The Distant Outline of Altan Ovoo
G.Mend-Ooyo’s Altan Ovoo, originally written at the end of the 1980s, holds an unusual place in world literature. It is not fiction, although it contains stories; it is not poetry, although it contains poems; nor, even though it deals primarily with the history and culture of the author’s birthplace of Sühbaatar province in southeastern Mongolia, does it really qualify either as history or as folklore. Mend-Ooyo himself describes the work as an “almanac,” an omnium gatherum of stories and poems, changing slightly with each revision of the book, and presenting as much the idea of Mongolian nomadic culture as its lived experience.
This idea, then, lies at the book’s center, a flow of images and characters, which appear in the author’s narrative. The conceptual focus of Altan Ovoo is the way in which nomadic experience in Mongolia’s presence is melded dynamically with its historical and oneiric past. The book opens with a stone, whose relationship with the universe around it mirrors something of the books relationship with Mongolian nomadic culture:
A stone from Altan Ovoo stood in the place of honor at the rear of the ger. My ancestors had in fact been worshipping it for five generations. This stone from Altan Ovoo rose amid the mighty flames, which promised eternal peace, the light of the world had dominion over the interplay of shadows, called upon a moment of time from a thousand years ago.
As my family wove their gilded stories about how Altan Ovoo had at a particular moment come into being, my ancestors were happily looking down upon us.
In the entire world, although regular and insignificant things are not given so much attention, it seems to be the custom to make a big deal of unusual size. We could say that the body of Altan Ovoo was the broad expanse where the hill meets the plain, the high mountainous peaks, the fertile southern slopes, but all in miniature. Altan Ovoo is the world on a reduced scale.
The image of this stone as the universe in microcosm is key to understanding how in Altan Ovoo, Mend-Ooyo develops an approach to Mongolian culture, and especially to the nomadic culture which revolves in concentric circles, first around Altan Ovoo itself, then around the nearby region (sum) of Dariganga, then around the province (aimag) of Sühbaatar, and finally around the Mongolian ancestral homeland (nutag). The reach of the stone, like the reach of Mongolian culture, will travel only so far as the people will take it: Mend-Ooyo’s message in the book is that the preservation of nomadic culture is necessary if Mongolia is to survive, notwithstanding outside influences on the culture through political and social change since the time of the Qing.
But we must also remember that Altan Ovoo was written at a highly significant moment in recent Mongolian history. Following the introduction of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, Mongolia itself was beginning also to move towards the democratic reforms which would sweep through the country during 1989 and 1990. With the intention to safeguard the images and ideas which were central to the history of his region, and in a broader way to the history of Mongolia itself, Mend-Ooyo set about telling old stories in new words, creating poetic texts to express the most meaningful aspects of nomadic culture, and interspersing these with vignettes from his own story, as the child of a nomadic family in Ongon sum, a region neighboring on Dariganga, where Altan Ovoo is situated. The cyclical seasonal movement of Mend-Ooyo’s family, his experiences growing up in the semidesert of the steppe, his development as a writer and cultural thinker, all form not only the foundation of his life as one of contemporary Mongolia’s most important writers, but as images common to many nomadic Mongolians of his generation (he was born in 1952), they underpin also the set of basic cultural assumptions with which the post-Soviet generation of Mongolian political and cultural leaders were raised. With this in mind, Altan Ovoo is also a call by an individual poet to those who would build a new society, asking them to remember that, while Mongolia needs to look forward, it also needs to consider its traditions and history.
But lest we imagine that Altan Ovoo is stuck in a fantastic and rosy-hued past, and while Mend-Ooyo’s vision is indeed nostalgic and lyrical, his view of humanity influenced more by the spirituality of Buddhism than by the ideas of progress and development which have characterized Mongolia’s post-Soviet history, it is true nonetheless that a large minority (around 40%) of Mongolians remain semi-nomadic herders, moving seasonally as they have for many centuries, and it was - and still is - a wish to preserve in the national consciousness the culture and knowledge which still exists in the lives of many Mongolians that he has been trying to express.
In conclusion, in constructing and developing the narrative of Altan Ovoo out of the stone which stood on the altar of his parents’ ger, Mend-Ooyo was able also to construct and develop a vision of nomadic Mongolia, based on his own experience but gathered also from the experience of earlier generations. The book represents an important moment in the development of Mend-Ooyo’s career as a writer, and an important moment too in Mongolia’s development, but it is as a record of a culture whose strength depends largely on the determination of Mongolians themselves that the book, its message and its contents, is if inestimable value.
2 April 2018