January 18, 2013 6:35 pm

Independent spirits

A Chinese tale of timeless nomadic lives threatened by politics and change

The Last Quarter of the Moon, by Chi Zijian, translated by Bruce Humes, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99, 311 pages

Close-up of the wrinkled face of a 99-year-old Evenki woman©Corbis

A 99-year-old Evenki woman

The Last Quarter of the Moon is the first novel from award-winning Chinese novelist Chi Zijian to be translated into English. It is an atmospheric modern folk-tale, the saga of the Evenki clan of Inner Mongolia – nomadic reindeer herders whose traditional life alongside the Argun river endured unchanged for centuries, only to be driven almost to extinction during the political upheavals of the 20th century.

Their history is recounted by the 90-year-old, unnamed widow of one of the clan’s last great chieftains. Her ethereal presence and memory, and strength of will, allows her to speak for the tribe, breathing life into their collective memories.

The story is full of allegory. There is the fire that is passed from one generation to the next; the cycles of life and death; and the “coexistence of mankind and the Spirits”. The clan’s reindeer are central to their lives and “were certainly bestowed upon us by the Spirits, for without these creatures we would not be”. Chi channels, Shaman-like, the sentiment, emotions and experiences of another, much older woman (Chi was born in 1964).

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Inevitably the wider world intrudes: in 1965 the clan votes on whether or not to “resettle”, leaving their mountains for a newly created township away from their shirangju (open-roofed teepees), where they fall asleep looking at the stars. Everyone yields to the communists’ persuasion, apart from the narrator: “My body was bestowed by the Spirits, and I shall remain in the mountains to return it to the Spirits.” Her simple-minded grandson stays behind to look after her and their few reindeer.

The others realise their mistake when reindeer start to die in captivity. The communists believe the precious animals to be like ordinary domesticated beasts: they should eat “tender branches in the summer, and hay in winter. They won’t starve”.

 

The Evenki protest: “Do you take reindeer for cattle or horses? Reindeer won’t eat hay. They can forage for hundreds of different foods in the mountains. If you make them eat just grass and branches, their souls will suffer and die!”

This nomadic clan has not kept pace with the world, and their lives (like those of their reindeer) are irretrievably disrupted by the forces of modernity. The pace of this tale is slow but certain, as though the story unfolds to the beat of an ancient, sonorous drum. The animistic Evenki have a symbiotic relationship with nature, and Chi’s narrative is decorated with descriptions of the forests and the mountains, of the flora and fauna: Autumn resembles “a thin-skinned person. If the wind utters a few less than complimentary words about him, he pulls a long face and beats a retreat”; there are falling leaves dancing “like yellow butterflies in the forest” and a snow-white fawn, which “resembled an auspicious cloud that had just fallen to the earth”.

The Evenki survive famine, disease, war and reform, drownings, lethal snowstorms and accidental shootings. The one thing they cannot endure is displacement. The book ends with a glimpse into their uncertain future, “deeply shrouded in death’s shadow.”

The Last Quarter of the Moon is the English-language title. In Chinese it is The Right Bank of the Argun, a hint that the story is based on fact. The author’s afterword gives more useful background; unfortunately it is not reprinted in the English book but is available on translator Bruce Humes’ website, Ethnic ChinaLit. In it, Chi relates how she grew up in this landscape. “As a child entering the mountains to fetch firewood, more than once I discovered an odd head-shape on a thick tree trunk. Father told me that was the image of the mountain spirit Bainacha, carved by the Oroqen [another nomadic clan]”.

Latterly, Chi researched her book by staying in an Evenki encampment. She concludes: “I felt that I had at last found the seed for my novel ... The vast stretch of forest I possessed as a child would serve as its seedbed, and I was confident that this seed would sprout and grow in it.” Chi was right to be confident. This is a fitting tribute to the Evenki by a writer of rare talent.

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