Tiger and whale tales reorder our perceptions of ourselves
It was a bookmark that gave the Indian writer R. K. Narayan the idea for A Tiger for Malgudi (Viking, $14.75). The bookmark carried a picture of a young tiger pleading, ''I'd love to get into a good book.''
Narayan claims to have known of several friendships between a tiger and a man , including one involving a hermit who arrives at the Kumbh Mele Festival every year, accompanied by an unleashed tiger. The tiger doesn't even scare, let alone harm, any of the pilgrims. It seemed incredible, he says, ''but as I got used to the idea, I began to speculate on its possibilities for a novel.'' So here, then, is a good, strong story of a man-tiger friendship.
Told through the eyes of the huge tiger, Raja, this is in one sense a terrible story. Better not read it if you ever want to enjoy a circus again - a description of life in a cage is too vivid and moving for comfort. Not that Narayan wants us to be comfortable, for his book is about violence - violence prompted by instinct, fear, or greed. But it is violence that the man whom Raja calls Master is able to subdue by recognizing the tiger ''as a gift from God.''
One does not have to accept all the Master's wisdom to enjoy this story or relish its touches of wry humor at our expense. Take, for instance, Raja on one of mankind's characteristic failings: ''For one used to the grand silence of the jungle, the noisy nature of humanity was distressing. In due course I got used to it. . . . I realized that deep within,'' the tiger says, ''I was not different from human beings, and I got into their habit myself and never had a moment's silence or stillness of mind - I was either talking (in my own way, inaudibly) or listening, and thus became fully qualified to enter human society.'' Boulle's tale of a whale; In the middle of the Falklands unpleasantness, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, made a speech. ''Attention!'' he commanded; ''on radar, cetaceans often look like submarines.''
Now, if you were captain of a destroyer en route to recapture the Falklands from the Argentines, and the Admiralty radioed you the Prince's unmilitary message, what effect would it have? If a black spot manifested itself on your radar screen, would you dare fire? If you killed a whale, what would the world - and the Prince - think of you? But would you dare hold your fire and risk the ship and the men aboard her?
The Prince's message was real enough, part of a speech given in May of 1982, just after the Argentines had landed on the islands, claiming them for their own , and Britain had announced its determination to drive them off again.
But whatever the powers-that-be may have intended at that moment, Pierre Boulle was fascinated with the Prince's warning and the power it might have had to discombobulate the British fleet. Out of his fascination he wrote a short novel, The Whale of the Victoria Cross (Vanguard Press, $12.95).
Actually it's not so much a novel as a fairy tale. It has none of the diverse characters, mysteries, or surprises of a novel - but it does have all the rich imagination and happy expectedness of a fairy tale. Although the ending is tragic (tragic, not sad), it doesn't detract from the story's legendary quality. Like every good bedtime story, it leaves the reader breathing a sigh of satisfaction.