Friday, May 09, 2008

The "Wolf Totem" controversy

I had not noticed the controversy around Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem, the first Asian Man Literary Prize winner and an international bestseller. Luckily, the China scholar Jeff Wasserstrom is more attentive and posted an interesting item on the subject at The China Beat:
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.... [read on]
--Marshal Zeringue