Photo: Mongolian grasslands sand

Mongolian grasslands—here overtaken by sand—are depicted in Wolf Totem.

Photograph by James Whitlow Delano, Redux

By Don George

April 2008

Book of the Month: 
Wolf Totem,
by Jiang Rong

Life on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia is hard and brutal, but it embodies an edifying nobility and symmetry too. That's one of the central themes of the electrifying Chinese novel Wolf Totem, written by a publicity-shy, 61-year-old former political science professor at a Beijing university, under the pseudonym Jiang Rong.

Like Jiang, the protagonist of Wolf Totem, Chen Zhen, is an "educated youth" who has moved to the grasslands from the city in the mid-1960s, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. There he quickly becomes fascinated with the wolf, at once the adversary and the totem of the local Mongolian people. The wolf is fierce, ruthless, cunning, and essential to the delicate balance of the grasslands ecosystem—and becomes a key for Chen to unlock the intricate riches of grasslands life. During the course of the novel, more and more Han Chinese move into the region, bringing their naive ideas about land use and animal control. As a result, the wolves are exterminated, which contributes to the grasslands beginning to turn into desert.

That's a sweeping overview of this long and dense book, but the novel's prime power and beauty are in its closely observed details, particularly its extraordinary depictions of wolves and their relationship with men. The power of Jiang's prose (and of Howard Goldblatt's excellent translation) is evident early in the book when he describes a nighttime, mid-blizzard raid by wolves on a herd of prized horses, and the desperate efforts of the horses' guardian to save the herd. The energy of that description—the wolves flinging themselves on the horses, fangs bared, the horses' blind terror—had me flying through pages, hairs standing on the back of my neck.

This semi-autobiographical novel is a literary triumph, but even more impressively, it is a triumph of cross-cultural connection and understanding, written by a son of one tribe that too often seems intent on subjugating the other.

Short List

Panther Soup—part European travelogue, part personalized WWII military history, by John Gimlette.

Bicycling Beyond the Divide—Daryl Farmer's droll re-creation of the same Western-states bike trip he took 20 years before.

Around the World in 80 Dinners—James Beard award-winning authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison's anecdotal and practical account of a ten-country, three-month gastronomic tour, complete with recipes and restaurant addresses.

Where Light Takes Its Color from the Sea—evocative essays and fiction from "a California notebook," by Santa Cruz-based James D. Houston.

Motionless Journey—exquisite photo book from photographer and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who spent a year shooting his surroundings in a mountain hermitage near Kathmandu.

New Book Roundups:

April in Paris (and the Rest of France)
More than a dining guide, Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants, by Alexander Lobrano, is also a photo-filled memoir of life in the City of Light. Lobrano is Gourmet magazine's European correspondent, based in Paris since 1986. Dry Brit wit and often poetic descriptions power the quirky memoir Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, by Terry Darlington, in which the retired Darlington, his wife, and their whippet Jim set out in their 60-foot-long (18.2-meter), 7-foot-wide (2.1-meter) canal narrowboat across the English Channel for the south of France101 Beautiful Towns in France: Food and Wine pairs photogenic villages with the culinary specialty they are known for (Noirmoutier's sea salt, Verdun's sugared almonds, Menton's lemons). This is the latest in Rizzoli's popular 101 Beautiful Towns photobook series. A Gift from Brittany, by Marjorie Price, recounts American artist Price's struggles and triumphs in a traditional Breton village after she meets and marries a mercurial French painter.

Behind Closed Doors
The Ginseng Hunter, Jeff Talarigo's harrowing novel of life under North Korea's oppressive regime, is set in a rugged border town between North Korea and China. The unnamed country also ground down by a dictator in György Dragomán's novelThe White King is partially based on 1980s Ceaucescu-era Romania. Formerly firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain, Kazakhstan is revealed to be rich in natural beauty, history—and apples, in Christopher Robbins's nonfiction narrative, Apples Are From Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared. And just south of the U.S. border is Mexico's Sierra Madre range, a dangerous region known as one of the largest drug-producing areas in the world. This is where journalist Richard Grant heads, and his tale of surviving his journey there is told in God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

...The Arabian Nights, check out The Hakawati, by Rabih Alameddine. This epic novel starts out with a seemingly archetypal Middle Eastern fable, but then within a few sentences, establishes a contemporary tone:

"Now, the emir had everything, except for the one thing his heart desired, a son. He had wealth, earned and inherited. He had health and good teeth. He had status, charm, respect. His beautiful wife loved him. His clan looked up to him. He had a good pedicurist. Twenty years he had been married, twelve lovely girls, but no son. What to do?"

Fables, both new and reinterpreted by Alameddine, weave throughout a modern-day story: Lebanese narrator Osama al-Kharrat's arrival in Beirut from Los Angeles to visit his ailing father, himself the son of a hakawati, or storyteller. In the end, the tales create an intricate tapestry that displays the complexities of a family and a culture.

One Last Thing

Pico Iyer's new book, The Open Road, is not nominally about Tibet. As its subtitle indicates, it focuses on "the global journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama." Yet through the prism of the Dalai Lama, Iyer's luminous book presents a poignant portrait of three Tibets: the eternal Tibet, where monks still debate esoteric ideas in vigorous courtyard battles; the contemporary Tibet, where (echoing Wolf Totem) an inexorable influx of Han Chinese threatens to extinguish traditional culture and practice; and the Tibet in exile of present-day Dharamsala, in northwestern India. Iyer reveals the contradictions the Dalai Lama encompasses—scholarly monk, power-navigating politician, pop icon, spiritual mentor. In so doing, he illuminates the plight and potential of modern Tibet in a rich and complex light. Recent events in Tibet lend this moving portrait an even greater poignancy and urgency.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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