The Call of the Wild meets Dersu Uzala in the wilds of Inner Mongolia in this sweeping debut novel by retired Chinese academician Jiang. In China, it has emerged as a zeitgeist novel, outselling any other in Chinese history short of Mao’s little red book.
The Mongolian herders of the dry borderlands fear wolves, and rightly, for the fierce and intelligent animals like nothing better than snacking on their herds. Chen Zhen, a Beijing intellectual who, in a back-to-the-land moment, has come to live among the herders, has plenty of opportunities to study lupine behavior as wolves tear into the sheep pens night after night. Like his adopted compatriots, though, he soon comes to learn that the wolves have a place in the world. “Oh, I hunt them,” an old man tells him. “But not often. If we killed them off, the grassland would perish, and then how would we survive? This is something you Chinese cannot understand.” Chen does come to understand, taught by an orphaned wolf cub he raises, if with some difficulty: As he realizes, “a rat knows how to dig a hole because it has observed adult rats at work,” while he’s not quite clear on what he can teach his young charge. That arrangement, life-transforming though it is, cannot but yield tragedy, and it stands as a metaphor for a larger tragedy in the geopolitical food chain: the virtual conquest of the grasslands by ethnic Chinese immigrants who think nothing of killing anything that looks like a dog and who transform the grasslands into desert. Jiang’s story is a careful, quiet one of cultures in collision, capably brought into unadorned English by translator Goldblatt.
Any admirer of Jack London—or of Dersu, or Farley Mowat, or other chronicles and chroniclers of wolf-human interaction—will find this a treasure.