Nov 25, 2009

Wolf Totem

by Jiang Rong
translated by Howard Goldblatt

I feel a bit inadequate to say anything about this sweeping novel. Wolf Totem is a semi-autobiographical work about a Chinese student from Beijing named Chen Zhen who goes to live among the nomadic people of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. During his ten or so years there, he lives among the sheep and horse herders, learning about the Mongolian way of life and most of all, about the wolves. The Mongolians wage constant war against wolves because they prey on the sheep and horses, yet at the same time they revere the animals, understanding that without this key predator the mice and marmots would quickly overrun the grassland and ruin the habitat. The more Chen learns about the wolves, the more fascinated he becomes, until he moves to steal a live wolf cub from its den and raise it in captivity, in order to study it. His plan is met with outrage by the Mongolians, who feel that keeping a wolf in captivity is demeaning to the animal, as well as dangerous. As Chen struggles to keep his wolf cub alive and deal with the problems it presents, a greater threat looms. Migrating Han Chinese come into the area to establish farms on the grassland, heedless of the elders' warnings that this will be destructive to the fragile grassland environment. And one of the first things they do is start a campaign to exterminate all the wolves.

This book has a lot of political themes which I did not fully comprehend, but I gather have made it very controversial. I was more interested in the environmental issues, and fascinated by the dual relationship the Mongols had with wolves- waging fearsome bloody battles against them, learning tactics of war from their pack behavior, and honoring their dead by giving them in "sky burials" to the wolves. It was fascinating to read about the Mongolain culture, something entirely new to me, and also heartbreaking to see how incoming farmers quickly affected the landscape. The fate of the captive wolf cub was also very sad. I nearly cried at the end.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 527 pages, 2008

More opinions at:
Olduvai Reads
Asia by the Book
Leap in the Dark
World Literature Forum
The Stay at Home Bookworm
Farm Lane Books Blog

9 comments:

carolsnotebook said...

Sounds fascinating, but the "nearly cried" means I'll have to skip it, because I will cry and I just hate that.

mel u said...

I have seen Wolf Totem in the stores here for over a year now-I was tempted to buy it but I hesitate to buy a long book by an unknown to me author-I think your review has pushed me in the direction of making it a 2010 read-love your blog header!

bermudaonion said...

This does sound fascinating! I know next to nothing about Mongolian culture and would love to know more after your review.

Bybee said...

Oh, cool. I'm sure I'd love this.


I have a Mongolian student this semester.

Biblibio said...

Quite interesting. Mongolian culture isn't something I've encountered in literature yet; this seems like it must be most informative. Good thing it also sounds like a good book!

Susan said...

You had me at Wolf Totem! I know next to nothing about Mongolian culture either, and I think the way you describe how they live with wolves - both killing and honouring them - is perhaps something we need to learn over here in NA with the ranchers and wolves. I've always sided with the wolves, so I will read this book, forwarned to keep kleenex handy for the ending! :-( Thanks for the review, you've brought this to my attention, Jeane, and it sounds very interesting.

Jeane said...

Carolsnotebook- O dear. I wouldn't want it to make you cry. But it is such a good book!

Mel u- I didn't know it was out in shops; I found it at a library discard sale. Sounds like you could find a copy pretty easy.

Bermudaonion- That was one of the most fascinating parts of the book; all I knew before reading this was that they were great warrior horsemen. That's really just scratching the surface, as I found out.

Bybee- I wonder if your student has read it, and what their opinion would be?

Biblibio- I think it's been said that this book is one of the first "literary greats" about Mongolia.

Susan- The main character in the book sides with the wolves too, but sadly even though his attempts to keep the wolf cub were well-intentioned, he couldn't keep it from harm, even at his own hands. That was the saddest part, for me.

Eva said...

I read a different Mongolian novel this year...this one sounds a bit too sad for me, but I loved that one (The Blue Sky).

Jeane said...

Eva- I'll have to look for that one. I've become curious to read more books about/set in Mongolia, now!