Translated from the German by Katharina Rout
(Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2010)
Born in Mongolia in the forties, Galsan Tschinag has lived a range of human experience I can only imagine: he has been, by his own description, a gatherer, hunter, herder, student, professor, journalist, and politician. The Gray Earth, the second book of an autobiographical trilogy, deals with the early years of his life – the awesome peril of the Siberian steppes, where winter is followed by a spring that is “harder still,” and the encroachment of an alien law that threatens his language, traditions, and freedom.
Dshuruunaj, the novel’s main character, and his family are Tuvans, a seminomadic minority probably best known to the rest of the world for their throat singing. A particularly bad winter has decimated the family’s herds, and though he is only a child, Dshuruunaj carries a man’s responsibility in trying to save the animals. Had his older brother and sister still lived at home, the burden would have been lighter, but they are away at a newly compulsory state boarding school. Now, the time has come for Dshuruunaj to join them, and so the novel’s central struggle begins: it is the school’s purpose to “civilize” the Tuvan children, replacing their language with Mongolian and their way of life with chilling totalitarian ideals. The rituals of the past are forcefully overridden by the rituals of the present: the children are taught to venerate Soviet leaders and principles and forced to adopt customs that are essentially Soviet counterparts to the Tuvan “superstitions” the school aims to quash.
There is a great deal of charm in this slim novel: the camaraderie among the students and the home that Dshuruunaj makes with his older siblings provide a cheerful counterpoint to the hostile environment they find themselves in. And though he is a bit of a brat, and at times rather prideful, Dshuruunaj has all the sturdy charisma of a Dickens character: he bites a grown man in self-defense hard enough to make him bleed; he brazenly acquiesces to being sent to a youth prison because he hates school and has always wanted to see the world; and he holds on to his dangerous ambition to become a shaman. It’s interesting to unpack Dshuruunaj’s shamanizing: his family is disapprovingly dismissive, and the school strictly forbids it; yet, when a dire situation arises—a runaway classmate, Gök, is in danger of freezing to death if he isn’t discovered soon—Dshuruunaj’s abilities are taken rather seriously by one of his teachers. It helps, of course, that Dshuruunaj has seen Gök while he’s been in hiding, so has some idea of where he may or may not be . . . and yet it’s to the novel’s credit that the ceremony Dshuruunaj performs is as disorienting for him as it is for the reader:
At that moment I see Gök in front of me. Tiny, his face as blue as ice, he is crouching in a corner. Quickly I forget my self-pity and try to run to him. My path is blocked by obstacles: walls, walls, and more walls are both separating us and locking us in—him, me, all of us—and there are dark beams and light beams, each harder and higher and more impossible to overcome. Everything I see and everything I think turns into chant. I can hear my own voice, muffled and distant . . . Suddenly I find myself back at the basin.
Dshuruunaj is venturing unsupported down an unknown path – is he doing it to bask in negative attention? To revel in being unique, special? Or is he like an artist, unsure of where his abilities come from, but compelled nonetheless?
The constant presence of the land and especially of the herd animals subtly underwrites the world Dshuruunaj lives in, and these elements become a sort of competing presence in the novel. The animals provide nourishment, fuel, clothing, and medicine; almost everything tactile relates back to their bodies. This observation may sound as unremarkable as describing a contemporary American character who is dependent on her computer, car, or cell phone, but the connection between the humans and their animals goes deeper than that here, I think; the allusions drawn between them are at times startling: “She pinches the back of my hand in reply, pushing out her lips before quickly pulling them back in such a scary way that her twisted face looks like a yak’s hole after a pile of crap has slipped out.” In the first book of the trilogy, Dshuruunaj rejects the cruelty of the natural world and its divine forces; in The Gray Earth, he and his classmates are forced into a pillaging of the earth that is verboten. “The earth’s blood appears to be a few shades lighter than sheep or yak blood, but the kidneys we tear from its body look as quivery and helpless as the kidneys of any animal,” Dshuruunaj observes as he helps dig what is vaguely touted as a future municipal canal. This particular act of violence, which follows a similar act of desecration in a grove of trees, unleashes a series of events that will ultimately bring Dshuruunaj back to a belief and trust in his traditions.
The final installment of the trilogy, as yet untranslated, deals with the inevitable “breakdown of the adolescent forced to lead a double life,” Tschinag has written. Dshuruunaj, then, has further to go in his struggle to define himself in his highly circumscribed circumstances. I predict he will come out okay in the end: in adulthood, Galsan Tschinag became a practicing shaman who led the Tuvans, resettled under Communist rule, back to their ancestral Altai Mountains. I see the man in the child; and I like to think of Dshuruunaj growing into adulthood, weighing his choices with honesty and integrity, and choosing the hardest road, if it is the right one.
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Anne McPeak‘s review of The Gray Earth first appeared in TLR’s Winter 2011 issue, The Rogue Idea.