Thursday, June 26, 2008

A book review

>>I've never before posted a review or comment of mine from another site on this blog. That's basically because I conceive of this page as being a place for self-generated content, and featuring any content (even self-generated) that is in some way "branded" by an outside source would seem to undermine that. That said, for the purposes of this experiment, I'm thinking of as merely a host-- in the same way that is merely the host for the videos I've previously posted. Furthermore, goodreads' layout lacks any logos or other commercial paraphenalia. OK. End agonizing, begin transmission:<<

Wolf Totem Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this book really absorbing as 1) a window into life during the Chinese cultural revolution, the contradictions of which are evoked in a pretty subtle manner, and 2)a sort of documentary-like adventure story, with occasional exciting passages giving way to observation of the quotidian details life on the Mongolian grasslands.

While I didn't know a lot about the socio-political context for the story (and this may allow to my regard for the novel; I am aware that some reviewers are very critical on these grounds), I connected with the sense of melancholy the characters feel as they bear witness to the destruction of a very ancient ecosystem and a human culture deeply connected to that ecosystem; it almost seems as if the worst thing is the inability of invaders to appreciate the culture whose death they hasten. In some ways, the story resonates with American themes like Manifest Destiny and the assimilation/multiculturalism debate, themes explored in the more sensitive Hollywood westerns.

Additionally, WOLF TOTEM gives one a complex sense of living out politics in daily life. I think we sometimes conceive of life in a time/place like China at its most radically Maoist in terms of a more familiar "life in Germany under Hitler" model, as a story of either going with an evil regime (through action or inaction) or attempting to subvert it. But the conflicted feelings of the characters provide a fuller portrait of such a state than we usually get to see-- as much as they suffer in certain ways at the hands of petty officials and wrong-headed policies, I think there is some appreciation of the nature of the national project and the ways in which one's own work is connected to that project. While I would not describe the book as favorable of the Chinese government, it does humanize the government, and it does an excellent job of describing the not-evil motivations of those individual people.

The thing about the book I found most wanting was the style-- it's very repetitious (in both language and in the sense that it harps repeatedly on a number of points). At the same time, it will sometimes seem to curiously curl back and contradict itself, suggesting one thing about the behaviour of wolves and then asserting the opposite a few paragraphs later. I recognize, however, that some of this must be due to the peculiar alchemy of translation. And an even greater part must stem from Chinese writing traditions with which I've been unfamiliar. Due to the fact that it wasn't difficult to read, I generally gave it the benefit of these doubts. And there are a few extended passages of great power and celerity, electric passages where your eye cannot take in the words fast enough, such as the wolf attack during the "white-hair" blizzard.

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A concise negative review by Janice Harayda can be found here:

She links to another review by Nicole E. Barnes on The China Beat blog that describes WOLF TOTEM as "nostalgic drivel":

I disagree with these two takes on the novel-- find them a little oversensitive and oversimplified. But what do I know?

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