Year of the Wolf Totem

By posted at 6:17 am on March 23, 2008 2

Laurie Anderson is a science publicity assistant for a large Southern university.

coverThe San Francisco Chronicle appears to be the first major U.S. newspaper to review the English translation of Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, and gives it a “thumbs up.”

This was one of my “most anticipated books of 2008” (see comments). It won the first Man Asia Literary Prize last year and was a huge seller in China after its publication in 2004, despite appearing to openly criticize Chinese policies of Mao’s era. Jiang Rong is the pen name for dissident writer Lu Jiamin, but he only revealed his real name late last year, I think.

The book won’t be released in the States until later this month (March 27th). Expect a flurry of reviews soon. Will Wolf Totem live up to the hype? A Guardian article described Rong’s style as “full of elaborate description which slows the pace,” and Publishers Weekly commented that the hero is “passive” and the secondary characters “make little impression.” A London Times reviewer notes that though it contains “lush passages” the language “can be jarringly unfamiliar” and sometimes “has the hollow ring of a manifesto” (“The reader is constantly reminded that this is a work of translation.”)

Wolf Totem’s translator, Howard Goldblatt, has discussed the challenges of translating Wolf Totem and translating Chinese literature in general – apparently the passive voice “just runs through the Chinese language” though Goldblatt doesn’t feel obligated to retain that. He did consult extensively with Riong.

According to descriptions, Wolf Totem is about replacing a thousand-year-old nomadic lifestyle with a sedentary agricultural society. A few friends of mine who have China connections insist that most Chinese see the environment in a 19th century European way – i.e. tame it and make it produce food. I’ll never forget one friend’s description of her China-born father’s reaction to a documentary about eagles: “I wonder how that would taste,” he commented – to her horror – as a magnificent raptor soared across the television screen. Another friend who has been to China is appalled at the lack of wildlife in settled areas (“No birds. No squirrels. Nothing untamed,” she says).

Riong’s account of wolf life in Mongolia is reportedly riveting, but appreciation for nature may not be what appeals to Chinese readers. According to Eric Abrahamsen, a translator living in Beijing, many Chinese read Wolf Totem to “study the lessons of competition and independence Jiang draws from his lupine subjects.”

Why do so many Han Chinese love Wolf Totem, despite also appearing to be the villains of the story? For them is it mainly about improving business? Does the beauty of an endangered species matter less than the next meal? What does a book about freedom say to people who value order?

Update: Translator Howard Goldblatt wrote in. He won’t hazard a guess as to why the Chinese like Wolf Totem, but recommends reading this article at News Guangdong, which he says “you might find… interesting and illuminating.”

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2 Responses to “Year of the Wolf Totem”

  1. Lee
    at 2:02 pm on March 23, 2008

    Another review of it that caught my interest:

  2. Shawn Green
    at 1:38 am on March 26, 2008

    This sounds like an interesting read. This sounds a little like any rural society with an overpopulation problem. The thinking is that human life is ultimately worth more than animal, no matter how few of them are left. A very interesting argument…..

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