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.