Wolf Totem, By Jiang Rongtrs Howard Goldblatt

A rich new novel, set in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, pays homage to a lost way of life
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The Independent Culture

Wolves have stalked literature from time immemorial, a motif for our deepest primal fears. Jiang Rong is mesmerised by the terrifying real-life Mongolian version. During China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he was one of a group of intellectuals who volunteered to live and work amongst the sheep farmers of the Inner Mongolian grassland wilderness. Forty years on, aggressive official farming practices have reduced this fragile ecosystem to dust but his epic debut novel paying homage to a whole lost way of life has topped the Chinese bestseller charts and won the Man Asia Literary Prize.

There's no trace of sentimentality in his account of the nomads' continuous battle to protect their sheep from the packs of huge wolves that roam the grasslands of the Olon Bulag region. The shepherds' dogs, almost as wild as the wolves, are drilled to savage their enemies without damaging the valuable pelts. At one point the students cull a litter of cubs by tossing them in the air; elsewhere we learn how to skin a wolf. The beasts are endlessly wily and brave anything to survive: one chews off its own injured leg in a bid to escape. All this, Chinese student Chen Zhen, the author's fictional alter ego, describes in forensic detail, with awe, humanity, and a growing understanding of the precarious system of checks and balances by which this so-called primitive nomadic society exists.

For the shepherds know how to work with and benefit from the wolves as well as fight them. One autumn, Chen admires the masterly military tactics by which a pack massacres a herd of the over-abundant gazelles, leaving the meat in the snow as a winter larder. The nomads steal some, careful to leave plenty to assuage the wolves. They regard the beasts as sacred guardians of the Big Life – the grassland "thinner than people's eyelids" – on which all the Little Life (plants, animals and humans) depends. They raise tribal wolf-totems, and secure entry to heaven for their dead by leaving the bodies to be consumed by wolves.

Chen Zhen ruminates on the past military triumphs of the Mongol nation and asks whether it is the "wolf spirit" in them that makes these people so tough and resilient. He dares to speculate whether the Mongols are not, after all, superior to the more passive, agrarian Han Chinese? It's a wonder that such unpatriotic views have been permitted an airing in China.

Character, apart from types or national characteristics, plays little part in this novel. Scant information is volunteered about Chen Zhen, although – a nice touch – he keeps a volume of Jack London in his yurt and his fascination with wolves inspires an attempt to raise a cub. Forces larger than individual character provide the central conflict. A government official, Bao, arrives afire with orders to boost production yields. His plans to exterminate the wolves and extend grazing land divide both shepherds and students and set in motion environmental disaster.

Wolf Totem is a slow, rich, densely written novel that will make you fear to read Little Red Riding Hood to small children ever again.