Reading this book got me all excited because it did exactly what I need this challenge to do: taught me things about a country's location, history and culture through a story that will make it stick in my head.
A Political Epic Made Human-Sized
Structurally, this novel excellently proves two maxims about writing:
To write about the big stuff effectively, you need to write about the small details.
Form follows content.
It begins with two preludes: one extremely tangential, and one more relevant, in which an elderly monk named Agvaan discovers a mass grave in the capital Ulaanbaatar.
Cue tinkly sound effects as we are transported to Agvaan's youth in a rural valley in Mongolia's north, in the 1930s.
Our main characters, Baasan and Sendmaa, meet and fall implausibly quickly in love, while participating in the local monastery's creation of a new sacred tapestry. Baasan is the titular lama (or monk), and we learn loads about the texture of his religion: the polytheistic Tibetan Buddhist practice sitting easily alongside traditional Mongolian shamanism; the complex hierarchy of lamas; the expectation of celibacy among these holy men. We also learn about the nomadic herder communities he and Sendmaa come from: how herds are wealth; just how many different forms of dairy they eat and drink; and how (and how often) to move and set up a ger (the traditional tent known as a yurt elsewhere).
Initially the stakes are purely human-sized: will Baasan leave his holy orders and marry Sendmaa? (Twist: no!) Who will be selected as the most promising scholarly lama and travel for further study in Tibet? (Twist: it's Agvaan!) But then - form following content - I was as surprised as the characters when communists arrive in the valley and the outside world comes crashing in to the pastoral idyll.
As we zoom out from our rural valley, we see just how many forces are clashing over control of Mongolia's future:
Our traditional herders, descendants of Chinggis Khaan, dedicated to guarding the Russian border;
the communist Mongolian People's Party, who secured Mongolia's independence but who are now suppressing traditional lifestyles, arresting monks, and confiscating all forms of wealth;
World War Two, which is causing the Mongolian People's Party to exploit Mongolia's resources even further in the hope of currying favour with communist Russia in its hour of need.
Because by this point we are invested in certain individual characters, we learn about these conflicts from a very human point of view (the small within the big):
Agvaan is captured on his way to Tibet and agonises over co-operating with the communists;
Sendmaa stays in the valley in poverty, having lost most of her friends and her herds to the Mongolian People's Party;
Baasan is imprisoned in a gulag. At one point he and his starving, freezing cellmates toast to the New Year in their traditional manner. They don't have the requisite food, drink and snuff, so they mime it, bringing some light and joy into their suffering. (It's not as cheesy as it sounds. In fact it's less cheesy, because the communists took all the dairy cows.)
About the Authors, and How I Even Have Access to a Mongolian Book
Structurally, this book is brilliant; stylistically, the prose leaves a lot to be desired. Characters say things out of nowhere to explain Mongolian custom or political context. Obtuse English phrasing hints at a translation more dedicated to literalness than to readability. There are also few significant exceptions to the 'herders good, communists bad' characterisations (mostly Agvaan, who somehow manages to be both).
The subpar prose may be attributable to the fact this novel is self-published by its author Tsedevdamba, the hardest-working Mongolian in showbiz. A former parliamentary minister and human rights activist, she studied in Russia and America and wrote a book about America for Mongolians. She also wrote this book about Mongolia for the whole world, co-authored with her American husband Jeffrey L. Falt.
I appreciate that a) Tsedevdamba and Falt are primarily politicians, not novelists, and b) this book's flaws stem from their keenness to educate the world about Mongolia's past, and Tsedevdamba's firm anti-communist stance. (The Green-Eyed Lama was marketed in Mongolia as 'the history our grandparents weren't allowed to know'). So I'm able to forgive the clunky prose and occasionally two-dimensional characters. When searching for Mongolian books to read in English it's not like I was awash with options, so hats off to Tsedevdamba. She has achieved what she set out to do, from my perspective at least: by self-publishing and arranging translations of this compelling, heartbreaking epic, she's fascinated and educated this reader about Mongolia.