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The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian

Of the many reasons to read fiction, one of the best, surely, is that it can take us places we have never been, and perhaps can never go. The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian is, by this standard, one of the most extraordinary novels you are likely to read for quite some time. It is the life story of one of the last remaining members the reindeer-herding Evenki in China.

Reindeer herding... in China? Well, exactly.

The anonymous, twice-widowed narrator tells of her life of four-score and ten years. It is the sort of existence well-described in ethnographic literature elsewhere: a nomadic life whose rhythms are set by the reindeer and the seasons, a world populated by spirits intermediated by shamans and spirit drums. Evenks populate large swathes of Siberia and came to China relatively recently.

Chi’s achievement is, as only a novelist can, to transport the reader from a position of outside observer to a place inside the head and spirit of the people and to almost become a participant in a way of life that is about as remote from our civilized (a term I used advisedly) quotidien existence as any can be. The spirits become real, the shaman’s rituals anticipated; we too accept untimely death (hardly anyone survives into old age)—disease, broken bones, drownings and encounters with bears—with the same fatalism; we experience the same joy at everything from seeing the stars through the gap at the peak of the shirangju (teepee) to the careful stitching on new reindeer boots. The account is touching, absolutely fascinating and filled with both nostalgia and longing.

And while this is a translation, it doesn’t read like one: if any work can be described as having been “lovably translated”, it is this.

 

The story follows the historical developments of the last century: the Evenki are initially isolated with only the odd Russian trader providing a link to the outside world and the only outside is a young Russian girl who, escaping what would now be called human trafficking, finds refuge with the tribe and marries into it. The narrator is a native Evenk; the story starts in her childhood. Her father dies and she learns the story of her mother marriage and complicated relationship to her shaman uncle. She herself marries and starts a family. The natural world, prominent throughout, is both beautiful and dangerous.

The Japanese come, Manchukuo is established and the Evenki men are inducted for “training”, greatly disrupting the patterns of hunting and herding. After the Japanese are defeated, and the Chinese arrive, first individually—Russian traders are replaced by Chinese—and then in larger numbers as loggers and officials. The outside world inexorably encroaches until the world of the Evenki is almost gone.

There is much that is interesting here. Many of the Evenki in the book have foreign names, but these are almost exclusively Russian—Irina, Tamara, Vladimir—as are certain words (the local bread is called khleb), indicating where most of the external linkages originated. The Evenki are, after all, just across the Argun River from Russia. Initially, when they go somewhere else, it is Russia rather than China. The book is a reminder of how artificial many modern borders are; it is hard to fit reindeer-herding into any conception one might have of “China”. The Last Quarter of the Moon is also a reminder of how broad Asian and Chinese traditions really are—and deserves to be considered for inclusion on high school (and for that matter, university) syllabuses in places like Hong Kong: it is easy to read and engaging as well as being deeply instructive.

 

The Last Quarter of the Moon hardly reads like a novel at all. There isn’t much of what might be called a “plot”—not that that matters very much—for the account reads very much like an actual story of a real person. Indeed, the story tracks real events to such an event that one suspects that the novel is a more a collage of actual accounts than a work of fiction. Only the author knows how much of the book is really true, but the reader is left hoping that much of it is.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.