Galsan Tschinag's autobiographical story of a
boy living on the Mongolian steppes (prairies) offers an
evocative glimpse into a way of life in which the nomadic people
live in harmony with their awesome (in the literal sense)
surroundings, worshiping the sky as sacred. It is a record of a
time that was already vanishing in Tschinag's childhood but, thanks in part to Tschinag and others, is now being not just preserved but lived once
The Blue Sky is set in the 1950s, when the Tuvan's traditional nomadic ways were under threat from the Communist government who, intent on producing a homogeneous and equal Soviet people, introduced endless new rules that made it ever harder to continue to live in the traditional ways especially when the system rewarded the lazy over the industrious.
I read The Blue Sky twice, the first time to myself, the second time aloud to our children. It's not really a book for young children, the pace is a little too slow, but they, then 10 and 12, enjoyed it well enough when read aloud to them. The most stunning aspect for them was that the young protagonist, who is perhaps 5 or 6 years old, is in charge of his own flock, when many of their teenage friends aren't yet trusted to bike to school!
Adults and older teens who can appreciate the slower things in life will find this an evocative and moving read.
About Galsan Tschinag:
Galsan's name in his native Tuvan language is Irgit Shynykbai-oglu Dshurukuwaa. He was born in the early forties in Mongolia and from 1962 until 1966 studied at the University of Leipzig, where he adopted German as his written language. Under an oppressive Communist regime he became a singer, storyteller, and poet in the ancient Tuvan tradition.
As chief of all Tuvans, Tschinag led his people, scattered under Communist rule, back in a huge caravan to their original home in the High Altai mountains. In 1995, he signed a treaty with the President of Mongolia that would allow many of the Tuvan people (who had been displaced by the Soviet Union) to return to the Altai. Armed with bags of money he had earned from his European book sales he went into the Gobi desert and bought camels and horses for those of his impoverished people who wanted to return. Then, for three and a half months, he led a caravan of extended families, along with 130 camels, 300 horses, sheep, dogs and chickens over 2000 kilometers across the steppe, rivers and mountain ranges back in to the High Altai (the largest caravan since Genghis Khan); he tells this story in Die Karawane (The Caravan). As a result of his efforts and the work of others, much of the Altai region is now protected by the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.
He is the author of more than a dozen books which have been translated into about eight languages. He lives alternately in the Altai, Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia's capital city) and in Europe. The Blue Sky is subtitled a novel but in his author's note Galsan describes it as the first part of an autobiographical trilogy. In the Blue Sky he writes of his early childhood. In the second and third parts, The Gray Earth and The White Mountain, he describes discovering his shamanic gift and being apprenticed as a child and adolescent during a time when practicing shamanism was punishable with imprisonment or execution. The latter two books have already been published in German, but are not yet available in English; in fact, Blue Sky is currently the only book by Galsan Tschinag to be available in English.
The Blue Sky is translated into English by Katherina Rout; her interview provides interesting background to this story.
"During my lifetime, I have lived in an indigenous, feudal, and communist society. Today, I move about the country on horseback, by car, or by plane. With my shaman's whisk, a truncheon, or a laptop, I alternate between living in the indigenous culture of the post-Socialist Tuvans, the rising Capitalism of Mongolia, and the enlightened state monopoly of Western Europe. My life has been rich because I have always found myself at the focal point of each epoch and have pursued all my tasks and each of my professions with passion." -
This review was originally published in December 2006, and has been updated for the November 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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