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The Blue Sky , by Galsan Tschinag

Der blaue Himmel: Roman (suhrkamp taschenbuch) - Galsan Tschinag

[This book has been translated into English under the title The Blue Sky.]


Der Blaue Himmel , written in German(*) by the Tuvan shaman, poet and novelist Galsan Tschinag (known as Irgit Shynykbai-oglu Dshurukuwaa when he is home - b. 1944) is the largely autobiographical story of a young Tuvan boy, Dshurukuwaa, in the early 1950's living in the bosom of his extended family in the ancient manner of his nomadic people, moving across the monstrously wide steppes of Mongolia and southern Siberia and the mountain valleys of the Altai as their herds of sheep, goats, yaks, and horses graze, living almost exclusively on their milk, blood, flesh, bones and hides (for there is little else to be found on the steppe except for grass, marmots, foxes, wolves and the occasional bird or bear), and carrying their dismantled homes (yurts) with them. Their ancestors surely fought for Genghis Khan and inspired horror in the peoples they destroyed; but for ages their only ambition has been to live their lives in the old way, to wed, have children and increase their herds. In this book we learn about this old way of life from the inside. Two other things we learn from this book: (1) human beings are remarkably adaptable and (2) despite cultural differences, human beings are much the same everywhere, for the better and for the worse. Even if one thinks one already knows these things, there is still gain in seeing these play themselves out in the absolutely concrete setting of a culture distant to our own.


In relatively straightforward but evocative language, Tschinag summons the simple but hard life of the Tuvan nomads, the harsh beauty of the steppes and mountains, and the extremely tight family bonds of his people. The Communist Party controlled Mongolia and had already begun to "improve" the lives of the inhabitants, so the nomads were beginning to change their ways. Dshurukuwaa's older brother and sister were obliged to leave the camp to go to school in the local village, and some of his extended family chose to move there, as well. Dshurukuwaa, too young for school, took over his siblings' chores. His nomadic life continued, but, in quick succession, his beloved grandmother died, a bitter winter killed most of his flock, and his inseparable dog was accidentally poisoned. The book ends with him screaming imprecations at the most powerful being in the Tuvans' religion, the Blue Sky.


Der Blaue Himmel is the first volume of a trilogy, and the story of Dshurukuwaa's youth is continued in Die graue Erde and then Der weiße Berg . After setting up the Tuvan culture and Dshurukuwaa's rejection of Father Sky, the trilogy continues with Dshurukuwaa personally experiencing how the communist authority was trying to stamp out his culture. Stay tuned...


(*) Tschinag studied German at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig (1962-1968) and chose to write his books in German when looking for a Western audience. He also writes books in Mongolian in order to reach out to the Kazakh and Mongolian majority in his own country in defense of the minority Tuva people, known in the West for their remarkable "throat singing":




My throat hurts just listening to it.


(**) Tschinag's books appear to be the only sources of insight in a Western language into Tuvan culture and history as presented from a native member of that society. Tschinag is not only a shaman, he is the leader of the Tuva people in Mongolia, whose numbers are said to be around 4,000. However, there are some 200,000 Tuvan speakers in an adjacent portion of the Russian Federation called the Republic of Tuva (renamed the Tyva Republic fairly recently), where they form the majority. I thought I had perceived some parallels between the Tuvan/Mongolian and the Tibetan/Chinese situations, but the existence of a larger group of Tuvan neighbors weakens that parallel. However, the Mongolians did deliberately try to suppress the Tuvan culture in Mongolia (as did the Soviet Union in the region now called the Tyva Republic; however, now the Tuvan language is freely spoken again, and Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism are beginning to recover in the Tyva Republic). “Galsan Tschinag” is a Mongolian pseudonym the boy was required to adopt in order to attend Mongolian schools, because the Mongolian government forbade the Tuvan speech.