#AW80Books: “I’m on the hunt I’m after you” – Jiang Rong’s ‘Wolf Totem’

I recently read Rosa Liksom’s Compartment No. 6, for our Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge. Having arrived in Mongolia from Moskow on the Trans Siberian Railway, I fancied staying to explore the area for a while before jetting off somewhere new. Leaving Ulan Bator behind, I headed southeast into the grasslands of northern China with Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem.

Wolf Totem was first published in translation in the UK in 2008, and was the winner of the first Man Asian Literary prize. The novel is a fictional account of life in the 1970s drawn from the author’s personal experiences of life on the Mongolian grasslands, where he lived and worked with the native nomadic population for over a decade.

Hoping to get a feel for an area that I know very little about, Wolf Totem could not have been more evocative of the rolling landscape, the lifestyle and culture of those living on the Mongolian plains, and, poignantly, the changes to that lifestyle brought about by government intervention. The first part of the novel describes the relationship between man and wolf, and how reverence for the god, Tengger prevented the nomads from hunting wolves to excess. Bilgee, one of the nomads that Chen, the narrator, goes hunting with, explained the importance of the finely tuned balance between men hunting wolves hunting deer. If the deer population was left unchecked they would overgraze the plains, destroying the grasslands and causing dense dust clouds to be blown south to cities such as Beijing. Likewise, if the wolf population was left unchecked, the deer population would drop and the threat of attacks on people, horses and life-stock  would be too great to contain.

While there is much bloodshed in the novel – especially for a vegan killjoy like me – there were also some magnificent accounts of the extraordinary intelligence of wolves which I found fascinating. The description of how a wolf pack scale the high walls of a sheep enclosure by forming a wolf ladder, and then swap places so the ladder get a share of the carnage is remarkably ingenious.  It was also suggested that the reason Mongolians had such a formidable reputation in battle was because they had modelled their war-craft from their observations of the cunning of wolves. (It’s no wonder people go nuts for wolf emblazoned ephemera. After all, nothing says ‘respect’ like a pair of his ‘n hers polyester fleece jackets with wolves silhouetted against the moon.)

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While the descriptions of hunting in the novel were not for the faint-hearted, my biggest struggle with the book was when a wolf-cub was taken by Chen and raised with dogs as an experiment. Not surprisingly, it was doomed to failure, and I found reading about the incarceration of such a majestic wild creature unbearable. That said, I really felt immersed in the place throughout the book, and was ecstatic to discover that the Mongolian musicians ‘Anda Union’ were performing in Cardigan’s Theatre Mwldan later on that week. It was an amazing performance, and really enhanced my armchair travels around the Mongolian grasslands.

Here’s a taster:

 

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