Wolf Totem – Jiang Rong

 Winner 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

I bought a copy of Wolf Totem after I met The Book Whisperer and she raved about it. It is her favourite book of all time and as I love books set in Asia I decided to give it a try.

Wolf Totem is set on the Mongolian grasslands and describes the constant battle that the nomads have with the wolves that live there. The relationship the people have with the wolves is confused when Chen Zhen, an intellectual from Beijing, captures a wolf cub and starts to raise it. The book is based on the real life events of the author, who answered Chairman Mao’s 1969 call for city dwellers to experience life in the mountains.

This book goes some way to explaining what life was like for the Mongolian nomads, but it concentrates on the difficulties that wolves brought to their lives. We witness packs of wolves massacring their animals and the nomad’s attempts to kill the wolves. It was fascinating to learn about the behaviour of wolves, but I suspect the graphic nature of the hunts will be too much for some.

I enjoyed the excitement of the chase, but by the half way stage I began to tire of the endless battle between man and wolf. This book is 500+ pages long and after a while one wolf hunt became much like all the others. I longed to learn about other aspects of life in the grasslands and perhaps witness some of the human relationships.

I also felt that the writing quality was that of great fiction, not literature. There was no depth or poetry to the language – it was simply there to inform.

These things are never easy for the Mongols. Gasmai only has the one son, and still she didn’t stop him from grabbing a wolf’s tail or crawling into a den. The old Chinese saying ‘Don’t fight wolves if you’re unwilling to sacrifice your son’ must have come from the grassland. Don’t forget, the Mongols ruled China for nearly a century. I used to think it meant using your son as wolf bait, believe it or not. Now I realize it means letting your son risk crawling into a wolf’s den to get the cubs. Only a youngster could handle a tunnel this deep and narrow.

I did learn a lot of interesting facts about the wolves and am pleased I read the book, but I wish it had been slightly shorter.

Recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about wolves, in all their gruesome glory.

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  1. Violet says:

    I’ve been looking for more books written that are based in Mongolia (majority seem to be written on Ghengis Khan). I don’t like that the book is that long but I don’t think I can resist wolves and Mongolia.

    1. Jackie says:

      Violet, I have found very few books set in Mongolia too. I think that you’d probably enjoy Wolf Totem – as long as you aren’t squeamish!

    2. Violet, give it a go – I adore this book and if you’re interested in Mongolia you might love it. Since reading it I have become really interested in Mongolia too.

  2. Amy says:

    Hmmmm maybe too gory for me, but it does sound interesting! I think that like you I would want more information about other areas of their lives.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, There is a lot of animal death in this book, all described in graphic detail. I know it would be too much for a lot of people so I don’t blame you for being cautious in approaching it.

  3. Alex says:

    I was planning to read this during my Trans-Siberian last summer, but my eReader solar re-charger was a disaster.

    The Mongolian plaines were some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and the nomads were inspiring people. No wolves there, but we did get to “prepare” a goat after it was killed…

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, Sounds like a fantastic trip! This would have been the perfect book to read while you were there, but at least now you’ve been the descriptions in this book should bring back some great memories of your trip. I hope that you enjoy reading it. :-)

  4. I find the premise and setting of this novel quite interesting. I don’t know much about Mongolia, and I’ve been fascinated by it since seeing the documentary Babies. I think the wolf descriptions would get tiresome for me too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carrie, I’ve just added Babies to my DVD rental queue. I remember reading about it when it first came out, but then I forgot all about it. Thanks for reminding me :-)

  5. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! First you don’t like Corrag and now you don’t like this – Jackie, you and I are going to fall out! ;)

    I just adored this book and I did find the language poetic and wonderful and I found that I was actually there in the book with the nature and the animals. I am a HUGE animal lover (I perfer them to most people) but I didn’t find the scenes too much at all; upsetting yes but that added to the reading experience, I found.

    I’d stop listening to my advice about what to read next if I were you ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      The Book Whisperer, I did enjoy Wolf Totem – I just didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with it like you did. There was a lot to like, but perhaps I just don’t love animals as much as you do – I wanted to know what those people were up to a bit more :-)

      I’m still going to listen to your recommendations – this was 100x better than Corrag – so perhaps your next suggestion will be even more to my taste ;-)

  6. JoV says:

    Any good story that is set in a place that is set in Mongolia pique my interest. I have no idea it is 500+ pages long! I’ll put this in my TBR. Your recommendations is one that I ALWAYS listen to! ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, Thank you. It is really nice that you like my recommendations :-)

      Good luck with your Man Asian Booker reading!

  7. Jeane says:

    I thought this book was fantastic. I was enthralled with the description of life in Mongolia and the relationship the people had with wolves. I was pretty captivated the whole way through, so the length didn’t bother me. Some of the more political passages kind of lost me, but it only made me curious to learn more about Mongolia.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, It is good to know that you loved this book. I didn’t struggle with the political passages as I have read quite a lot of books set in the same time period. There wasn’t much politics so it shouldn’t put anyone off reading it, but I hope you find more books set in Mongolia and tell me all about them. :-)

  8. Alex Baugh says:

    This sounds like such an interesting book. I have more than a passing interst in China in particular and Asia in general now that I have a daughter over there teaching English.
    Great, inspiring review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, Thank you for the kind words. :-)

      A personal link to any country always makes books set there more appealing. I hope that you enjoy reading it if you decide to get a copy.

  9. Erin says:

    The store book group at the bookstore where I used to work read this one. I didn’t participate in the discussion, as they met on the night I always closed, but I eavesdropped on their discussion. They felt the same way you did, for the most part. I don’t think I’ll be reading this one…I have no special interest in wolves!

    1. Jackie says:

      Erin, It is good to know that the book group had similar views to me. The only thing I can add is that I had no special interest in wolves before reading this book, but now know so much about them that I feel I do have a special place in my heart for wolves now :-)

  10. mee says:

    I’m very much interested in books set in or about Mongolia, but I’m not sure if I have the patient for this one. I wonder why all the Man Asia Literary Prize winners are SO THICK. Also, the paragraph sample you gave us is pretty flat :( . There’s one Mongolian book that has been sitting on my shelf for a while titled The Cave of the Yellow Dog which looks pretty interesting. I watched the film a while back and the scenery was amazing. Just letting you know, in case you are looking for more :)

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, Yes. All the Man Asian Bookers are very thick, and often complex too.

      The writing in Wolf Totem isn’t that special. There are some good passages, but it felt more like a non-fiction book trying to educate me, rather than a beautifully written novel.

      Thanks for letting me know about The Cave of the Yellow Dog *heads off to investigate*

  11. Jeane says:

    There’s The Horse Boy- about a father who took his autistic son on a trip across Mongolia on horseback. Have you heard of that one?

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, Someone mentioned that to me last week. I’m in the queue to borrow it from the autism support group :-)

  12. Kathleen says:

    I’ve never read a book set in Mongolia before. I might tire of the lack of exploration of human relationships but am intrigued by the inclusion of the wolves so will add this to my list.


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