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Chadraabalyn Lodoidamba: Тунгалаг Тамир [The Clear Tamir]

If you have read Mukhtar Auezov‘s Абай жолы (Abai), you will have an idea of what this novel is about. Auezov is, of course, Kazakh but the Kazakhs were, like the Mongolians, a nomadic people and both novels tell the story of nomads who are starting to come in contact with non-nomadic peoples, primarily the Russians and Chinese. Auezov’s hero is a poet while Lodoidamba’s heroes are not. Lodoidamba’s nomads are initially faced with fighting the Manchurians, unlike the Kazakhs. However, both stories are of brave nomadic heroes, fighting bullying leaders, all too often from their own people. Auezov’s novel has been translated into English while Lodoidamba’s is only available in German and Russian translation (the German is translated from the Russian, not the original Mongolian).

The book is set between the early part of the twentieth century up to 1932. Mongolia had been under Manchu control but had obtained independence, with Russian support, under a leader known as the Bogd Khan. (We meet the Bogd Khan later in the book and clearly Lodoidamba does not think highly of him, as he neglects his duties and seems only interested in procuring young women for his sexual gratification.) During this time, a large part of the male population have become monks (lamas), which causes problems, not least being the lack of husbands for the women, who have to band together and struggle to find work. The novel follows Mongolian history during this period. This includes exploitation of the ordinary people by the rich and powerful. While World War I does not play any role, the Russian revolution is clearly important.

Lodoidamba’s heroes are two brothers, Erdene and Tömör. (Note that I read this book in German, so have used the German transliteration, except when it is obvious what the English transliteration would be.) Tömör, the younger brother, is a Sain-Er, which is approximately akin to an outlaw who has fled to the hills to avoid persecution by some chief. Erdene has fallen foul of the chiefs and is sent to prison. When he gets out, the chief tries to ruin him with extortionate taxes, so that he decides to leave and got to Urga (modern Ulan Bator) to appeal to the Bogd Khan. He, his wife, Dolgor, and their son, Bat set out with their tent. Erdene is concerned that he has not seen Tömör for over a year but hopes to meet up with him. Things continue to go badly for Erdene for, while out in the steppes, his horse is stolen during the night. Unknown to him, it has, of course, been stolen by his brother.

Tömör, meanwhile, has run afoul of the authorities and has been sewn into a hide to prevent him from escaping. Despite this, he has managed to escape while being taken to prison. He hides and when a young boy – Chongor, son of the clan leader Itgelt – approaches, persuades him to cut him free, get him food and drink and help him to escape. Chongor, who is taken with the romanticism of a Sain-Er helps him and, as we soon find out, he escapes, stealing (unknowingly) his brother’s horse. Meanwhile, Erdene, now horseless, approaches the nearest camp – Itgelt’s – and ask for help. Itgelt offers him a job and they soon become firm friends, with Erdene working for Itgelt. The book continue to follow the adventures of the two brothers, against the background of Mongolian history and culture.

Wrestling and horses are key to the Mongolians and we see not only wrestling matches but also a lot about horses – buying and selling, racing and, in the case Tömör, stealing, though he is more of Robin Hood figure, often giving them to the poor. As with any good outlaw, he is injured, he is imprisoned, he searches for his brother, he finds a wife and he causes trouble for the chiefs, whom he hates. But, inevitably, he always come back. Meanwhile, Erdene is working for Itgelt and then falls out with him. When the Russian Revolution comes, things start to change. Erdene has been speaking to Pyotr, a Russian exiled from Russia for his role in the 1905 Revolution. It is he that turns Erdene into a committed Communist. Itgelt, on the other side, has his Russian, Pavlov, a committed Tsarist. Meanwhile, Mongolia and the Mongolians are divided between the Russian and the Chinese, the left supporting the Russians and the right the Chinese. With a partial Chinese takeover, the left start to resist and Erdene and Tömör are part of the resistance. We follow both their activities in this resistance as well as their fairly complicated personal lives. Resistance from the White Guard and then an uprising of the lamas in 1932 (where the book ends) are also key.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable book, even though it is clearly and inevitably pro-Soviet. For those of us with limited knowledge of twentieth century Mongolian history, we can get caught up in the events as well as following the stories of the main characters – Erdene and Tömör and their families and Itgelt and his family. It is a pity that it is not available in English though, not for the first time, I am grateful to Volk und Welt for having made available a key work from a Soviet country in German.

Publishing history

First published in 1971 by Ulsyn Khėvlėliĭn Gazar
No English translation
Published in German as Der durchsichtige Tamir by Verlag Volk und Welt in 1978
Translated by Heinz Kübart