Bestseller "Wolf Totem" debuts in English

  • The wolves are seen as team players, strategic thinkers. Wolves don't kill too many sheep, they don't kill too many people, they don't pillage the environment for short-term gains
  • "When we talk about China and freedom, we talk about human rights. But in China, it can mean freedom from fashion and trends."
  • the author spent 30 years thinking about it and six years writing it, which win him the Man Asian Literary Prize.
The English launch of China's latest literary sensation, a tale of freedom and self-discovery on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, could not have been better timed.

Jiang Rong's "Wolf Totem", an autobiographical novel about a Beijing student living with Mongolian nomads during the Cultural Revolution, is set to debut in English this month, just as the world's interest in all things Chinese is reaching fever pitch.

With the Beijing Olympics only a few months away and a controversy over censorship straining the Chinese government's relations with international artists, readers may be surprised by the novel's uncensored criticism of Chinese society.

But Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin China, which reportedly paid a record $100,000 for the English translation rights, says the novel reflects the complexities of modern China.

"It's read in many different ways in China. It's about freedom -- for us, it's a very loaded word. When we talk about China and freedom, we talk about human rights. But in China, it can mean freedom from fashion and trends," she told Reuters in a phone interview.

"It's surprising, reading it in English, how overt the messages on freedom are. But it's not advocating revolution."

Jiang Rong, a political scientist, writes under a pseudonym. He has said that he spent 30 years thinking about "Wolf Totem", his first novel, and six years writing it. More than 2 million official copies have been sold in China over the past three years -- not including the pirated versions sold on the street.

"Wolf Totem" examines the relationship between man and nature by tracing the story of Chen Zhen, a student sent to live with nomadic shepherds in the 1960s. As part of his spiritual journey, Chen Zhen tries to raise a wolf cub.

The novel's translator, Howard Goldblatt -- one of the most well-known translators of Chinese literature -- said he was fascinated by the novel's intellectual and philosophical depth and its moments of intense drama and passion.

"The episode of him raising the wolf cub -- parts of that almost had me in tears, it was so sad. And then, the sadness of the ecological disaster that ultimately and inevitably occurs," he said by phone from Beijing.


Instead of reading the whole novel and then translating it chapter by chapter, Goldblatt decided to translate it as he read it to experience the story the way any other reader would. But he said that at times he became so engrossed in the plot that he would read ahead, then go back and translate the section.

Lusby is cautious about the book's ability to replicate its success in China on a global scale, but she believes the spiritual theme will resonate with a Western readership.

"The wolves are seen as team players, strategic thinkers," she said. "Wolves don't kill too many sheep, they don't kill too many people, they live in harmony with the environment. They don't pillage the environment for short-term gains."

Little is known about the novel's author, who was born in 1946 and reportedly became a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution.

A former lecturer at Beijing university, he is now retired and rarely appears in public. Last year, he won Asia's first major literary award, the Man Asian Literary Prize, for the book.

The prize is part of a wider literary resurgence in Asia. Long dominated by writers from the Indian subcontinent, Asia is increasingly producing authors that reflect the region's huge cultural diversity.

China has attracted particular attention because of its political situation and an ongoing debate over freedom of expression. Most recently, the government announced it would tighten controls over foreign performers after singer Bjork shouted "Tibet! Tibet!" at a concert in Shanghai.

Lusby, whose latest project is to bring foreign classics to China through a partnership with a local publishing company, said they had not faced any censorship issues.

Goldblatt finds censors tend to be less worried by fiction since it targets a much smaller audience than movies, though the Chinese government has jailed dissident writers and banned certain books.

"What I run across is a sense of self-censorship -- I read things and think, has the author held back because he wants to get his work out there," he said.

"Once you've written something, it's always out there. You grow a tail, and if they want to go after you, they can always grab hold of that tail."


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