There were two choices in the frame for Mongolia. One was a collection of folk tales picked up at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar by writer friend Emily Bullock. The other was Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky, a book recommended by fellow literary globetrotter Paul.
The folk tales sounded tempting, particularly as, weighing in at just 119 very small pages and with lots of illustrations, they would probably have taken less than an hour to read. However, when I found out more about Galsan Tschinag’s extraordinary life story, my attention was hooked.
Born as Irgit Schynykbajoglu Dshurukuwaa (his name in Tuvan), Tschinag adopted German as his written language during his time studying at the University of Leipzig in the sixties before becoming a singer, storyteller, poet, shaman and Tuvan chief. Angered by the impact of the Communist regime on his people, he led a huge caravan of Tuvans back to their ancestral home in the Altai Mountains and campaigns for the rights of the group to this day. He also apparently managed to cure himself of a life-threatening heart condition using his shamanic powers.
By the time I’d finished reading about him, I couldn’t help feeling that Galsan Tschinag was running Tete-Michel Kpomassie a close second for the title of ‘writer I’d most like to meet’.
Drawing heavily on Tschinag’s childhood, The Blue Sky is the coming of age story of a young shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. On the face of it, he and his family pursue the nomadic herding ways of life that Tuvans have practised for generations; yet far away in the interior of Mongolia change is afoot with the influence of the Soviet Union prompting seismic shifts that will ripple out to the farthest corners of the country and alter the boy’s life for ever.
Few writers inhabit their characters’ thoughts as convincingly as Tschinag does. Capturing the wonder and weirdness of childhood, he has a gift for bringing us into his protagonist’s hopes and dreams. We share in the boy’s fantasies of becoming a baj by building up a flock of more than 1,000 sheep and his wacky plan to count to that number by assembling 100 people and ticking off their fingers one by one, and they feel real and immediate, and strangely reminiscent of our own childhood imaginings. In addition, we recognise the quirky literalism of childhood – which leaves the boy watching his relatives in bewilderment for signs of their necks twisting after a comment from his mother that their heads have been turned – and the power of make-believe which transforms an eagle sighting into a full-blown attack when the boy tells his parents about his day.
This sense of recognition helps Tschinag bring us close to customs and practices that might otherwise feel irreconcilably alien and strange. Identifying with the boy, we can inhabit his world, where sniffing people is a way of expressing affection, children smoke pipes and urine is a remedy for sore eyes. As Tschinag describes the family’s formal adoption of the mysterious old lady who declares herself the boy’s grandma and the extraordinary rituals carried out to honour and respect animals and nature, it is as though we are sitting round the fire in the yurt with the characters, swapping stories.
As a result it is impossible not to feel connected to and invested in this world – and to bristle like Arsylang the dog at the approach of the outside influences set to destroy it. From very personal instances – such as the return of the boy’s older brother and sister from boarding school for the holidays and the awkwardness that springs up between the once-inseparable siblings – to news that the Mongolian Old White Man of traditional New Year’s celebrations has morphed into the Russian Father Frost, we see everywhere the erosion of this rare way of life. And when his father’s attempt to embrace modern hunting techniques backfires tragically towards the end of the narrative, we feel the full weight of the boy’s grief, not only for his personal loss, but for the passing of belonging, identity and meaning itself.
Achingly sad and yet passionately life-affirming, this book is up there with the very best. It is an extraordinary achievement by a writer skilled at celebrating both the unique and the universal. To read it is to marvel at the variety, beauty and strangeness of the human race – and to feel privileged to be part of it.
The Blue Sky (Der blaue Himmel) by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout (Milkweed Editions, 2006)