Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: Wolf Totem

Recipient of the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, Jiang Rong's novel Wolf Totem is a cultural and environmental journey through a fictional region of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. While the translation by Howard Goldblatt is culturally enlightening and filled with beautiful descriptions, it is tedious and slow moving.

Wolf Totem centers on a group of students from Beijing who are sent to live in Inner Mongolia. Chen Zhen takes the lead role in learning nomadic Mongolian lifestyle and educating the locals in Mandarin. Chen and the other students also pass around foreign books to read and pass the time, without any concern for the fact that they are banned by the government. He and the others are taken care of by the village elder, Bilgee and his family. Bilgee takes a particular interest in teaching Chen about Mongolian beliefs and respect for the wolves and nature.

Chen's fascination with wolves leads him to capture a newborn and raise it. His plan is to study the wolf and, with luck, mate it with the Mongolian dogs to breed a stronger dog for sheep herding. The young wolf's life then follows a similar pattern to that of the nomadic people and the modernization of the region.

As time passes, more Han Chinese move into the grassland and damage the ecosystem, causing more problems with wolves, which leads to the near extermination of wolves in Inner Mongolia. The students and locals raise their concerns about the forced life changes that they must make in order to welcome all the new people and work for the government. Of course, their concerns and objections are ignored and the grassland turns to desert.

Jiang Rong's novel is rather anti-Han. Aside from the Beijing students, every other non-Mongolian is villianized for the destruction of the grassland and disrespect toward the Mongolians. At one point, Chen asks a Han migrant what he'll eat next year if he continues to kill all the animals. The migrants response is, " 'Didn't you people call us migrants? Migrants, migrants, mindless immigrants....We go where there's food and never worry about the year after that.' " There are plenty of instances of the students witnessing what they perceive as disrespect for the land. Each time they see something they don't like, there is a confrontation that ends with the Han migrants acting apathetic.

The novel begins with strong scenes and explanations of life on the Inner Mongolian grassland, but does not maintain that same level of interest throughout the 524 pages. Much of the narration becomes tedious and repetetive--it's unfortunate that so much needs to be explained about the Mongolian life in order for huge sections of Wolf Totem to make sense to a reader, thus making it read like a textbook.

No comments: