| Back to Blog >

Searching for Mongolia’s Forgotten Manuscripts

Getting ahold of Mongolian literature is not always so easy. And yet, as a translator and literary historian specializing in Mongolian literature since the 1921 Socialist Revolution, that is my job.

Imagine an Eliot scholar being unable to find all but a single dog-eared copy of The Waste Land in one of the two secondhand bookstores in New York. It makes my work akin to that of an archaeologist, piecing together a narrative—of a writer, a group of writers, a period, or the sweep of contemporary history—and working to understand the significance of the lacunae.

The use of primary sources depends upon their availability, which depends ultimately upon their publication. During the period between 1921 and 1990, the Mongolian government, helped financially and guided ideologically by the Soviet Union, published literary texts through the State Publishing House. The number of published books grew from a steady trickle through the first couple of decades to a cascade during the final two or three decades. Writers were encouraged to write and publish, and a system was established, which allowed books by acceptable writers, and with acceptable contents, to be published.

The Soviet censorship machine, Glavlit [1], was formally adopted by Mongolia in January 1947 and for the next four decades systematically checked and censored all books, magazines, and newspapers. My friend G. Mend-Ooyo (b. 1952), now one of the country’s leading writers and cultural critics, told me how his first book, Birds of Thought, went through three separate processes before being accepted for publication. His mentor, B. Yavuuhulan (1929–1982), initially sponsored the book in his capacity as Head of Poetry for the Writers’ Union, but insisted that Mend-Ooyo include a poem called “In the Lenin Museum” to mollify the censors. The manuscript passed then to a minor government office, before finally arriving at Glavlit. The Glavlit officials worked under tremendous pressure, for any mistake could result in them losing their jobs, being exiled temporarily, or possibly worse. Only then was Birds of Thought published.

Mongolia of course is not the only country to have had censorship. However, unlike the Soviet Bloc, there appears to have been no samizdat: poems were circulated in but a few handwritten manuscripts among friends. And the more copies you made, the more potential there was for problems: in 1970, the poet R. Choinom (1936–1979) was imprisoned for writing an anti-government poem, a handwritten (his own hand) copy of which he had left at the house of a friend who was himself under surveillance. [2] Choinom was an especially reckless character, but such slips could result, as it did for him, in losing the opportunity to publish and therefore make a living as a writer.

Following the democratic revolution of 1990, the State Publishing House was disbanded, along with Glavlit, and individuals began to publish their own work. Now, more than twenty-five years later, the free market still pervades the book trade. What this really means is that, if you have money and a manuscript, then your book can be published and distributed to the handful of bookstores operating in the country. It results, as you would imagine, in uneven quality, and the works of very few writers are published once they are dead. Some more prominent writers have had their collected works published, by devotees, scholars, or even (as in Choinom’s case) their families; but even then, once the print run is sold out, there is very little likelihood of reprinting. A couple of publishers have appeared in recent years, such as Nepko, but publishing remains an individual concern.

I have been extremely fortunate in having Mend-Ooyo to assist me in finding texts. Writers are more likely to give or lend me their own texts, or books they own, on his assurance. I trawl the secondhand bookstores in Ulaanbaatar and come across gems. And there are tragedies too, such as the story of one writer who, struggling one winter to keep warm, burned what was to me a priceless collection of literary newspapers from the 1940s, thinking that nobody would ever be interested in them. It’s possible that someone else has copies, but so far I have been unable to track any such early materials, even in the central newspaper library. And the research continues, uncovering the stories of writers, their works, and the books that safeguarded them.

[1]   Glavlit was an abbreviation for Glavnoe Upravlenie po Delam Literatury i Izdatelstv (Central Administration of Literary and Publishing Affairs), established in the Soviet Union in 1920. On this subject see Herman Ermolaev’s Censorship in Soviet Literature 1917-1991 (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997). The Mongolian incarnation was called Hevlel, utga zohiolig hyanah gazar (Office for the Editing of Publications and Literature), but was referred to as Glavlit.

[2]   See my article “The Prison Music of R. Choinom” in Mongolian Studies, Volume XXXV, 2013, p. 107–118.

Simon Wickhamsmith will be joining us via Skype at our next Two Voices Salon on May 11 at 6:00 pm. He will be discussing his translation of The End of the Dark Era by Mongolian poet Tseveendorjin Oidov. More details.