One-Minute Book Reviews

May 28, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:06 am
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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

10 Discussion Questions
Wolf Totem
By Jiang Rong
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

At the age of 21, Jiang Rong left school went to live and work among the nomads of the Inner Mongolian grasslands. He stayed for 11 years and, in his first novel, fictionalizes his experiences in the region, including that of raising an orphaned wolf cub. After leaving Mongolia, Jiang became a professor and activist for democracy who was jailed after the Tinananmen Square massacre. He won the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize for Wolf Totem, which reportedly has had a readership in China second only to that of Mao’s little red book.

Discussion Questions

1. Most Americans have read few, if any, books by living Chinese authors. What ideas did you have about Chinese fiction before you read Wolf Totem? How did the novel affect your ideas?

2. Jiang tries in this novel to refute stereotypes of wolves, including those in fairy tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood.” [Page 329] How effective is that effort? Does he ever trade one stereotype for another?

3. Translators often have trouble translating gracefully slang that relates to sex or other bodily functions (which may sound comical enough in the original language). For example, the well-regarded translator Howard Goldblatt has a native Mongol say, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].” [Page 133] While reading Wolf Totem, how aware were you of the translation? Did the translation seem to enhance or undermine the book?

4. A blog for China-watchers, the China Beat, calls Wolf Totem “nostalgic drivel” thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/03/coming-distractions-wolf-totem.html. Do you see parallels between Jiang’s descriptions of nomads and the romanticized portrayals of American Indians or other groups that are common in the U.S.?

5. Wolf Totem isn’t a pure allegory like Animal Farm, a novel widely regarded as a critique of Stalinism. But the book does have allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations. How would you compare Wolf Totem with any other novels that make use of extended metaphors or allegorical techniques?

6. China has violated human rights so aggressively that you may have been surprised by Jiang’s characterization of its people as passive and weak-natured. His stand-in, Chen Zhen, believes that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and hindered the country’s ability to develop. [Page 304] He also faults other aspects of the culture. How credible is the critique of modern China that runs throughout the novel?

7. A critic for the New York Times Book Review found it remarkable that Wolf Totem had become so popular in China when it’s “so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic.” The critic wondered if the novel had sold well because it exhorts the Chinese “to imitate the go-getting spirit of the West” or because it “captures a widespread Chinese anxiety about their country’s growing physical and moral squalor.” [“Call of the Wild,” by Pankaj Mishra, the New York Times Book Review, May 4, 2008, page 11.] Why do you think the novel sold well in China? Why might it sell well in the U.S.?

8. The same NYTBR review also said that the novel proceeds at a glacial pace. What accounts for the slow pace? Is it the repetition? The set pieces? The lack of a strong narrative arc or sustained conflict? Is a slow pace always a detriment to a novel?

9. Characters in Wolf Totem attribute “powers of intellect” to wolves [Page 130] and sometimes go so far as to say, “Wolves are smarter than people.” [Page 240] Americans have a fascination with books, movies and television shows about animals that appear to be smarter than humans, such as the old TV dramas Lassie and Flipper. What do you think explains this? What does Wolf Totem have in common with other tales of animals that seem to have a higher I.Q. than the rest of us?

10. Wolf Totem reflects conspicuous editing lapses. One sentence appears in almost identical form on back-to-back pages: “In the end, Chen had to abandon his desire to touch the cub while he was eating” [Page 264] and “In the end, Chen abandoned his desire to pet the wolf while he was eating … ” [Page 265] And the book lists the “four destructive pests of the grassland” as “field mice, wild rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 237 and as “squirrels, rabbits, marmots, and gazelles” on page 251. Jiang may have written and Goldblatt translated those sentences. But it’s an editor’s job to point out such redundancies and inconsistencies, which conscientious authors will usually fix. If you had been the editor of Wolf Totem, what changes would you have suggested?

Vital statistics:
Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95. Published: April 2008 www.penguin.com. Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. A review of Wolf Totem appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 27, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/27. For more on the Man Asian Literary Prize, click here www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2008/index.php.

Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on One-Minute Book Reviews frequently but not on a regular schedule. Please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing the guides.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 27, 2008

Man Asian Literary Prize Reality Check – Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

Filed under: Book Awards Reality Check,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 am
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Meanwhile, back at the yurt, the natives say things like, “I nearly peed my pants”

The latest in a series of occasional posts on the winners of major literary awards and whether they deserved their honors

Title: Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong. Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt. Penguin, 527 pp., $29.95.

What it is: A semi-autobiographical novel by a retired Beijing professor and former member of the Red Guards, who became an activist for democracy. At the age of 21, Jiang Rong went to live among nomads on the Inner Mongolian grasslands and stayed for 11 years. Wolf Totem fictionalizes his life there, including his experience of raising an orphaned wolf cub.

Winner of … the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize, given to a book from Asia that hasn’t been published in English.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Yes. Censorship in China clearly limits the supply of worthy books. But so much good fiction has come out of Japan, India and other parts of Asia that the award to Rong is hard to fathom.

Worthy of a major literary award? No. Wolf Totem is pop fiction. The writing is on par with that of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (and like that book, romanticizes animals, casting some as smarter than humans).

Comments: Wolf Totem reads less like a novel than a series of set pieces about a young intellectual, Chen Zhen, who leaves Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and becomes a shepherd on Mongolian steppes haunted by wolves. The novel isn’t a pure allegory in the sense that, say, Animal Farm is, but has allegorical elements. Wolves and sheep are extended metaphors for, respectively, the vigor of China’s lost nomadic cultures and the passivity of recent generations.

The virtues of Wolf Totem are more anthropological than literary. Rong lifts up a nomadic society, unknown to most Americans, that counts onion-fried duck-egg pancakes among its delicacies. He also taps a deep, if more familiar, vein of wolf lore. But his story lacks a strong narrative arc and sustained conflict until, after several hundred pages, Chen’s community faces the threat of a wolf attack just as the cub he is raising becomes more ferocious. The pace is turgid, the dialogue artificial, and the tone didactic. The book is both a semicolon-infested critique of modern China and a lament for the vanished wolf-worshipping nomads. Its themes include that “China’s small-scale peasant economy and Confucian culture have weakened the people’s nature” and slowed the country’s ability to develop. Characters ascribe intellectual powers to wolves and say repeatedly that they are “smarter than people.” Yet the treatment of wolves is, in some ways, simplistic: Chen is supposed to be an intellectual, but he never asks such questions as: Is wolf “intelligence” really intelligence or a highly evolved form of instinct?

Best line: A description of a blizzard on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia: “Yurts set up along wind tunnels were blown upside down, turned into huge bowls that tumbled briefly before falling to pieces. Carts heading into the wind lost their felt canopies, which flew off into the sky. The blowing snow was so dense that anyone riding a horse could see neither the head nor tail of his mount.”

Worst line: Many lines in this book choke on the gristle of fact. An example: “Now he understood how the great, unlettered military genius Genghis Khan, as well as the illiterate or semiliterate military leaders of peoples such as the Quanrong, the Huns, the Tungus, the Turks, the Mongols, and the Jurchens, were able to bring the Chinese (whose great military sage Sun-tzu had produced his universally acclaimed treatise The Art of War) to their knees, to run roughshod over their territory, and to interrupt their dynastic cycles.” Then there are stumpers like: “Heaven and man do not easily come to together, but the wolf and the grassland merge like water and milk.” And it’s hard to imagine a Mongol nomad saying, “I nearly peed my pants [sic].”

Published: April 2008 www.penguin.com

Furthermore: Jiang Rong is the pen name of Lu Jiamin. Wolf Totem reportedly has had a Chinese readership second only to that of Mao’s little red book. You’ll find more on the Man Asian Literary Prize at www.manasianliteraryprize.org/2008/index.php. For a specialist’s perspective on Wolf Totem, you may want to read this post on The China Beat, which calls the book “nostalgic drivel” thechinabeat.blogspot.com/2008/03/coming-distractions-wolf-totem.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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