Simon Wickhamsmith (translator), Suncranes and Other Stories: Modern Mongolian Short Fiction, Columbia University Press, 2021. 296 pgs.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt international travel, entry into Mongolia remains restricted. My heart aches for the thousands of Mongolians suffering from Covid infections and the economic repercussions of closed borders and limited job opportunities in the tourism sector. Simultaneously, I feel homesick for Mongolia, a country where I spent a lot of time in my early twenties and have visited many times since. Suncranes and Other Stories: Modern Mongolian Short Fiction is like a breath of fresh air that has transported me to the endless steppes and pristine blue skies of Mongolia. It has pacified my wanderlust and refreshed my patience for a while as I wait to get there again in person.
Simon Wickhamsmith’s expert translation of some of contemporary Mongolia’s most influential writers is the first commercial publication of fiction from the country in the United States. Wickhamsmith, who has been studying and translating Mongolian literature for several decades, is currently a teaching instructor at Rutgers University. He is intimately linked to the material and his deep knowledge of Mongolian culture and society is apparent in his masterful translations. He has selected and translated works from the most prominent modern Mongolian writers and the selection showcases distinct styles and literary genres, making Suncranes and Other Stories an eclectic read. Some chapters might be categorised as animal fables with wind spirits and horses taking pronounced roles in classic Mongolian style. Others lean into the style of social realism, most notably those stories describing the onset of and first consequences of communism.
As historians will testify, the 21st century has been eventful and tumultuous for Mongolians. The stories in this volume begin just after the failure and abrupt end of the monarchy led by Bogd Gegeen and the advent of the Soviet-backed socialist revolution in 1921. Mongolian contemporary writers—along with most of the population—grappled with the societal upheaval and fundamental shift of ideology during this period. In S. Buyannemeh’s fable-like short story “Something Wonderful” (1925), an elderly man’s struggle with the sudden change is depicted. While meditating near an ancient elm on the banks of the Tuul River, he witnesses mysterious objects falling from the sky. He believes them to be things dropped by birds or falling from the land of Buddha that will bring him great blessings. Subsequently, he gathers them up, feeling grateful and overjoyed. Later he shows the leaves inscribed with golden lettering to someone who can read. The realisation that the “flying machines” of the Communist Party had scattered these objects to commemorate the people’s liberation sinks in slowly, as the reader empathises with the difficult transition the old man is going through.
Although the situation of the country’s nomadic herders had been far from ideal before the revolution, the state was conspicuously absent in their mostly self-regulated daily life. Most families moved from pasture to pasture in accordance with the season, their animals and each other with little concern for government structures. With the revolution came centralisation, a focus on the nation-state and finally and most consequentially collectivisation. The writers of this era composed stories that were still very much steeped in traditional nomadic values and lifestyles but were also impatient for the glorified, industrialised socialist future to begin. Suncranes and Other Stories provides an enjoyable literary illustration of the changes the country has gone through.
In later stories, such as “What Changed Soli” by Ts. Damdinsüren (1945), the reader can observe how socialist viewpoints increasingly become entrenched in the hearts and minds of Mongolians. The story follows a young married couple who are separated by the husband’s military service and his post guarding the border far from his home province. As the years pass, their marital connection barely withstands the distance and doubts grow. Unbeknownst to the husband, the wife uses their time apart to transform herself and become an exemplary herder in the community. When he returns, he finds that his wife has turned into a local celebrity, famous for her hard work, revolutionary zeal and dedication to her profession. As pointed out by Wickhamsmith in his introductory remarks, this story was one of the first in Mongolian literature to highlight the virtues and transformative qualities of labour.
As the collection moves chronologically towards the present, the reader can witness the consequences of urbanisation in the increasingly modernised capital Ulaanbaatar such as in the story “The Green Painted Car” by Ts. Ulambayar. The final goodbye of two lovers before they part ways is hindered by the car mentioned in the title. As it splashes the protagonist Hand and leaves her clothes muddy and wet, she returns home in tears, unwilling to bid her beloved Bat farewell in such condition. The story is immensely evocative of the crowded streets of the bustling capital and immediately reminded me of the liveliness and notorious traffic of Ulaanbaatar.
My favourite story in this volume, however, is definitely M. Yadamsüren’s “Young Couple”, which not only perfectly captures the daily life of the young urban working class, but also conveys the pervasiveness and connection to the nomadic lifestyle and Mongolians’ ever-lasting love of the countryside. Young Jaltsan sets off on a journey through the night to ensure the safety of his lover, Adilbish, who has been in a car accident on some lonely country road. Their innocence and sincere adoration of each other is palpable as we accompany Jaltsan through the countryside. The description of their love story is adorned with precise details about their everyday dealings in Ulaanbaatar which make the tale of the couple so lifelike for the reader. For instance, one can sense Jaltsan’s agitation as he waits for his lover to respond to his letter. While he calculates—two days to travel to Arhanghai province where Adilbish has gone to take rest in the country, and two days back to Ulaanbaatar—I felt transported to the dusty roads of Mongolia which were often no fun to travel when I was there last in 2019, and no doubt even less so in 1937 when Yadamsüren wrote this story. But Yadamsüren not only vividly conveys 1930s Ulaanbaatar, he also evokes the possibly universal human anxiety and giddiness of falling in love and waiting to hear whether your beloved has reciprocated your feelings. In this way, the story is uniquely bound by place and time, but is simultaneously charmingly timeless.
Overall, Suncranes and Other Stories: Modern Mongolian Short Fiction makes for an original and delightful introduction to Mongolian culture and recent history for those unfamiliar with the land of the nomads. As someone who has studied the Mongolian language for many years, I am awed at Simon Wickhamsmith’s ability to artfully craft the translations in this volume. He perfectly manages the balance between rendering Mongolian terms understandable to the English-speaking reader and maintaining their authentic character. Wickhamsmith’s selection features a wide array of modern Mongolian experiences and the way contemporary writers have made sense of them. For those who have already connected with the grassland and its people, Wickhamsmith’s translations hold a special kind of appeal as they allow us a glimpse of a Mongolia that we will never visit but will always hold a special place in our hearts.
Sarah Köksal is a doctoral researcher in anthropology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. For her research project on narrative identities of Chinese international students she was a visiting researcher at the Institute of Sociology, University of California Berkeley. She holds a Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication from Ludwig Maximilian University as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Mongolian Studies and Sinology from the University of Bonn and the National University of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar.