Tuesday, August 12, 2014

WITMonth Day 11 - The Last Quarter of the Moon | Review

The first and most important thing to note in this review of Chi Zijian's The Last Quarter of the Moon (translated by Bruce Humes) is that before reading this book, I knew literally nothing about the Evenki (or Evenks), the ethnic group around which the novel is centered. This means that while I can comment on literary style, writing, characterization and indeed my own interest in the history at play, I have practically no knowledge regarding the authenticity of this story, and whether it stands as an accurate representation of the Evenki.

This is relevant because the cultural aspects were one of the things I enjoyed most about The Last Quarter of the Moon. Not necessarily the specific insights (though those were obviously interesting, particularly in comparison to other northern ethnic groups I've read about), rather the themes they represented. The book - which spans most of the 20th century - looks quite a bit at the clash between tradition and outside progress. At the novel's start, the Evenki are fairly isolated, yet as history marches on (and the Japanese invade...), familiar conflicts begin to arise. These are themes I find particularly evident in my own life, where the tug of war between modern culture and religious tradition can often have a significant real-world impact. Chi presents this issues without really answering them - truthfully, I don't think there are any clear answers, and I rather liked the more thoughtful ending she decided to go with.

From a story perspective, I viewed The Last Quarter of the Moon a bit like I viewed the children's classic Julie of the Wolves back in the day - it's a fascinating piece about a world I know nothing about, and now want to know more about. Chi does a wonderful job of showing different aspects of Evenki culture - art, writing (or lack thereof), family dynamics, social structure, religious order, and more all come into play throughout the novel. As per the disclaimer at the beginning of this review, I cannot make any claims on the authenticity of the book (or whether aspects of it are inaccurate), but I certainly found nothing to be outwardly offensive (to my untrained eye). The Evenki are neither overly glamorized nor garishly drawn, a nice change from the all-too-common "exotic" trope. It's unfamiliar and new, but it also flows fairly naturally (with a couple reindeer exceptions).

From a more technical perspective, The Last Quarter of the Moon holds up just a little less. It's a well enough written book, no awkwardly translated bits, and generally the flow is good. But for such a huge epic to be contained to relatively so few pages (~300 pages) means that the pacing is always going to be a bit off, plus there's a slight problem with character development. The cast of characters here is quite large, some with the same name and others with similar-enough names (Russian sounding names that start with a V...). It gets... confusing. I constantly had to refer myself to the family tree at the novel's start, which unfortunately only included family members and not other tribe members (which often made it more confusing).

As for the characterizations themselves, this was probably my biggest issue with the book. We spend some ninety years with our nameless narrator, yet truthfully I felt like she was simply a placeholder for most of the book. She is the lens through which we can learn about the Evenki, but as a character with her own motivations and personality, she was fairly lacking. Most of the other characters were similarly one dimensional, missing out on an opportunity for a greater emotional investment. Most had some sort of story-based relevance (one character's arc in particular was a brilliant bit of storytelling about "the greater good", but a disappointment in emotional resonance), but I felt like Chi could and should have fleshed them all out some more.

On the whole, I think this is definitely a novel worth recommending. The Last Quarter of the Moon is not a flawless piece of literature, but it's got quite a bit to it: history, culture, art, meditations on tradition, on violence, and even occasionally on gender roles. As a novel it's somewhat lacking (particularly in the characterization department...), but overall as a book I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.

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