Notes from the Bottom of the Hourglass

Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong, 2004. Translated by Howard Goldblatt, 2008.

Uljii shook his head. “Who’s going to listen to us? Farming officials run the show these days. They’re more cultured than us, and they speak Chinese. Besides, officials in the pasture areas are obsessed with hunting wolves. By competing over the quantity of livestock, those who know nothing about the land actually get promoted faster.”

The horses had eaten their fill and were resting, heads down, eyes closed.

File this next to The Dispossessed in the “heavy and argumentative” category. Too much of the dialogue reads like the characters are standing at podiums; no symbol is left unexplained.

Instead of narrative momentum, Wolf Totem offers naturalistic detail. The grassland and its wildlife, painted so vividly here, are haunting — literally, as they’ve since been eradicated by a people less concerned with harmony than with immediate survival. As the well-meaning protagonist watches his wolf cub grow, he comes to realize that he, too, is partly to blame.