First published in an English translation in 2013, this novel by a prize-winning Chinese author covers 90 years in the life of an Evenki woman (a nomadic people living in the mountainous forests of China and Russia). The unnamed narrator tells the story as an old woman whose way of life has almost disappeared. Each of the four sections of the book (Dawn, Mid-Day, Dusk, and The Last Quarter of the Moon) begins with an italicized section that takes place in the present, on the day that most of her clan have left the nomadic life to settle in a nearby town. Only she and her adult grandson remain in their tent in the mountains.
The first italicized section was difficult to understand because many names were mentioned without context. The family tree at the beginning of the book helped me understand that the narrator’s daughter and grandchildren had voted to leave their forest home and descend the mountain to live permanently in a town. Alone in her tent, the narrator decides to tell her life story. “Then let the rain and the fire listen to my tale,” she says (p. 6).
Through this remarkable novel, I came to know something of Evenki life: herding reindeer, hunting, moving camp, marrying, giving birth, celebrating, and holding funerals. All was not peaceful in the camp: interpersonal jealousies and spite played a role. Tragedy was ever-present and death frequent, despite the efforts of the tribal shaman.
At various times, the Evenki came into contact with Han Chinese, Russians, and Japanese. The changes in their culture are described from the narrator’s perspective over her 90-year lifespan. Sometimes the book seems more an ethnographic study than a novel, and sometimes the narrator’s personal story was overshadowed by the stories of others in her clan. However, the beautiful descriptions of nature and Evenki life are constant threads that hold the book together.
Here the narrator describes a rock painting she created:
I painted until the sun fell into the mountain. By the time the setting sun draped the rock and water in gold, I had already hoisted a full moon and seven stars for the night that was soon to come. (p. 205)
The author of The Last Quarter of the Moon is not Evenki but a Han Chinese woman. In an Afterword posted on her English translator’s site, she explains why she felt compelled to tell a story of the Evenki. Chi Zijian grew up in a mountain town near tribal land. As an adult, she learned more about the fate of the Evenki and other tribal peoples whose land had been ravaged by logging. A newspaper clipping about an Evenki painter inspired Chi Zijian to write this poignant, beautiful novel.
The image above is from the Evenki Atlas.