The Last Quarter of the Moon, By Chi Zijian (trs by Bruce Humes) Harvill Secker £14.99
A distant life of 90 years is told in a day
Sunday 03 February 2013
A woman of the Evenki tribe, who won't reveal her name, tells her story. She tells it to the rain and fire, to the objects in her deerskin bag, to her birch-bark vase. She spends a day telling it – dawn, midday, dusk – moving at even pace through the 90 years of her life.
She and her clan live in the mountains and valleys of north-eastern China. It's a life lived in the open, moving from camp to camp; they stay for a time, until the moss in the area has been depleted and there isn't enough to feed the reindeer, then the camp is abandoned and they resettle somewhere else. Life is hard here. People leave, people ail and die; there's violence, the threat of wolves and bears – nature at its most violent. But there's no self-pity in this woman's story – life's hard, people die, that's the way it goes. It might be better tomorrow. She can't imagine living anywhere else. The closeness to natural origins matters especially – knowing that this flame came from striking stone against flint, being able to see the stars at night. Animals are to be used for hides and food ("there isn't a woman alive who doesn't like squirrel meat") but there's tenderness felt towards them, too. It's a world of reindeer and birch bark, of bonfires, shamans and spirits, omens and dances, and rituals of birth and death.
Much can change in 90 years. Even the Evenki, once so isolated, soon feel the incursions of the outside world. They're in border territory, so first it's the Russians who come over to the camp with things to barter. Then, in 1932, the tribe hears news that the Japanese have arrived; soon afterwards their men are taken away to train with the Japanese army. Next come the Soviet forces. By the end of the story, most of the hunting clan have relocated into built settlements, loggers have moved on to the mountain, the shaman's spirit headdress donated to the local folk museum.
The Last Quarter of the Moon is about a life, and a lifestyle, as distant from ours as you can imagine; and entirely different from what English-readers might have come to expect of a Chinese novel. But the story is masterfully told, with simplicity and empathy, in a direct and credible voice that not only feels unlike a translation, but unlike a fiction at all.
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
The battle for control of Stieg Larsson's £30m legacy
Arts & Ents blogs
Christmas TV guide 2013: Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber isn't retiring from music after all
American Hustle, review: 'Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as the neurotic housewife'
The Harry Hill Movie, film review: Screenplay isn't so much offbeat as utterly feeble
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 Bonuses for goals and top four finish as Luiz Suarez joins Premier League's top three earners
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 #Teamnigella: It’s the only side to be on
- 4 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 5 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- < Previous
- Next >