Friday, March 14, 2008
Book Review: Wolf Totem
It's exactly four years after Wolf Totem was published in Chinese.
It immediately created a literary sensation not only for its unusual story, but also its daring statements criticizing the Chinese government in its treatment of the environment and minorities.
Jiang Rong is the pen name for Lu Jiamin, who wrote this semi-autobiographical story about a student named Chen Zhen who spends many years on the Mongolian grasslands during the Cultural Revolution.
He is fascinated by the wolves and unlike the other Chinese students living there, he takes a keen interest and is taught everything about them by an elder Mongolian called Bilgee.
Chen and the reader learn the important role that wolves play in the grasslands: as natural predators, they keep the population of mice, rabbits and gazelles down so that the herders have enough grass for their sheep and horses. However, there are certain periods in the year when wolves can't find food and will resort to killing the herders' sheep and horses. And when the Mongols feel threatened, they too have to protect themselves by killing wolves.
But there is also the spiritual aspect of wolves that Bilgee talks about. There is a higher spirit called Tengger that also regulates the ecosystem below. And the Mongols worship the wolf totem. It's not a fixed or physical monument, but a spiritual one about freedom -- no one can tame a wolf.
At times the scenes describing the grasslands are idyllic and almost like utopia. At others, there is sheer violence, blood and guts. But this was the life of the land there.
Translator Howard Goldblatt has done a fantastic job making this novel a thrilling read, that I can only imagine the Chinese version is even better.
The story also has a strong environmental message that not only relates to China but to the world; which is why I hope that now the book is available to a wider audience, it will inspire more people to push their governments to be more accountable and make corporations more responsible as we only have one place to live on and it's already slowly choking to death.