Book review: A tribe in transition

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 6, 2013


By Chi Zijian, translated by Bruce Humes

Harvill Secker/Paperback/312 pages/Major bookstores/$37.60/****1/2

Chi Zijian's heartfelt memorial to the reindeer-herding Evenki tribes of north-east China is a weird and wonderful way to begin the new year.

Weird in this sense means surreal and subtly supernatural as the writer paints a delicate portrait of a tribe that believes in spirits and shamans and maintains almost familial relations with the roaming reindeer herds that provide them milk, meat and leather.

As the writer reveals through her translator Humes' blog, the Evenki here are only part of a larger nomadic people who roam Siberia and maintain ties with Russia as well.

The tribe in this novel lives on the right bank of the Ergun river - the book's original title in Chinese was Right Bank Of The Ergun - and Chi's well-researched memorial to their dying way of life won her two national awards: the Lu Xun Literature Prize and the 2008 Mao Dun Literature Prize.

The book was inspired by the Chinese government's 2003 relocation scheme that aimed to take the 30,000 Chinese Evenki out of the forests and into urban settlements near Genhe City in Mongolia.

The nameless narrator begins her tale at what seems to be the end of her tribe's story, as clan member after clan member vote in favour of red brick houses and monthly government allowances, in return for penning up their reindeer and moving beyond the trapping and hunting that helped them subsist for so long.

The narrator is 90 years old and refuses to relocate, just like many older Evenki in real life. In her tribe, she is the only one who remembers what it meant to live lightly off the land and the only one who finds dark humour in the reasons behind relocation.

Ostensibly, the Evenki are being moved for the sake of their health and to conserve the forests, but all around her, groves are shrinking and land eroding mercilessly under the outward march of urban China.

There is more than a touch of the "noble savage" theme in this book, whose characters live in tune with the seasons, if out of sync with the rest of the world. Yet as expected from a writer who grew up in north-eastern China and lived with the Evenki to research this novel, Chi avoids the trap of glossing over the darker parts of the story.

Newborn mortality is high, children die of nutrition deficiency or accidents, adults lose limbs to wild animals and lives to Russian marauders or raiders from other parts of China.

Still, the tribes endure through harsh seasons and the harsher climate of World War II as invading Japanese forces recruit Evenki men and boys for their armies. Like the weather, the time of these conquerors passes eventually, leaving the tribes free to return to the status quo.

The Last Quarter Of The Moon panders beautifully to readers fond of the aboriginal genre of fiction, where the story is as much about revealing a culture as it is about creating memorable characters.

Unlike many other books of this type, Chi's tale is peopled by exquisite, unforgettable personalities.

They transcend archetypes such as shaman and chieftain to become fully realised, living people. Notable are the female shaman Nihau, who pays a personal price for every healing yet cannot give up her duty to her people, and the trapper Ivan, who becomes a folk hero through his sacrifices for the tribe.

The narrator is equally memorable, though she refuses to give her name, following the Evenki tradition of leaving no mark or monument.

With so much literature focusing on the relatively homogenous theme of life in modern, urban China, this novel would be an absolute treat just for its determination to sketch the lives of a minority.

Its lyrical prose is the icing on the cake and, I suspect, owes as much to Humes' facility with Chinese as to the author's deep fondness for the Evenki.

If you like this, read: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (2008, Penguin, $18.14, major bookstores). During the 1960s Cultural Revolution, a Beijing student leaves for the steppes of Mongolia and learns more than he teaches when working with the native tribes.

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