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(Arts) 'Wolf Totem' book review by Jim Poyser


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Wolf Totem

Jiang Rong

Translated by Howard Goldblatt

Penguin Books (2009); $15

I get tired of non-fiction - especially given the nature of the non-fiction I read. Here's a recent list of reads: Paul and Anne Ehrlich's The Dominant Animal, Eric Roston's The Carbon Age, and Scott Russell Sanders' brand new book of essays The Conservationist's Manifesto.

Great books, all, and they more or less explore the following idea. Our planet as a habitat for humans and other species is collapsing, because of human behavior, and if we don't do something — a lot of things — really fast, it's all but over for Life As We Know It.

Pretty heavy stuff, so I knew I could use a break. A novel could provide that relief.

Lots of books come into the office for review, but Wolf Totem called to me. Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, the book has a simple and lovely cover - and a lot of heft at over 500 pages.

Guess what it's about: the idea that our planet as a habitat for humans and other species is collapsing, because of human behavior, and if we don't do something — a lot of things — really fast, it's all but over for Life As We Know It.

Set in the late nineteen sixties in Inner Mongolia, the book's narrator is Chen Zhen, a Beijing student who, as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution initiative, moves to the grasslands to study the habits of the nomadic Mongolian herdsman culture.

There, over the years, he witnesses what happens when herdsman culture is overtaken by agrarian society, and how the habitat is devastated in the process.

He meets and befriends Old Man Bilgee, a Mongolian elder who becomes his mentor, the man who teaches him about the essential importance - environmentally and spiritually - of wolves.

Early in the book, Bilgee teases Chen Zhen: "You're like a sheep. A fear of wolves is in your Chinese bones."

Chen Zhen becomes obsessed with wolves, reading everything he can about wolves in Mongolian mythology, but moreover by studying them in their natural habitat.

He learns about the delicate balance of the grassland ecosystem. While many do fear wolves — especially outsiders such as himself — wolves are the keystone species on the grassland. And as the outsiders begin to invade the grassland, Chinese attitudes toward wolves and nomadic culture begin to create friction.

The Chinese want to eradicate the wolves, because the wolves attack and kill their horses, eat their sheep and make their lives miserable.

But as Bilgee — and later Chen Zhen — tries to explain to the outsiders, if the wolves die, then the marmots and the mice take over, and before long, the grassland will become a wasteland.

Bilgee delivers this impassioned plea in the third chapter: "Out here, the grass and the grassland are the life, the big life. All else is little life that depends on the big life for survival. Even wolves and humans are little life... Grass is the big life, yet it is the most fragile, the most miserable lift. Its roots are shallow, the soil is thin, and though it lives on the ground, it cannot run away... When you kill off the big life of the grassland, all the little lives are doomed."

Substitute "grassland" with "planet" and you can see why I can't seem to get away from the subject of habitat collapse.

And why should I? Is there anything more important in this moment of human history, then realizing our existence IS fragile?

And that are our own worst enemy.

But to belabor this is to diminish the point that Wolf Totem is simply a great yarn. While the prose is occasionally wooden in the dialogue, the action passages where the wolves are attacking will raise the hair on the back of your neck. It's bloody and violent and sometimes heartbreaking to read.

You understand Chen Zhen's motivations when he decides to steal a wolf cub from its den. He wants to raise it, study it, master his fear, and understand on a deeper level the idea of Bilgee's "big life" - the roll wolves play in it.

But you also know in your bones - Chinese bones, American bones, all bones - that it's not going to work, because the larger truth we can't turn away from is that humans always mess things up.

The grassland will turn to desert. The nomadic herdsmen will settle down, get TVs, learn to ride motorcycles instead of horses, emit carbons and participate, in large and small ways, to the end of a tradition and the beginning of the great unraveling.

Where all the little lives are doomed.

But you can read this book any way you want. It's a insightful — and sometimes excoriating — look at China; its character, attitudes and flaws. It's a book of history about a pivotal moment in time about a country now poised to lead the world. Or, it's simply a spiritual book about wolves. How intelligent; how fierce; how resilient.

Author Jiang Rong lived this life. He was Chen Zhen. And he returned to Chinese city life with the teachings of the wolf totem intact. Eventually, he wrote about his experiences, and Wolf Totem sold millions in China, and now reaches us, to tell its story, teach its lessons, but mostly to honor the wolves so that we can understand more fully, the big life.


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