In Geneva recently, I found an English language bookshop and keen to elude my kindle, helpful though it is as I wait my books on their transition from England to my new home, I browsed and bought, ''The Last Quartet of the Moon' by Chi Zijian, a leading contemporary novelist in China (as I subsequently discovered).
The book is cast as the memoir of a ninety year old Evenki woman whose life has transited the twentieth century, though it is only when the Japanese arrive in the 1930s that this historical reference takes on any real meaning.
The Evenki are a reindeer herding people, here, living on the borders of Russia and China and our anonymous narrator vividly paints a picture of their lives both as indigenous people with a mainly self-sufficient culture and as a people in the grips of a challenging transition to a modern world that has little comprehension of their way of life. What is so beautiful about the novel is that it reads in such a compelling, life like way. This might well be how just such a woman would relate her history, the boundaries of 'fiction' and 'fact' blur. Likewise it is a life that has been deeply loved but is reported with no illusions of its particular hardships of both environment and of living in such a tight, bound community.
What is also compelling is how it unfolds the woman's shamanic beliefs with what feels like a striking authenticity. What we might consider as the 'miraculous' (or, more skeptically, the improbable) simply unfolds as it was seen from her perspective. In that telling, a world utterly different from our own (or so we imagine) comes to life. Shamanism is not seen "from on high" (neither through the lens of anthropological musing nor neo-Romantic wistfulness) but from an, necessarily, imagined empathy. It is part and parcel of an ordinary life well lived: normal. It resonated with my own observations of a similar tradition in Tuva.
It is beautifully written, usually sparse and matter of fact yet breaking into that occasional poetry that captures us all, at times. It reminds you too of an important truth that life, in its domestic, social detail, carries on in spite of the patterns that 'political actors' might want to impose. Yes, at critical points they can interrupt, challenge, even, at the edge, destroy, but, somehow, life, in its mundane conviviality, with its own heights and depths, continues nonetheless. History may be made by great men but life is fashioned somewhere else, round a hearth, on a hunt, tending a vegetable plot.
The ideal, of course, will come when the two, finally, are aligned and the 'great men' recognise that nothing they do, however great their posturing, has the resilience or the attraction or the meaning of the hearth and its affections.