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The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, of  the high Altai mountains in Mongolia ,  is one of the most engaging, sweetest novels I have read in years.  Despite its being written in his second language,  German, by a Tuvan man and translated into English by a woman whose mother tongue is German the lilt and sing of the words carry us along.  The sweet simplicity of the story, with many memories/stories embedded, is matched by the simplicity of the grammar and diction, indeed the conception of the novel –which is not a novel, though it is billed, and shelved, as one.

Galsan begins:  “This story may have begun in a dream.  Was it preparation for things to come, a warning perhaps?  For it was a bad dream — a nightmare.”  He ends with:   “The Blue Sky is the first part of my autobiographical trilogy. It describes my early childhood and ends with my rejection of Father Sky…”

So what we have is a dream-novel-autobiography of life in one of the remotest places on earth.

“On windless Sundays we hiked up to the top of Doora Hara. From there everything was visible as if in the palm of my hand: the big rivers that were now covered with ice and snow and were glinting in places; the ails along the bank on this side of the Ak-Hem; Tewe-Mojun, the Camel’s Neck, and Saryg-Hol, the Yellow Lake, both brought into being by Sardakpan, the giant hero and creator of the Altai Mountains…”

At the beginning the narrator is a very young child, old enough to tell his mother his dream [tell your bad dreams to a hole and spit three times….], young enough to have just been released from the safety-tether of his learning to walk years.  He is the youngest child of three of a Tuvan herding couple on the steppes of Mongolia.  Early in his life an older woman careens into their lives on a mare made skitterish by the barking dogs.  After taking  care of her in the yurt and showing much politeness, she stays longer and with growing ease,  she is asked if she would like to stay with them.

“Grandma was human silk.  That’s what Father said, and what he said was always right.  Always.”

Grandma is the reason for the writing, probably he would say, for his entire existence as it has come to be.  His parents, though he loves them, work day in and day out — as he himself does,  probably from the age of 8, if not earlier.  Grandma was the one present, to fondle him as a child, to spend time with him and answer his questions:

“She had much to tell, had lived for a long time, and had maintained an open mind. She knew no haste and would dwell on some stories for days. If I asked, she told many of them over and over. Her memory was like a well ordered bookcase. She never had to search but seemed to keep her stories handy, each bound like a book, titled, and likely numbered as well. With her, details mattered, as did every word.

She gives him sure guide posts for his growing up.  One day she tells a story how she, as a young girl,  rode far out on the plain  to the yurt of an old woman, rumored to be a witch, and was treated quite nicely, and served porridge which “tasted of creamy yak milk and contained finger-thick lumps which fell apart all on their own and melted as soon as the tongue presses them against the roof of the mouth.”

Mother interrupts to say:

“But she must have been a witch. People all over talk about her, and each story is scarier than the one before!

Grandma slowly lifted her head, which she had kept bowed as she always did after finishing a story. and with her mild eyes aimed at Mother, she said in a voice that was a bit deep for a woman’s and sounded gentle but firm: “Have you met her?”

Mother had not met her.

“That’s it,” Grandma continued gravely, “you have never met her but I have. And the woman I met was not a witch but a human being. An old woman as my mother was and yours is, as I am now and you will be.” Mother said nothing in return and she never interfered with the story, no matter how often it was told.

The other vital relation in the boy’s life is his dog, Arsylang.  The two are inseparable.  He talks to him, depends on him, considers him “my-brother-instead-of-a-brother.”  In a lovely image, as the two are waiting for Brother and Sister to come back from a semester at school, riding with Father on the family horses, they see the tiny figures across the valley.

Arsylang whimpered and barked and jumped with me. He was trembling all over, and joy lit up his eyes like a bright flame. He would have loved above all to tear off and race toward them. But I knew he would not leave me. Under no circumstances would he ever leave me behind on the lonely mountain ridge.

Despite the sweetness of the telling the life of the boy and the family is mountain tough.  The cold is ferocious, the loss of sheep and lamb devastating.  Their food is meager, their knowledge of the outside world small — barely enough to protect them as it presses in.   When the regional Party teacher comes to get the children into school there is general resistance and when Father gives in and send two of his children he is resented by the others.

The relatives avoided our yurt.  Out in the hürde there were no longer any intimate conversations between Mother and the aunts, not the peals of laughter that used to accompany them.  Uncle Sargaj’s and Uncla Sama’s remarks got more pointed.  They stung Father and the children alike — even me.  For example:  “Hey little one!  D’you want to claw your way up to a salary too?”  I had no idea what a salary was or what it had to do with me,  but I felt the scorn in the remark.”

And of course as the boy grows uo others grow older.  Grandma dies, bringing him endless confusion about her coming back, as she says she will, but not looking like she looks now.  How will I recognize you? He wants to know.  His Brother and Sister go away to school.  In the end, about the time he is 18, his faithful dog dies, poisoned by wolf poison set out by his own father.  It is during the desperate search and attempt to rescue Arsylang that he swears a great oath to Father Sky:

I pronounced judgment on Gök-Deeri, our blue sky:  ¨From now on, I will no longer be your son.  I will have nothing but contempt for you, i-ih-iiij, gögergen Gök–“

At that my head was dealt a blow and I lost my voice….”

This wonderful novel— dream— autobiography ends as he is fighting the biggest fight of his young life.

¨What was the point of my birth and my survival?  What was the point of my dreams and my prayers?   What was the point of the blessings others had given me, of their praise and their promises, or of the efforts I had made myself?  I had been cheated out of a life.  I did not belong between the sky and earth.

The following book is called The Gray Earth and “deals with the violence inflicted on me when I underwent a period of re-education in a totalitarian school system…”  And following that is The White Mountain [not yet in English]. Both, he says “contain stories more tragic than those in The Blue Sky, but since the art of survival is strong among the nomads, some primordial serenity hovers above everything…”

Galsan Tschinag is now a respected elder of the Tuvan people, managing to bridge the world of new and ancient both their lives and in these stories.  Highly recommended for anyone from 12 to 112.  We’ll all find a lesson or two and some things to wonder at.

“Words came next – they poured out, one on top of another, all aimed at the sky. It was as if Mother had grabbed the sky, as if she had grabbed this hard-hearted old father by his hair and was plucking away at him. I was relieved because the wordless sobbing and wheezing [earlier] had been terrifying.

Oh what a hard-hearted father you are! She yelled, her eyes turned upwards. She waved her hands which were clenched into fists.’

You who punishes us so severely! Oh what have we done?   Have we not lived in constant fear and infinite awe of you? Ah? Why do you punish us so cruelly and needlessly?”