sinh Loan’s younger sisters advises Chih.
And so Chih the story collector becomes Chih the storyteller. The legend Chih is asked to recount is one the Cleric seems very familiar with; one they could probably tell almost in their sleep if they audience weren’t hostile. Ready to interrupt and to disagree over details both significant and inconsequential, the tigers argue more with each other than with the teller of the tale. This naturally changes the way Chih tells the story, wondering at every turn what will upset Sinh Loan or one of her sisters: Sinh Cam (excitable and interested in hearing Chih’s alternate version of the story she already knows so well) and Sinh Hoa (who comes across as bored and sleepy, but who I doubt very much is ever actually asleep).
As with any tale of an encounter between two cultures, who is centered depends on who is telling the story. The version of the courtship between the tiger queen Ho Thi Thao and her scholarly human lover Dieu that Chih knows clearly places the human as the heart of the story. Everything Ho Thi Thao does is in reaction to Dieu, and borne of the tiger’s immediate and intense attraction to the human. When Thao and Dieu argue, Dieu is almost always in the right or comes out the better, and ultimately it is the noble human who sacrifices everything she ever wanted to save and redeem the savage beast. In the tiger’s version, it is Dieu who betrays Thao at every turn, the duplicitous human spurning the great gift of the honorable tiger’s love and endangering her. Through the alternating takes of Chih and Sinh Loan (and sometimes her sisters), we see how both cultures have passed down the story in order to affirm that their culture is more civilized and honorable than the other. The stories differ in other culturally significant ways as well: in a scene in which Ho Thi Thao saves Dieu, for instance, the threat is from human ghosts in Chih’s version but trickster foxes in the tigers’ iteration, implying something about the way each culture views the “afterlife” and what scares them.
Why do the human and tiger versions of this story vary so greatly? Through dialogue and through Chih’s private thoughts, Vo show us that even those these two cultures exist in the same region of the same world, they have failed to interact. In fact, near the start of the book, the tigers and humans each equally appear surprised that the others can not only talk but apply reason and intellect—and therefore they must treat each other as equals for the night rather than just easily dispatched prey. It’s pretty clear that what few previous interactions tigers and humans have had have been distrustful and violent, despite the example set by Ho Thi Thao and Dieu (who, after all, did fall in love with one another). It’s not easy for different versions of a legend to coalesce if the holders of those versions don’t communicate at all. And yet, throughout the book, the disparate sides find some commonalities.
Just as Cleric Chih and Ho Sinh Loan have expectations of how the tale of Ho Thi Thao and Dieu will be told and remembered, we readers similarly come into When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain with expectations. The Empress of Salt and Fortune was also about learning the truth behind a legend, the truth being spooled out to Chih and their avian companion Almost Brilliant (who is sorely missed in Tiger but whose absence is explained) by a mysterious elder. I was intrigued by the woman Rabbit, but never felt that Chih was in actual danger from her; the tone was more that of an honored elder telling an extended campfire story over the course of several nights. Not so Sinh Loan and her sisters. They are a threat from the moment they are introduced, putting Chih in the role of Scheherazade for one long night to save their own life as well as those of Si-yu and Bao-so. To survive the night and take their notes on the tigers’ version of the legend back to Singing Hills, Chih must not only please the imperious Sinh Loan, but also her sisters. The tigers’ personalities are as at odds with each other as they are with the humans they are waiting to eat.
Eventually, the night, the storytelling, and the stand-off between humans and tigers must all end. Vo ties up all three in a wonderful fight sequence that mirrors the chase scene at the beginning and allows Si-yu, Piluk and all three tigers to battle it out while still leaving questions about what the future holds for all of them. One wonders if the encounter between the Cleric Chih and the Tiger Sisters will someday be told in both cultures and what differences each version of the story will hold.