Review: of “An Anthology of Mongolian Literature” by Simon Wickham-Smith
The Mongol Messenger
For a visitor to Mongolia, finding a path through the strange and alien maze of the country's culture is a nigh-on-impossible task.
The unique traditions and lifestyle - still to a great extent maintained in the face of increasing modernization -are almost incomprehensible to a Western observer. Of course, tourists will hear about nomadic customs and cultural traditions; but intellectually understanding the way a country works is a long way off from seeing into its heart. The recently published 'Anthology of Mongolian Literature', compiled by G. Mend-Ooyo and translated by Simon Wickham-Smith, provides a way in. This work, encapsulating literature from, the inception of the country with Chinggis Khaan right through to the tail-end of the 20th Century, is divided into two sections.
The first half is devoted entirely to poetry which, in the words of the translator, gives little mention to 'ephemera such as political or social trends'. In this respect, Mongolian literature is certainly unique. Throughout the literary traditions of most nations on earth, such 'ephemera' are not only mentioned, but are impossible to compartmentalize within the literature itself. The fact that these 'ephemera' are not spoken of here gives the poems a timeless quality - the opening work, 'Chinggis' Advice', might be contemporaneous with Nyamsuren's lyrical, beautiful creations of eight centuries later. The two are united across vast swathes of time by their 'intense, passionate link of heart and landscape'. The motherland is all:
Like a song, my motherland is lovely.
Like a poem, my motherland is lovely.
To live through the turning seasons is lovely.
The snowfall in Ereentsav is lovely.
These lines written by Nyamsuren are elegant in their studied simplicity. They are also very beautiful. The poem captures the reader at first encounter and bears him away to a land of cold, harsh loveliness, of great purity, which - from being something alien and apart - becomes a living, breathing reality.
This is the great power of poetry - poets are beings with the omnipotent ability to engineer emotions; through the works gathered in G. Mend-Ooyo's anthology, even the most removed of foreign observers can, for a brief while, feel themselves close to the heart of Mongolia. The second half of the anthology is given over to the short story, which is a relatively new addition to the Mongolian literary tradition, having been introduced to the country in the early 20th Century. This is not surprising - the nomadic lifestyle, limited in resources and frequently moving from one place to another, does not lend itself well to the written word. Mongolian poetry typically bears the hallmarks of morality - semantic repetition, simple sentence constructions and a formulaic quality. The introduction of the short story form to the Mongolian literary canon can be seen as revolutionary.
The writer who is credited with almost single-handedly carrying out this revolution opens the second part of the anthology with two short stories. Natsagdorj's 'Dark Cliffs', and his later 'A Venerable Monk's Tears', are both hauntingly melancholy and strikingly concerned with the psychology of the individual^ in contrast to the out-of-body, spiritual connection between individual and landscape which is seen at play in much of the poetry. 'Dark Cliffs' tells of the narrator's desperate search for a long departed and greatly missed lover named Ina, which takes him to the very depths of human fear. The dark cliffs of the title can be seen as a real place, rooted in Mongolian landscape, or equally as a frightening metaphor of the darkness the narrator must confront in order to reach across the space which separates him from his lover. Intriguingly, the story also reveals a self-conscious knowledge on the part of the writer that what he has produced is indeed revolutionary:
It is frightening and dangerous at Dark Cliffs, but the jade girl is intrigued.
This composition surprises the world, like Ina, it captures the young man's mind.
It is only in the 20th Century that this concern with individual psychology, with characterization and detailed narration arises - we can perhaps see here the comparatively more Westernized influence of Soviet Russia and, if so, it is deeply ironic that Natsagdorj's early death in 1936 is often attributed to the purges carried out under Choibalsan.
The volume, combining the cream of the crop in terms of both Classical Mongolian poetry and more modern literary forms, is an excellent way for those unfamiliar with Mongolian culture to get behind the guide books and see what lies at the country's heart. But, of course, these poems and stories have been forced through a transformation before they reach us. I talked to translator Simon Wickham-Smith about the process of translation, his involvement with the volume and the problems he faced in its course. "There's no formula that I follow when I translate," he says, "I just work through a poem and make a draft. Then I come back and revise; sometimes I have to worry at lines a lot to get the meaning and then I have to revise the syntax. It's an alchemy really...it's an extraordinarily strange transformation."
Simon is in a unique position - his roots are to be found in Western norms and culture, but he has for many years devoted himself to Buddhism, abandoning the Catholic Church at an early age to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. A desire to know as much as possible about the religion's history prompted him to learn Mongolian, and his discovery of the work of 19th Century Mongolian poet Danzanravjaa sealed the 'benign obsession'.
He is a fitting ambassador for Mongolian literature - ideally placed, both to understand the literature itself, and to translate text as closely as possible into a language not always suited to convey the original meaning, meandering his way through the many tensions that arise in the process. He is quick to point out that his translation is not always fully successful:
"It is a diabolic alchemy for it bespeaks the lie of what is approximate. With complicated constructs such as the nuance of poetry, the sway of a sentence, it is almost impossible to bring the approximation up to a close parallel. But we continue to try, for some bizarre reason."
'An Anthology of Mongolian Literature ‘is priced at USD 20, and can be found in English language bookshops and museum shops throughout Ulaanbaatar and by contacting Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org