[This book has been translated into English under the title The Grey Earth.]
Die graue Erde (1999) is the second volume of an autobiographical trilogy written in German by the Tuvan shaman, poet and novelist Galsan Tschinag (b. 1944).(*) I review the first volume here
In that review I supply some background about the author and his people.
In this book, set in 1951-52, the young Tuvan boy, Dshurukuwaa, living in the bosom of his extended family in the ancient manner of his nomadic people, is taken by force to the nearest town to be schooled. The Tuvans are a tiny minority in Mongolia, which at that time was under the sway of the USSR and run by the Mongolian Communist Party, and were regarded as a backward, superstition-ridden people by the Mongolians. In the best interest of the Tuvan people, of course, the Mongolian government tried to stamp out the Tuvan culture. For Dshurukuwaa this meant that he had to go to school where only Mongolian (which he understood not a whit) was allowed to be spoken and where he had to learn that most of the ideas he had come to accept among his own people were noisome rubbish. Welcome, indeed!
So, in addition to the usual lovely tortures our rug rats carry out on newly arrived rug rats, Dshurukuwaa must endure the special attention meted out by the authorities to the dangerously backward. That his much older brother is the director of the school is not an advantage, on the contrary, for this fellow is of the rabid type certain new converts with ambitions become.
Tschinag convincingly recalls for us this particular Hexenkessel as well as the terror and wonder of this 8 year old boy who was tossed directly into the deepest part of the pot. There are, of course, also moments of hope and moments of success since the human being, particularly the young human being, is extremely adaptable. Nonetheless, the school was a good approximation to Hell on Earth.
Surprisingly, it did not succeed in crushing the little Tuvan boy into a thin layer of cardboard. (Of course, if it had, we would not have been graced with these books.) No, this kid keeps himself more or less intact by hating those trying to break his spirit and by learning how to lie to them, to tell them what they want to hear. Slowly, Tschinag learns that almost everyone is lying in this manner.
Of particular absurdity is the New Year's Eve when word reaches the little town that the great dictator has died. The eager and opportunistic compete to see who can manifest the most grief; the local party secretary threatens everyone else so that they, too, play their parts as well as they can. A clever student rubs a freshly cut onion on a piece of cloth and, presto! tears on demand. His fellow students copy him and the school receives a special commendation from the party secretary... And then there is the typical small souled man whom a little power inflates into an asshole of gigantic proportions.
The little boy also learns the hard way which questions should not be asked. And when one should not laugh, or even smile.(**)
But this is an oft told story.
Another oft told story is the collision between the "superstition-ridden" native culture and the "scientific" and "progressive" culture of the power brokers. But usually this story is told from the point of view of the triumphant culture. In such a setting readers in our Elysian Fields can feel a sense of confirmation, perhaps even triumph. This time, however, the triumphant, progressive culture is one which we Elysian Field dwellers easily distance ourselves from, and the story is told from the point of view of a member of the weaker culture. Do we suddenly change sides? Are now the ignorant natives in the right?
It is just not that simple.
Of particular interest here is that Tschinag is a university educated man (in Leipzig) well acquainted with Western science who is, nonetheless, a shaman. He isn't some ignorant middle American preacher ranting about Hell and Damnation for everybody who doesn't quite exactly toe his line. His is the kind of lived spirituality that makes me pause.
So, along with the strands I mentioned earlier, Tschinag weaves in this further strand - how and why does someone become a shaman? How many shamans have been educated at a Western university and can express themselves eloquently in a Western language? This autobiographical trilogy is a rare opportunity to see how such a man views the world. It is also damn well written.
(*) His Tuvan name is Irgit Shynykbai-oglu Dshurukuwaa, but the Mongolian authorities forced him to adopt the Mongolian name when he went to school and henceforth whenever he must have dealings with them.
(**) There are untouchable matters in every society, including in our little Elysian Fields. When one is old enough to have seen how the untouchable has become touchable and the touchable untouchable, as I have, one can become a little skeptical about the absolute certainty which the-quick-to-outrage-among-us project.