The Blue Sky—A Novel: Galsan Tschinag

Translated from German by Katharina Rout
Published by Milkweed Editions, 2006, 209 pages. Original version published in 1994.

“Grandma was human silk. That’s what Father said, and what he said was always right. Always. And she had been sent to me by the sky.”

The Blue Sky is a coming-of-age story about a boy living in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia with his nomadic family. The book is narrated by Dshurukuwaa (although you don’t know his name until much later), starting from when he was a very young child.

One of the most significant events of his young life is the arrival of an old woman. She is adopted by his parents and is called Grandma by the child. The boy—still a baby—takes to her immediately. She is the centre of his world, as he is the centre of hers.

Many of the people in the family’s ail (a settlement of several yurts) are relatives of the boy’s parents. They live as nomads, moving with their animals when the seasons change to find the best pastures. As soon as he is old enough—although still a child—Dshurukuwaa herds his family’s sheep to the nearby pastures, accompanied by his beloved dog Arsylang.

“The days of winter, which seemed so short to the adults, seemed long, infinitely long to me. I was not to play but rather to take the flock to its pasture, and I was told to watch the wind, the sun, and the grass, to watch how the animals reacted to them, and to watch how each of the animals behaved. It was also important to be on my guard against wolves and eagles.”

However, the outside world encroaches on the nomads’ lives. Dshurukuwaa’s older brother and sister are sent off to school in the city. Officials (known as “Comrade Sum Representatives”) visit nomadic settlements regularly to check that all children aged eight and above are in school.

The father believes it is important to educate his children because life as a herder is hard. Dshurukuwaa’s grandfather had been a baj (a rich person), and his father, as the eldest son, had inherited the wealth. But when the communists came to power in Mongolia, the baj were seen as the enemy of the people, and known as kulaks.[1] Things had changed, and Dshurukuwaa’s father had lost his wealth.

The boy does not understand why his father has sent his siblings away to school, just when they are old enough to ease his father’s burdens. “Was it the salary?” he wonders, not quite sure what a salary is. “People talked about the salary as if it were a little fairy-tale pot that cooked porridge whenever you asked.”

The assumption is that Dshurukuwaa will follow his siblings when he is old enough, but he hates the idea. He loves his little world: it is something he knows well and trusts. When his brother and sister return for the holidays, they are somehow changed, and less a part of his world than they used to be.

The Blue Sky immerses you in the daily rhythms of nomadic life, seen from the point of view of a child. The Altai Mountains are almost a character in their own right, looming over the lives of the nomads and wielding a power over them. The nomads live in very close contact with nature: they are affected by its moods, and the weather dictates whether they stay or go. When they invoke a higher power, they turn to the Sky or the Mountains.

This book is subtitled A Novel, but in his afterword, Galsan Tschinag calls it the first volume of his autobiography. The details he provides match those of the novel, so it appears that the book is based on his life. I can’t be sure, but I think it takes place between the late 1940s and early 1950s.

This is a book about the joy and innocence of childhood. But it is also about the grief that loss can bring. You follow Dshurukuwaa as he grows up and tries to make sense of the world. Tschinag takes you deep into another world, a world with its own traditions and beliefs.

[1] (Russian) Peasants who were rich enough to own a farm and hire help. The term also applied to rich Mongolian herders.

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