Friday, September 18, 2009

Jiang Rong - Wolf Totem

After I finished “Wolf Totem” I went online in search of reviews. To my surprise critics everywhere seemed (at the very least) hesitant about this great book: most were uncomfortable at the harsh criticism of Chinese mentality (because they're on “our” side now and we mustn’t bother them), many resented the fact that characters talk at length about their world-views (“didactic” is now a four letter word, apparently), and quite a lot were genuinely upset at how long the book is.

I almost let out an audible sigh of relief as I read Jonathan Mirsky’s words for the Literary Review – I might not be as clueless and ignorant a reader as I thought.

Ursula K. LeGuin for the Guardian: “…that is the sorrowful theme of the rest of this long book” (which I honestly cannot believe she actually read, since she doesn’t mention the main theme of young man/ wolf cub relation). And how offensive is this entry line?
“I don't know what it means to sell four million copies of a book in China - that's a lot of books, but there are a lot of Chinese.” – ah yes, the old “there are so many of them” schtick…

Pankaj Mishra for the NY times: “It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller”

German critic Wolfgang Kubin, got so hot and bothered over “Wolf Totem” he deemed it “fascist” …

Literary critics being so much more cultured (clutered?) and informed than the rest of us, have to read this book in light of their extensive knowledge of millennia of Chinese culture and a complete understanding of contemporary politics – however, the rest of us might enjoy it for what it is: a spellbinding tale, that is also cautionary.

Clifford Coonan wrote in the Independent that “Wolf Totem” can be seen as “a moving novel of nomads and settlers and their relation with wolves on the Mongolian steppes, a guide to doing business in New China, an ecological handbook, or a piece of military strategy.”

To me, the strongest motif was one of condemnation of human nature. As we witness Chen Zhen embark on a series of bad decisions, all of them motivated by his very real love of wolves it becomes impossible not to feel strongly that human love and interest often ring the death toll for the object of their attention. Zhen regrets stealing the wolf cubs, leaving the mother bereft and the siblings dead at human hands, he regrets forcing his own bitch to nurse a wolf against her instinct, he regrets keeping the cub chained under the scorching sun, unhappy he cannot run or play with the other puppies, he regrets breaking the wolf’s incisors rendering him useless for a life in the wild and breaking his will with violence. And yet, all the time, the protagonist rationalizes to himself and others that this is the only way to “understand”, to “learn” about wolves.

Is “Wolf Totem” a rant against Chinese culture? Or is the real reason it bothers western mentality so much, the fact that it indicts all of us? Hasn’t our society been built upon the continual destruction of resources without care for the cycles of Nature? Isn’t our relation with animals built in terms of function? – for food, for work, for lab research, for our pleasure and entertainment? Aren’t we all part sheep, part Han Chinese?

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