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Book Reviews: The Blue Wolf: A Novel of the Life of Chinggis Khan (Yasushi Inoue)


Here is a novel about the life and times of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, which is as interested in the weather of his spirit as it is in the geography of the lands he conquered. It is a fascinating hybrid of two kinds of story—the sweeping historical epic and the intimate psychobiography. It starts as the latter, adds more ingredients of the former as it moves along, and by the end has turned into a striking fusion of the two. It may be fiction as far as the details of Chinggis’s life are concerned, but that simply means the facts synthesized for this story have the ring of emotional truth.

Yasushi Inoue has long been regarded as one of Japan’s greatest historical novelists, something like that country’s version of James Michener (although Inoue’s books tend to run a great deal shorter). My favorite book of his so far remains Tun-Huang, where Inoue took a historical curiosity—a cave in ancient China inexplicably filled with Buddhist treasures—and created an epic adventure that does more in two hundred pages than many books do in a thousand. Here, he pulls off something about as good, and it never becomes turgid or overblown but remains lean, spare and direct all the way through.

The title, as we learn both in the book’s opening chapters and Inoue’s postscript, is drawn from a Mongol legend describing the creation of their people: the mating of a blue wolf and a white doe. Not long after Chinggis (née Temüjin) is born to the son of a Mongol chieftain, he is racked with doubt that he was, in fact, his father’s own son or the sire of a man from another tribe. If he can’t have the truth of the matter revealed—and indeed, it’s left deliberately uncertain, as much of Temüjin’s own history probably was—then the least he can do is live as though he were an heir to that fierce lineage. Easier said than done, especially since his own family is ostracized by his tribe and he finds himself the head of his own family all too soon.

In time Temüjin wins not only the respect of the rest of his family, but the respect of others who would previously have never admitted his existence. He learns both diplomacy and brutality: you can make alliances now to crush a mutual enemy, but that never makes you friends forever. Everyone else will always want what you have, and so he keeps friends close, enemies closer and family closest of all—the better to not have to declare them enemies, too.

Woven into and through all of his actions are hints of his deeper, more personal motives. He rallies a great many fellow Mongols to crush the Merkid lineage, not only because they pose a military threat (they do) but because Temüjin has never been free of the nagging possibility that he might be of Merkid rather than true Mongol blood. He despises the Jin, the Chinese behind their Great Wall, and there’s an undeniable amount of excitement in watching Chinggis gather together over the years a force strong enough to challenge their empire. He wants to expand the Mongol empire as a way of giving his own people a taste of the great world that lies outside the mountains and steppes of its homeland.

There are all kinds of ways this material could have gone wrong. One of the easiest traps to fall into, from my purview, was to paint Chinggis Khan as some kind of Nietzschean superman, an incarnation of the will to power. What Wolf does instead is supply us with some idea of what might have driven Chinggis Khan to not only unify the various Mongolian tribes under his banner, but to turn them into a conquering army, to create an empire that sprawled from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific. The book also pulls off the tough trick of making Chinggis Khan compelling without asking us to excuse his tyranny or thirst for blood. We are not asked to think of him a certain way; we’re simply shown what he did, given some idea of what spurred him on to do it, and allowed to draw our own conclusions.

Inoue makes Chinggis’s emotional life comprehensible to us, even if not sympathetic. He’s not incapable of fatherly affection or love for a woman, but those things are always couched in his whole self: his greatest love is reserved for his sons (who can carry on his conquests), and his concubine Qulan, whose devotion to him could be read as a) the real thing, b) masochistic subjugation or c) the sort of cynical emotional ploy that Chinggis feels only women are most capable of. (The story also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Chinggis took a seemingly endless supply of women for himself from the peoples he conquered.) He feels a growing curiosity for the world he is assimilating more and more of; scholars and soldiers whom other conquerors might have beheaded without a second notice become part of his retinue. And at the end of his life he feels keen loss—that he came so far and accomplished so much, only to return home and find that out of all of his he and his own people had become something he barely recognized. He conquered other peoples by making them Mongols—only in time to find that his people were at least as interested in becoming citizens of that great world beyond the steppe, and living for something other than plunder and conquest.

It’s a much richer treatment of the subject than we had in the terrible film Genghis Khan: To The Ends of the Earth and Sea. That movie was based on a different novel about the same material, one which I can only assume was far more conventional in its melodrama and creaky plot devices. Time and again, the dynamics of Chinggis’s life were boiled down to the easy story beats of Hollywood screenwriters, instead of being allowed to drive the film from within. Blue Wolf always seems to have Chinggis at its center—and as a conflicted and credible human being, not simply a stock historical force.

Inoue is not a flashy writer, and so I suspect those reared on blood-and-thunder fantasy doorstoppers will find Blue Wolf disappointing. In every book I’ve read by him, his language has been spare and unadorned, and sometimes that means many passages that seem more functional than enticing. That’s part of his overall strategy, though: he lets the breadth of his stories to speak for themselves instead of trying to punch them up artificially. There are no chapter-long battle sequences, no loving evocations of swordplay, nothing of the stuff that has become the sine qua non of such books. If you go in looking for those things, you’ll be bored. Bring an open mind and a sense of wonder, and some sense of curiosity about what drove this man to conquer a good swath of the known world, and you’ll be rewarded.


Tags: Genghis Khan Japan Mongolia Yasushi Inoue books fiction history review


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Book Reviews, Books, published on 2010/04/16 00:08.

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