Friday, July 13, 2012

Review of "Wolf Totem: A Novel" by Jiang Rong

Jiang Rong was a government researcher sent to live in Inner Mongolia (a portion of Mongolia belonging to China) in the time of communism. Decades later, the difficult yet visceral life he experienced living amongst the native Mongolians and the sweeping changes he saw engulfing the traditional society inspired him to write a book. Published in 2004, a time when voices against communism were more tolerated, Wolf Totem is a moving novel of a people and culture’s existence on the Mongolian steppe, nature and the Chinese government seeking to quell their traditional spirit with every passing year.

Not subtly written, Wolf Totem is the story of the researcher Lu Jiamin and his time living in a village in Inner Mongolia to determine the area’s potential for resource extraction by the Chinese government. Suddenly immersed in horses, sheep, and yurts, Lu initially has difficulty fitting in with the native Mongolians. They are aware of his purpose and alienate him from their richly traditional culture. Slowly but surely, however, Lu works his way into the villagers’ trust and the story takes shape, his thoughts becoming conflicted in the process.

Environmentalism the theme throughout, the vast majority of Wolf Totem is an exposition on the interconnectivity of a people, their livestock, the land, and of course, the wolf packs hanging omnipresent on the fringes, threatening to steal precious life from the villagers in all forms, horse, sheep, and child. The emphasis on balance in nature, it is precisely the wolves taking of life which Jiang illustrates as propagating the larger presence of life on the steppe. What is only a temporary tragedy for the Mongolians is a nuisance needing riddance for the Chinese. Emotionally affecting, the Lu’s disposition contrasted by the vicissitudes of life closer to nature on the steppe motivates the book well.

In the end, Wolf Totem is a book strongly pertinent to a world ever globalizing. Traditional Mongolian culture threatening to be swallowed by the Chinese machine, the story of one researcher’s life amongst the herders makes for not only informative reading regarding the intricacies of their culture, but an environmental statement on the advance of globalization upon groups and communities living more in synch with nature. The quality of the writing (or perhaps, translation) is not the greatest, however, given the basic human emotions and needs driving the story, it’s difficult for the reader not to be drawn into the fundamentally human tale of survival. Recommended for anyone interested in Mongolian culture, wolves, and the anthropological and ecological aspects of globalization in less developed areas of the world.

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