A Communist school system tries to make a Mongolian boy conform.
"The Gray Earth" is the second novel by Mongolian writer Galsan Tschinag, a Tuvan singer, shaman and leader who writes in German. His first book, "The Blue Sky," is narrated by a young shepherd who lives in the high and difficult Altai mountains. "The Gray Earth" follows the same boy, Dshurukuwaa, for a year as he begins his formal education and is introduced to "civilized" town life.
Dshurukuwaa is taken to boarding school by his principal half-brother in such abrupt haste that he literally forgets his pants. He describes his new surroundings by employing animal similes and metaphors: "I see yurts pushed into a clump like chased lambs" and "the man with the yak-bull hair and horsefly eyes shakes his fists and yells something that sounds like a grown bull plunging his horns between a young challenger's ribs." He recognizes he has entered "a square world" where the roundness of nature is cut, pounded and moved into obedient rigid shapes, where people live by the clock rather than the natural rhythms of daily work.
The plot emerges from his enculturation into Mongolian society and its conflicts with his traditional Tuvan beliefs. Like Tschinag, Dshurukuwaa is a shaman, and "shamanizing" is a crime in this Soviet-influenced Communist system. Even speaking Tuvan is forbidden. He is told by his classmate: "The language itself, like your Tuvan name, is behind the times and cannot be written. ... We must leave behind everything that is backward. Instead, we must learn the civilized Mongolian language, which will lead us to the bright pinnacles of learning."
The novel seems highly autobiographical. The narrator shares the author's Tuvan name and is keenly bright. In an attempt to avoid problems with the Communist party, he maintains perfect grades, but as the year goes on, he feels his very essence being denied: "Are the plants and animals also nothing but bundles of flesh, bone, water, air, and earth? ... I feel empty inside and dull outside -- a soulless bundle in a disenchanted world."
"The Blue Sky" was beautifully translated with care and color by the lauded translator Katharina Rout, but in "The Gray Earth" she employs stock phrases and clichés, such as "tasty morsels," "bated breath" and "pulling a face."
Still, Minneapolis publisher Milkweed Editions deserves applause for translating this important book into English. Indigenous cultures and languages have been attacked, denied and lost in boarding schools worldwide. It is an investment in our humanity to save and share stories such as this one that allow readers to understand the square strangeness of our so-called modern lives.
Kathryn Kysar is the author of "Pretend the World," published by Holy Cow! Press, and teaches international literature at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.