Monday, May 7, 2012

Wolf Totem--Review

Selecting a book for China was the most difficult decision I had to make for the 52-counties challenge. I was paralyzed: what book could I pick could encompass this huge and ancient country? I had to pick something important, something meaningful. It turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated, so I sent out an bulletin on the GR challenge group for help. I specifically asked for no memoirs, as I'd read plenty of struggles-against-the-regime autobiographies, no Chinese-American writers, as I've read many of them as well and my goal was to read as many native born authors as possible. I also wanted to stick to the mainland if possible, and I really didn't want a historical novel.

Several people suggested one of Anchee Min's novels. I read her book on Pearl S Buck and just didn't like it--I thought the language was stilted and the plot clunkingly obvious. "Chronicle of a Blood Merchant" by Yu Hua sounded interesting; I almost picked that. In the end, however, I chose "Wolf Totem", partly because my friend Chrissie on GR

had recommended it, and the local library had a copy of it on audio book. Besides, the author Lu Jiamin's history--(Jiang Rong is a pseudonym) was fascinating as he himself was sent to Mongolia during the cultural revolution., and the book has been the greatest seller in Chinese history since Mao's "Little Red Book".

It's funny how much the way in which the medium in which we experience a book can affect the reader. When I first looked at "Cloud Street", for example, with its multitude of ellipses, one-sentence paragraphs, and endless page gaps, I thought that, crabby as I was after "The Bone People's" linguistic stunts, that I would never be able to get into the book, let alone finish it. So I listened to a sample on audio--and loved it. Here I had the opposite problem. The narrator of Wolf Totem was quite bad. He had the overly melodious and clear tones--I'm-just-going-to-explain-it-all-to-you-kiddies of a bad Disney nature film voice-over. I kept expecting to hear him describing lemmings diving en masse headlong into the sea. And his accents were beyond terrible, particularly of the Mongolian chief, who sounded just like Boris Badanoff. Where were Moose and Squirrel? I kept wondering .Even my husband, through the closed doors of my sewing room, could hear how bad the narration was, and commented sympathetically. It got to the point where I was dreading my daily rug hooking. It was impossible to contemplate 30+ discs of this auditory torture.

So I switched to a hard copy library book. It was a bit better, though frankly not much of an improvement stylistically. "Wolf Totem" is one of those books that the reader has to wonder what was lost in translation. Apparently quite a lot--particularly at the end, where apparently 50 pages was excised for the English reader, where the author explains his motives. Maybe the western publishers thought that there was only so much didacticism that a foreign reader could bear. Not that I agree that the foreign publisher should arbitrarily remove chunks of a book, but the authro's intend here was screamingly obvious, and (maybe) might not have been missed. More troubling are the Chinse proverbs prefacing each chapter that were also cut from the book; it doesn't speak well of the publishe's opinion of the prospective audience and seems rather patronizing, in fact.

"Wolf Totem" tells the story of Chen, the young student from Beijing, who volunteers to go out to the grasslands of Mongolia, during the period of the Cultural Revolution when "barefoot doctors" and the like were sent to countryside to indoctrinate the recalcitrant locals. While living in Mongolia, Chen is guided by his Mongoliam mentor, Bilgee, into the superior ways of the "horse people", as opposed to the "sheep people", the Han Chinese. Later Chen finds and raises a wold cub. All of this takes place during the last days of the great grassland culture, which is coming under increasing threat by an industrializing China.

While reading this book, I spent much less time wondering about the characters, which are mere didactic ciphers--only Bilgree has much life, and he is more of the wise shaman trope--and wondering about the average Chinese reader's reaction to the novel, and indeed how this novel got published at all. It is highly critical of the central government policies, both then and now. And the endless self-loathing criticism of the Han culture grew to be extremely tiresome. I got tired of reading about Genghis Khan's vast empire (which of course collapsed almost immediately) and how it was supposedly as great an influence as any in the world--far greater, for example, than the Han culture. And try as I might, I am not convinced that the accidental castration of a stallion by having its testicle bit off was the greatest turning point in world civilization (as the author, through Bilgee) assures us. I am certainly not going to think that it is more important than the invention of say, the printing press, or of writing in general. Do any Chinese readers take this sort of puffering seriously? Is self doubt, even self-loathing fashionable in China? It's hard for an outsider to know.

Much of the nature writing is undeniably beautiful, in a sort of "Gates of Heaven" mode. I could see it as a sweeping wide-scope film, where the wind is always blowing through the grass, and where the people don't talk much. That would have improved this book a great deal. Bilgee is always explaining, always lecturing, always talking. But though the depiction of the result of man's activities on the land seem devastatingly accurate, I wish I could have as much confidence in the author's grasp of wolf psychology. Strangely enough, the description of the wolf cub that Chen raises seems very realistic--but the wolves "outside" seemed to be gifted with a fiendish cleverness--driven by revengeful thoughts, plottings and scheming months after an event, that seem almost laughable.

The end of the novel is very poignant--and inevitable, and the fate of Bilgee, who receives the last "sky burial" seem particularly sad. The end redeemed the novel for me--that, and the opportunity to get a small glimpse into China's culture today.

Wolf Totem  Howard Goldblatt, translator

                                                                 3 stars

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