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'Wolf Totem' Eulogizes Mongolian Culture

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'Wolf Totem' Eulogizes Mongolian Culture

Book Reviews

'Wolf Totem' Eulogizes Mongolian Culture

'Wolf Totem' Eulogizes Mongolian Culture

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A captivating English translation of Jiang Rong's award-winning novel chronicles a Beijing student's immersion with nomadic farmers of the Mongolian grasslands just before China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. The story becomes a passionate eulogy to a ferocious and far-flung way life, and to the wolf, the foremost predator of the grasslands.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Several years ago, Jiang Rong's first novel, "Wolf Totem," appeared in China. Close to two million copies sold in bookstores, and millions more changed hands on the black market. The story was inspired by Rong's own experience as a student in Mongolia. "Wolf Totem" has now been translated into English after winning the 2007 Man Asia Prize for fiction.

Reviewer Alan Cheuse says you don't have to read far to discover why.

ALAN CHEUSE: Just before China's great cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s, a young student of agriculture from Beijing named Chen Zhen travels to Inner Mongolia. He's there to help spur the productivity of grassland farmers and to learn their way of life. There, he finds a rugged world of people, sheep, grass, snow, and wolves. And before too long, Chen begins speculating on the wisdom of China's effort to bureaucratize this nomadic culture.

The story soon becomes a passionate eulogy to this ferocious and far-flung way of life, and to the wolf, the foremost predator of the grasslands. Chen's Mongolian hosts pour their energy into respecting the cycles governing the grasslands, as they have for centuries. The wolves help winnow down gazelle herds that would otherwise chew the grasslands bare.

Moments later, they're being fought tooth and nail over herds of fat sheep, wolves that stand at the very core of Mongolian life as the watchdogs of subsistence. Chen Zhen becomes well-tutored in this animal's power; its appetite and loyalty, its hunger and intelligence.

Meanwhile, we glimpse of vivid portraits of these beasts during a massive slaughter of army horses amidst a blizzard, on a foray into a den in search of wolf pups, and on a Chinese-driven hunt in retaliation for the horse-kill.

Be warned, this book's glow does occasionally dim, particularly in long scenes devoted to raising one of the pups. Still, Jiang Rong, who is writing under a pen name, has executed a brilliant story with help from his translator.

Hundreds of bloody pages on, as we grimace at the fraying of a 2,000-year-old way of life, one wants to stand up — and there's no other way to put it — just…

(Soundbite of imitation of wolf's howl)

SIEGEL: The novel is "Wolf Totem" by Jiang Rong, translated by Howard Goldblatt.

Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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Wolf Totem

by Jiang Rong and Howard Goldblatt

Hardcover, 527 pages |

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