Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong

Chen Zhen is an educated young Chinese man in the 1960s who, with many other young urban intellectuals, goes to live with sheep herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, at the behest of the Chinese government.  Thanks largely to Bilgee, a wise old nomad who understands the delicately balanced ecology of the area, Chen comes to appreciate how vital the wolf population is to the continued success of the herders.  The sacrifice of a few lambs and foals to the occasional wolf attack is a fair trade-off, since the wolves keep the rodent population to a minimum.  The Chinese government, however, wants to relocate farmers to the area, and the wolves have to go.  I get that this novel is a condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, but it falls short in so many ways.  First of all, Chen’s obsession with raising a wolf cub is totally inconsistent with his reverence for the wolves and the grassland.  More annoying, though, is the author’s use of dialog to get points across about the protection and history of the land and the wildlife.  Characters sound as though they are quoting passages from an encyclopedia.  Yes, this is a translation, but I don’t think the Chinese would converse in such a stilted manner.  The book proceeds at a snail’s pace, partly because of all these sermons, and then the high body count for the animals made the book even more difficult to me to wade through.  Plus, I forget sometimes how important good writing is to my enjoyment of a book until I read one like this, which is not well-written at all.  The Kindle version is full of mistakes, particularly random repeated phrases that dangle randomly throughout the text, divorced from the sentences in which they originally appeared.  Bottom line:  The message is worthwhile, but the storytelling is not.

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