Saturday, July 26, 2008

Crying Wolf

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai. In passing, it's interesting that wolves should figure so prominently in mythology and folktales. There are the so-called fairy tales (at least two), the legend of Romulus and Remus, the son of Loki in Norse mythology and Charon, the ferry man from Greek mythology who had the ears of a wolf.


At one point in Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, an elderly herdsman tells the protagonist: “There are so many things you Chinese don’t understand…Chinese write their books to advocate Chinese causes. The Mongols suffer because they can’t write books. If you turn into a Mongol and write books for us, that would be wonderful.” Wolf Totem, then, is that book. Based on the author’s own sojourn in Mongolia in the 1960s during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it became a million-copy bestseller in Chinese, and is now available in Howard Goldblatt’s lucid translation.

Wolf Totem
is about the exploits of Chen Zhen, a Beijing student, one of four classmates who travel to the Mongolian steppes. Here, Chen discovers that life moves to a primeval rhythm, dictated by extremes of weather and the necessity of hunting for survival. Above all, he is made aware of a “complex attitude of fear, reverence and infatuation” towards the wolf, which colours all activities. None other than Genghis Khan is held up as the prime exemplar of the virtues of lupine wiliness.

The novel progresses via episodes of hunting and herding, with a supporting cast of dogs and gazelles, not to mention a wolf cub. Though many of the episodes are fast-paced there’s no overall narrative flow, which can make for heavy going -- heightened by regrettable overstatement. Rong’s case is that the Chinese have much to learn from the Mongol’s fortitude and view of the environment as an intricate organism of cause and effect, something repeatedly affirmed.

The novel ends with a eulogy for a vanished land; the losers are the Chinese, thoughtlessly replacing older systems. Wolf Totem’s strengths are ethnographical: much of the novel is clearly the outcome of close observation. Would that it had been more succinct, though.

No comments: