Every night instead of viewing television newscasts featuring highly educated but ill mannered and even worse behaved adults appeal to the lowest common emotional denominator, I have been reading a chapter in the book Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. I really have liked this story so far and would like to suggest it to anyone who is interested in Chinese culture and history. It also may appeal to those who are interested in ecology and wildlife. One thing I like about the story is that it imparts imagery evocative of wide open spaces and the winter scenes with snow impart a stark sense of contrast between the sky and the landscape. This imagined natural beauty coupled with the imagery of wolves and other animals is a strength of the book. The story is more action based than a lot of novels, which is something that I like. Dialogue so far has been limited and I think this imparts a good window into the direct thoughts of the author – which is something I can resonate with.
While I don’t agree with all of his characterizations and generalities he makes, and I find some of his scenes hyperbolic, his story is very well done and thought provoking. Since the book was written in Chinese, the translation may have something to do with this along with my possible ignorance of any cultural nuances which are foreign to me. Regardless, there is a lot in the book of value.
I’m about half way through the book at this point. Rong’s main characters are students voluntarily fleeing the cultural revolution in Beijing and choosing to live among the Mongols in Chinese Inner Mongolia. The students are given a yurt and a flock to tend to. The group’s elder, Bilgee favors the main character and takes time to show him the Mongol ways. In the story he compares the settled Chinese civilization of his main characters with that of the nomadic Mongols with whom he is living. In a surprising move from a novel from contemporary China, he seems to be somewhat critical of the government and its official who deals with the Mongols. I will develop this concept later on as right now it is just an impression, albeit a powerful one but still is a concept that remains undeveloped in the book. The author’s perspective seems tilted towards the Mongols but again, I think I would have to read the whole thing through to figure it out. I cannot help but to make mental comparisons between the Han Chinese incursions west and the 19th century American incursion west into the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Maybe this subconsciously resonates with me? Who knows. But this novel does seem to herald a watershed moment in Chinese history when things began to rapidly change from the traditional to the modern.
There have been a few action scenes so far – mostly involving watching wolves, defending livestock from them, and chasing wolves. A few main events have happened so far: the slaughter of the warhorses by wolves, the government sponsored wolf hunt and the capture of a wolf cub by the main character Chen. The main character has just abducted a wolf cub and is in the process of raising it as his own. Throughout there have been conversations with their Mongol brethren and with Bilgee about grassland management, tradition, and their religious beliefs. Yes, there is a lot more in the 225 pages I have read so far but I think I have hit the main parts.
So why would I write about a book I haven’t entirely read? I think I’m going to experiment by mentally recalling what I’ve read and writing about it – especially before the story is complete. Maybe the journey through the book is as important as the destination. Why did I pick this book? I picked this book because it supposedly one of the bestselling all time books in China and since I’ve been interested in China and learning some Chinese language the fact that book was popular is right up my alley. While I would like to get away from the popular and towards the obscure in a search for novelty, the fact that China is so different automatically shifts their popular to our obscure. I hate to say it though – often what is popular is popular because it is really good – at least in the book world. I am also working on potentially conceptualizing a new creative writing piece that just might feature the countries of China, Russia and Mongolia. It just might….regardless, I’m not letting the cat out of the bag on that one just yet. But I’m excited about the idea/ideas that I have for a new story so far!