The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa

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The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Byambasuren Davaa returns to her native Mongolia to make a film that puts her native culture in context and delivers a simple but poetic description of the life of the nomad, which avoids sentiment but is rich in folk-lore and humanity.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 160 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844083046

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Byambasuren Davaa left Mongolia just before the millennium, to study at the Munich Academy of Film & Television. The fall of the Soviet Union and with it, Soviet-style communism through-out the region had left Mongolia with a new kind of freedom... the freedom to engage in market forces. Sadly, as she says at one point, many Mongolians came to the market empty-handed.

Davaa is not the nomadic herdswoman of legend. She was brought up an urbanite in Ulaanbaatar (to use her spelling); she grew up with dreams of becoming an actor. Then the world changed, and it was clear that this was not going to be possible in Mongolia... but the change in the world meant it was easier for her to pursue her interests further away.

Mongolia is still a country of the countryside... the majority of its people might now live in the city and in towns, but the country and the culture are still dominated by the rural past. However sophisticated they may have thought they had become, growing up in Ulan Bator (as we would have it) is no preparation for landing in the middle of a rainy night in Munich. The culture shock of a city where you can travel from place to place with no sight of the sky, was increased by the real discovery of 'market forces' as unstamped railway tickets were sold on at a fraction of face value. But the real shock was to come much later... in a seminar room at the academy a documentary is shown about Mongolia that causes such upset among her fellow-students, that Davaa goes in search of whatever else these people might know of her own, and of her homeland. There seems to be, she finds, an unwelcome focus on the slaughter of a sheep: an act intrinsic to her culture, an act of necessity, but also one almost of ritual, of reverence. Intrigued as to why this should cause such horror she searches out documentaries about the German meat industry - where death is at the end of a stun gun, shunned, denied almost, in the quest for cheap meat. It's not clear whether this brings her any closer to understanding the abhorred fascination of the sheep slaughter for western film-makers, but it certainly increases her determination to make her own film. To put forward the context of many things Mongolian.

To make her graduation film, Byambasuren Davaa travels home to seek a family of nomads. She finds Batchuluun, his wife Buena and their children: Nansaa and Nansalmaa (daughters of six and four) and the toddling 18-month son Batbayar. He of nomadic stock, she married into it from an urban upbringing, the children at home in the plains and in the saddle.

The book The Cave of the Yellow Dog tells the story of the film. It is not clear, how much of the telling is life as it is lived, specifically, by this family, and how much of it is the story that Byambasuren has scripted for her film. The essence of it, one feels, is true.

The story is a simple one. Nansaa despatched to find dung for fuel... fails in her duty and brings home instead a puppy, found abandoned in a cave. (In this there are echoes of the folk tale from which the book takes its name.) Her brother and sister are delighted; her father is disgusted and not a little worried; her mother tries not to take sides. Wild dogs are not necessarily to be trusted here... this is a country where wolves still roam... and the migrants are dependent upon their sheep and goats. Still, the fellow is just a puppy. The tale progresses as man-&-dog stories do the world over from the welsh Gelert through the Legend of Lobo and on to Lassie. Only the specifics and the settings are different.

The settings and the specifics are what this book is about, however.

It is - as its intention makes clear - the description of context. A tale of everyday life of the nomads. Chapters are short, a few paragraphs only, and usually thematic. Many commence with a proverb or an extract from a poem, tale or folk-song. We follow the family through the ordinary doings of their day... and then may be taken on an explanatory digression on the hair-cutting rituals, or the making of deel - the garment that much resembles the gho of Bhutan and is practical both in its construction and its use - but worn in Mongolia by men and women alike. We learn why Mongolian boots are the shape they are... and about the sacredness of the stove that forms the centre of a ger, how the ger is constructed and who will sit where within it. We are taken incidentally through the reactions of the family to the stray dog. Mostly we watch children being children in a world so very different from one that most of us could even begin to imagine.

The whole is simply told, reading at times like the story-board directions for the film being made. Yet the sparseness of the language is appropriate to description of the pared-down lifestyle of a family with three children and three hundred beast who can pack their entire existence onto a few ox-carts and move away for the winter. Buena's daily Buddhist observance in the offering of water and the lighting of the butter lamps, doesn't stop the more ancient practice of throwing yak milk to the winds after her departing husband to guarantee a safe return... similarly to the wheels of their carts and the stirrups of their horses as they set out from their summer camp.

Woven amongst the film-story and the backdrop are memories from the author's own childhood, why only half the knotweed seed would be stolen from the mice who hoard it, for instance, and the legend of the horse-head violin, all re-examined with interpretations from her current standpoint as a student film-maker in 21st century western Europe.

As evocative as the words are, however, the book is really brought to life by the photographs. The Batchuluun family portrait of windswept joy... the washing left to dry on the ger ropes, the pictures of the children peering at clouds, or laughing so at ease on horseback, playing, working, 'acting'... the interior shots of the ger... these are the real treasures. In these our director or her cameraman have caught images of joy , of studiousness, of religious devotion, and ultimately of ordinariness that bring home that however much of the 'story' is made up, the 'life' is real... and as long as there are people who wish to live it, I hope that they are enabled to continue to do so.

How to rate or recommend a book of this type? One can only do so in context.

Some travellers' tales are of passing interest to all, by their telling or their learning. This isn't one of those. I doubt it would appeal to anyone without a specific interest in the remote places of the world, and the lives lived there. At under 140 pages (with a further 30+ of photographs), it examines nothing in any great depth, yet manages to convey precisely the harsh, beautiful reality of the people. It does so without sentimentality, and with only as much historical backdrop as cannot be avoided. It does so with the sharp beauty of a Japanese Haiku.

My rating is in this context. If the subject matter appeals - then buy it! Otherwise, not worth the borrow.

I'm privileged to have read a pre-release copy... will now need to go buy the finished article... and can't wait to see the film should it ever become generally available.

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