When student Chen Zhen is sent to “educate the nomads” in Inner Mongolia during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, he discovers more about the balance of nature and spirituality than he bargained for.
According to wise old Bilgee, wolves stop grazers destroying the plains, send humans to heaven via “sky burial”, and provide food with their enormous hunts. But in their drive for more farmland, Headquarters want them eliminated at all costs, plunging man and wolf into an increasingly bloody war. To learn more about an enemy who frightens and fascinates him, Chen captures a cub to raise in captivity. Will it be the only wolf to survive the reaping of the grassland?
In Jiang Rong’s semi-autobiographical novel both nomad and wolf are spiritual and savage. The former would rather freeze to death than sleep on a wolf pelt, but hunt and skin wolves for population control; the protagonist flits between scientific curiosity and guilt over the cub. And on one occasion, the wolves “speak” to heaven using the blood of the herd of horses they just slaughtered.
However, for all their brutality, the wolves are still the victims, and the story shows the harsh and tragic price of environmental ignorance. As the Chinese officers and migrants blunder into the grassland with traps and firecrackers, the wildlife is scattered and the plains turn to desert. In fact, the outsiders have as much malice and depth as the traditional “big bad wolf” character.
At the same time there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tale and in its popularity; purportedly the second best-selling book in China, Wolf Totem was successful enough for Chinese directors to approach Jacques Annaud for film adaptation Le Dernier Loup, despite misgivings over Seven Years in Tibet.
This book pulls its weight but certainly not its punches. It’s at pains to remind us that the battle for the wolf is far from over, but it’s a fascinating glimpse of a world where it’s seen as a key player in the ecosystem and worthy of our respect. And until that world becomes a reality, it’s more than worth stepping into.
If you have a stomach as strong as the animal’s.
Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. 2009, Penguin Books, 544 pages (paperback). RRP £12.99.