Saturday, April 19, 2008

The pull of antithetical forces

Jiang Rong is the pseudonym of a Beijing writer who spent eleven years beginning 1967 in Inner Mongolia as part of a voluntary exercise that involved young intellectuals. Their aim was to familiarize themselves with life on the Inner Mongolia steppes.

"Wolf Totem", a fictional take on Rong's experiences of the time, has sold over a million copies in China, making him an instant publishing sensation. In 2005, Penguin bought the global English language rights to the novel, and thanks to Howard Goldblatt's excellent translation, we can now read a landmark in publishing history.

"Wolf Totem" is the story of Chen Zhen, who arrives in the Olonbulang, a remote grassland in Inner Mongolia, in the late 1960s. The Mongolians are a proud, valiant people who lead nomadic lives on the grassland. When Chen Zhen settles with herdsmen of the Olonbulang, he is witness to a remarkable, beautiful way of life that is endearing despite its hardships.

The Mongolians consider the wolf as the soul of the grasslands, a creature in direct communion with Tennger, the Mongolians' heaven. They look upon the wolf as a savior of the grasslands, primarily because it keeps the small animals' population in check. Yet, the blood thirst of the wolves is a permanent danger that the herdsmen live with. The herdsmen's relationship with the wolves is, therefore, one of uneasy admiration.

Guided by a strict yet benevolent herdsman, Chen Zhen finds himself getting drawn to the legend of the wolves, to both their savagery and their warrior spirit. He decides to steal a wolf cub from a den and raise it secretly.

The book gradually moves into its other major theme: the subjugation of ethnic tribes. When the Chinese government sends its representatives to the grasslands to oversee the creation of farming collectives, the first target is the wolves. In the battle between the herdsmen and the Communist government, there is little doubt who Chen Zhen will side with.

In many respects, "Wolf Totem" goes beyond definitions. The fight between Mongolia and China, grassland and mainland, wolf and human, is a study in anthropological contrasts. In its scope, the book resembles Tolstoy's "War and Peace", and in its evocation of the hold of the animal spirit on human imagination, it surpasses "Moby Dick".


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

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