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May 8, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright May 8, 2008. Used by permission.


Every once in a while, a book linked to China comes along that garners such widely varying reviews that I begin to wonder if the reviewers all had the same text in front of them. I had this experience last with Mao: The Unknown Story, a book that I reviewed myself (hint as to my take: George W. Bush claimed to think the tome excellent; he and I rarely see things the same way; this instance was no exception). And now, along comes Wolf Totem. And, once again, disagreements are not just about one aspect of the book but about many.

One veteran reviewer of China books, Jonathan Mirsky, for example, calls Wolf Totem “the best Chinese book I’ve read for many years,” and presents it as both a gripping tale and one with a nicely subversive anti-authoritarian political edge. He sums up his fondness for it by saying it is “enlightening, poignant, mysterious…a miracle.” Another writer with a long engagement with China, Linda Jaivin, by contrast, noting that the book’s fans liken it to Herman Melville’s best known novel, writes that the prose is “so bloated with banality, repetition and cliché, that comparisons to Moby Dick, to my mind, relate only to the ratio of blubber to ambergris.” As for its politics, she finds these worrisome enough to inspire the rhetorical question: “Is sentimentality the last refuge of the crypto-fascist?”

I’m not going to enter the reviewing fray here, but do I think, given how much interest the book has generated, a quirky sort of list of five is in order. By the time readers get to number 5, they will have more than enough links to get a sense of the incredible diversity of the responses Wolf Totem has generated. And it is a book worth coming to terms with, even if one agrees with Jaivin’s assessment of it, since it is a rare work of fiction that sparks interest at four different points in time. Wolf Totem did so first when the Chinese edition became a runaway bestseller. Second, when Penguin announced it would pay more for its English language rights than had ever been paid for a Chinese novel. Third, when it was nominated for and then won the first Asian Man Literary Prize . Fourth, when the English language translation appeared earlier this spring, just after Nicole Barnes published her “Coming Distractions” review of it here on China Beat. And that’s not even counting the smaller bursts of interest that came along when news broke that the author, who wrote under the pseudonym of Jiang Rong, was in fact Lu Jiamin ; when a young adult version of the book came out in Chinese; and when word circulated about film and manga versions being in the works.)