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Thursday, May 28, 2009

WOLF TOTEM

dogwood in the rain




Perhaps the most beautifully written and most sorrowful reading of my life: WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong. His sentences are so visual you see what he writes. Not that they're descriptive. It's what you see. Everything that happens in the story you see. It's visual all the way through. It's almost like seeing a PBS documentary on the Mongolian wolf and nomad Mongols of the grasslands of eastern Inner Mongolia. But it goes way deeper than a camera can tell.

A Chinese graduate of Beijing University is sent to work with nomads in Inner Mongolia to help out herding sheep. The one writing the story is the one who lived it. He gives himself another name and writes in third person. After being there a month or so, able to ride a horse by this time, he rides to the nearest town to go to the hardware store. The older Mongol man with him had to stay overnight for a meeting next day. He sent the boy, early twenties, on back with the supplies he'd bought. He switched horses with him, giving the inexperienced Han a horse that knew its way around. He told the boy to take the road all the way back. It will pass through several villages and the threat of wolves would be minimal. He emphasized not to take a shortcut.

Naturally, he took a shortcut and in a short time came over a little rise and found himself about fifty feet from forty or more wolves. Big Mongolian wolves he described as twice the size of the ones he saw in the Beijing zoo. He said he was so afraid it felt like his soul left his body. Every eye was watching him. The horse was a nervous wreck, because it knew they were in trouble. But the horse walked slowly and he sat still. The wolves watched them walk by. The old man told him later they were having a conference, the alpha male laying out the strategy for possibly an attack on a herd of gazelles. He told the boy if they hadn't been busy, he'd have been wolf food that day.

The boy becomes fascinated by wolves, wants to learn all about them. As he learns, he shares with the reader what he learns, and I learned about as much about the Mongolian wolf as can be known by a human. They are extraordinary beings. The Mongol nomads kept a balance with the wolves. They considered the wolves, knew their ways, shared with the wolves. When someone died, the corpse would be taken to a mountain where they take their dead for the wolves to eat them. The wolf was the totem of the Mongol people. Being eaten by wolves after dying guaranteed entry to heaven.

Their religion was much like Tibetan Buddhism. Through the course of the tale, he tells about the people he learns to hunt with, the different individuals, the people he lives among, their culture, nomads with a tradition that goes back past the time of Genghis Khan, who lived in the latter part of the 12th century. Not much had changed there since then.

The boy learned a great deal that he passes to the reader in scenes that are breathtaking in their beauty and ferocity. Like the time a pack of 50 or more wolves attacked a herd of 600 or so horses in a white-out blizzard driving them to a nearby lake and into a place where the horses would get stuck in the mud. The wolves took the entire herd.

The boy wanted to catch a wolf pup and raise it. He believed he could learn more about wolves by raising one. Attempting to raise the pup against the old man's warnings, against tradition, the old man told him, "Wolves are not dogs. Dogs eat our shit. Wolves eat us." It wasn't long before he was in over his head. The puppy did have affection for him, because he was kidnapped before his eyes were open. But he knew the wolf could never have the wolf trained out of it. The dogs were wary of it and afraid of it, wanting to kill it. The herders wanted to kill it. But he continued. He learned that the characteristics of wolf are born into them and their wolfness comes from so deep a place within it could never be reached from outside.

Toward the end I read less and less at a time, wanting to make it last as long as possible. 525 pages was like nothing. Yesterday morning I sat with the last 40 pages. Tears ran down my face throughout the last 30 pages. It took my heart and ripped it into tiny pieces like tearing up a note you don't want anybody to be able to fit back together.

All the way along, the Chinese are moving in. They're taking the grasslands to turn the land into farms to make more room for their overflowing population. First step was to exterminate the wolves. He finally had to kill his wolf at less than a year old because it could not go on living on a chain and nearly killed itself trying to get loose. That was hard to bear for a lot of reasons. Several years later he and the friend who raised the wolf with him, the one a lawyer and the writer a social worker, took vacation and went back to the place to see it again. As the old man had predicted, get rid of the wolves and desert will follow.

Wolves eat mice--mice eat grass. Wolves eat marmots--marmots eat grass. When the wolves were gone, the grass was consumed by the varmints and over a course of about 20 years the once lush grasslands were desert. We see before our eyes an ecological disaster in one part of the world created by one decision made in ignorance. The people had changed. Many had moved to the city. Many were drunks. No more horses. The buzz of motorcycles. A world they had known to be beautiful cast them into sorrow by what they saw. All of it was gone from the earth. Sand. Mongol nomad culture that went back over a thousand years ended. The wolves were extinct.








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