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Bernardo Carvalho: Mongólia [Mongolia]

Our narrator is a sixty-nine year old retired Brazilian diplomat. He lives alone, having separated from his second wife when she went off with the French Ambassador. He had been acting Brazilian ambassador in Beijing. He had temporarily recruited the consul from Shanghai, a man known as the Westerner by the Mongolians as they could not pronounce his name.

One day our narrator is given instructions from Brasilia. It turns out that the only son of an important CEO had disappeared in Mongolia. Our narrator instructs the Westerner to head out for Mongolia to pick up his trace. For reasons that are not clear either to us or to the narrator, the Brazilian authorities do not want to involve the Mongolian authorities, not least because there is no Brazilian representation in Mongolia. The father of the missing man (like all the Brazilian characters in this book, he is not named) has tracked down the initial guide of his son, has spoken to him by phone and has insulted him.

Much of the narrator’s information has come from documents left by the Westerner. The narrator had apparently collected these documents later and still has them without having been aware of this, in his files back in Rio. These include a draft letter the Westerner had written, possibly to his wife but possibly to the narrator. Once again neither we nor the narrator are sure about this. What we do know is that the Westerner has recently died, killed in an attempt to ransom his kidnapped son in Rio.

Initially, the Westerner is happy to accept the task of going to Mongolia but then comes back the next day and refuses to go. The narrator recalls that he, the narrator, was very angry about this but restrained his anger and simply ordered him to go, which he did. At the time, he could not understand why the Westerner changed his mind but partially understands him after reading the letter mentioned above. In this letter, the Westerner explains his mixed views about Beijing and the Chinese and even gives his views on Chinese literature, claiming that Lu Hsun (Lu Xun)‘s The True Story of Ah Q is the major work of modern Chinese literature and that Ah Q is a Chinese Macunaíma. More importantly, the narrator clearly feels that the Westerner is arrogant, as he makes lots of comments about the Chinese, though he has never been to China before this assignment.

The Westerner sets off for Mongolia, where he meets Ganbold, the first guide of the missing son. We learn that Ganbold had guided him on the traditional tourist trail but also up to visit the Dukha people, known for their reindeer herding. However, the two had fallen out when Ganbold declined to accompany him to the West of the country in the autumn as, according to Ganbold, it would be very dangerous at that time of year, because of heavy snow. However, another guide, Purevbaatar, had accompanied him, which led to a falling out between the two guides.

The Westerner learns from Ganbold what had actually happened and why they had fallen out. Eventually, at the Westerner’s insistence, they go and meet Purevbaatar and get his story. There is still considerable animosity between the two Mongolians but we eventually learn Purevbaatar’s story and why he seemingly abandoned the missing son.

The Westerner manages to get hold of the two diaries of the missing son, one from each of the guides, and these are now in the narrator’s possession and he quotes liberally from them. The Westerner also persuades Purevbaatar to accompany him to where the missing son went missing, to see if they can find any trace of them. He has to pay a large amount to him to persuade him.

There is some sort of explanation for why the missing son suddenly went out West and what he was looking for. It involves the Tantric Buddhist female Buddha, Narkhajid (about which neither I nor the Westerner can find out much – here is a picture of her) who seems to be linked to Mahavidya, Narodakini and Vajrayogini. It also involves what we would call a convent devoted to Narkhajid, which both the missing son and the Westerner visited. When the missing son and Purevbaatar visited nobody would speak to them till a bald nun approached them and told them a tale of Suren, a young nun who had been raped by Dorj Khamba, a Buddhist abbot but, nevertheless, helps him flee Mongolia for China, when a huge number of monks and nuns were murdered and a huge number of monasteries destroyed, as part of Stalin’s repression of Buddhism in 1937.

The final complication involves a diary. As a result of the destruction of the monasteries, many items were buried in the ruins and Mongolians often dug things up. It seems that a Mongolian had found a diary written in Tibetan. He is determined to learn Tibetan in order to read it but does not and it passes to a Kazakh hunter. The missing son is convinced that the diary was the diary of Dorj Khamba, the fleeing abbot.

The Westerner and Purevbaatar set off to see if the missing son is still alive. They get sidetracked, misled and disillusioned. However, they also get help, clues and friendliness. The weather is horrible – very hot but also torrential rain. They get bitten by a variety of insects. We also get a very comprehensive travelogue of this part of Mongolia, at times very beautiful according to the Westerner (Carvalho himself spent two months there, researching this book).

We learn a lot about the Mongolians. The Westerner is highly critical of them, because of their violence, drunkenness and unreliability. He does not like the Eastern approach of going round a subject, instead of getting straight to the point. The Mongolians find the westerners odd but really dislike the Kazakhs (there are quite a few living in Mongolia), whom they consider dishonest.

The ending is not at all what we expected and the whole matter is complicated by a series of unreliable narrators. Who is telling the truth? We do not know but nor do the characters.

I found this to be a wonderful book and my main surprise is that, though two of his works have been translated into English, this one has not. It is a mystery; it delves into Tantric Buddhism, which may be more interesting than you would think, particularly as some of it revolves around goddesses and nuns; we learn a lot about Mongolian culture, customs and landscape; we have unreliable narrators, so we never know where the truth lies; we have clashes between different races, sometimes open, often not; our main character, the Westerner, is an amalgam of stubbornness, outspokenness, impatience, impetuousness and a high intellect; above all we have a Mongolian novel written by a Brazilian, making it a bit like a clever dish where the chef has mixed two unlikely ingredients and produced something better than both.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Companhia das Letras
No English translation
First published in French as Mongolia in 2004 by Métailié
Translated by Geneviève Leibrich
First published in German as Mongolia in 2007 by Luchterhand
Translated by Karin von Schweder-Schreiner
First published in Italian as Mongolia in 2005 by Feltrinelli
Translated by Monica Salles de Oliveira Paes