Hunting the Tiger—Book Review

Christopher S. Stewart, Hunting the Tiger: The Fast Life and Violent Death of the Balkans’ Most Dangerous Man.   Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.

Stewart’s work is an investigation of a country in the throes of a moral crisis, via the career of the gangster and warlord Arkan. The book is gripping and readable, and Stewart has dug deep into the history of the man. The activities of Arkan in one of the centuries most brutal conflicts are not something that can simply be pulled from the historical archives or newspapers. Stewart invested substantial time (and no doubt money)in interviewing people close the “the Commander.” One of the strengths of Hunting the Tiger is allowing the reader to glimpse the difficulties (and apparent dangers) of interviewing and sifting through the “legends” and hyperbole. Stewart does this in an open, but not boastful, manner, and gives the reader a glimpse at his own increasing obsession sparked by a personal brush with the horror and easy violence of the conflict.

One of the strengths of Stewart’s journalistic but thorough approach is a writing style that deals with ambiguities and uncertainties while maintaining an interesting narrative approach. Historical writing is often full of qualifiers, competing hypothesis and passive sentences; this is not a bad thing, but it does reduce the flow of historical writing. Stewart skillfully and consistently reveals when he is dealing with half-truths, conjectures and educated guesses, but does so in seamless manner that informs but does not waylay the reader. The work has a depth that would have allowed it to be a footnoted tome, but Stewart thankfully has done something else with the work.

Throughout the work, Stewart struggles with a question well worth struggling with: how do a region and so many people slip so quickly and deeply into evil? While Stewart is fully aware of the historical tropes of repressed ethnic aggression and overly-developed senses of historical destiny, his work carries the weight of looking at this at the topic at a more individual level: “It wasn’t that the entire population was evil. It was just that evil had gotten so deep into the core of the city that there was nothing to do but to be evil yourself. . . .” Out of context, the quote (pg. 205) may seem simplistic, especially if you are unfamiliar with the Balkans of the 1990s. Read the book–Stewart makes the case. We residents of the 21st century know about war atrocities, and we know about genocide, but fortunately most of us have no experience and limited understanding of those places and periods where morality seems to have simply disappeared.