Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Get this Pot off my Head

Do you know what I like in my books? Subtlety. Subtlety is always a good thing. It is sadly lacking from Wolf Totem: A Novel by Jiang Rong (translated by the incomparable Howard Goldblatt.)

I read this book and refused to put it down because it is the most widely read book in Mainland China since Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung... which you might know as a little, red book... by Chairman Mao... that everyone waved about like mad during the Cultural Revolution...

So... Chen Zhen is a Beijing student sent to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. He is obsessed with Mongolian culture, especially their reverence for wolves. He decides to raise a wolf cub in order to learn from it. Throughout the course of 1 year, we travel with the nomadic herders as they move across the grasslands and face the destruction of their land and way of life by farming Han Chinese.

(The Han are the majority ethnic group in mainland China.)

What I liked about this book: The sense of daily life as they move across the grasslands and the struggle between the traditional ways and what the government thinks is best-- a struggle that is still being experienced in many areas of China. Also, it was refreshing to read about people who embraced being sent into the countryside. Chen Zhen and his classmates miss Beijing, sure, but they make the best of the situation they're in and try to learn from the peasants and blend into the community's daily life.

What I didn't like: Chen Zhen's obsession always teeters on the land of infantilizing Mongolian culture. Also, as much as he reveres Mongolian culture, he totally doesn't get it. Raising a wolf cub is amazingly offensive but he just... doesn't care, even when he's chastised by elders he deeply respects. He retains a lot of Han chauvinism while being pissed off about the same quality in other characters. I wanted to smack him. Also, the book whacks you upside the head with the point ALL THE TIME. Really, it reads like this

"Hey! Did you know that Mongolians are totally awesome!"
"I know! They do A, B, C!"
"I know! And X, Y, Z! They're awesome!"

"Did you know that wolves are totally awesome, too?!"
"They're killers!"
"No! They're a key part of the balanced grassland ecosystem! Plus, all that stuff we just talked about on why the Mongolians are cool? They totally learned that from the wolves!"
"Wow! Wolves rock!"
"I know! Plus, they do L, M, N, O, and P! Wolves are awesome!"

"But we Han Chinese totally suck! We don't understand any of this!"
"Yeah, we keep messing everything up! We do suck!"
"We totally suck!"

over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again...

Seriously. Characters never have real conversations. They only time they talk is to discuss the topics I mentioned above. 98% of the dialogue is just a vehicle for Jiang to educate his readership about why Mongolians and wolves rock and the Han Chinese totally suck.

but... I had it out on the reference desk so I could check it back in and a 10 year old really really really wanted to read it. I told her it was an adult book, that she was welcome to it. So she checked it out. I wonder how she's faring? It wasn't on of my regulars, so I don't know if I'll get a chance to ask her about it...

No comments: