Before leaving for the epic journey to Hong Kong, I met with more Mongolian literary bigwigs about the possibility of creating a Mongolian PEN center. (Or centre. Is there an existential difference, I wonder?) One sunny morning I set off to find Baigal Caixan, the sworn rival of my boss Chilaajav. Mend-Oyoo, head of the Academy of Poetry and Culture, had encouraged me to do so, stressing that before the creation of an institution there should first be a feeling of friendship between the actors I'd like to see cooperating. Trouble is, Mongolians arguably more than people in other cultures have based their identities on what they are not, and their history is one of constant feuding, even more wretched, brutal struggles for survival against natural and human foes than usual. Life for most humans throughout history has indeed been brutish and short, for the Mongolians perhaps even more so.
So. Chilaajav heads up the Mongolian Writer's Union, and Baigal Caixan heads up the Freelance Writer's Union. What precipitated the rift between the heads of the two organizations, that there are two organizations in the first place--these remain mysteries to me. But it's a feud, and they are writers, which means you can basically assume that said feud persists for the sake of persisting and for no other good reason, and in this case, is doing far more harm than..well, anything else.
The ace up my sleeve is that I am a ditz, so they don't take me seriously at first. I also sound like I am three when I speak in Mongolian, so they try to steamroll me until there's a translator in the room. Then, inevitably, once they hear my argument--that the refusal to cooperate is hurting Mongolian literature, and its chances at being translated well and published abroad are directly ruined by this inability to be civil--and realize that my argument is actually kind of cogent, they sort of smile at this upstart little white hippie chick with the big blue eyes stomping her foot and telling everyone to get along; snurf yellow tobacco; and say sure, they'll come to a meeting about a Mongolian PEN center.
I tried to find Baigal Caixan at the Mongolian National University. He was waiting for me at Ulaanbaatar University across town. The taxi driver studied computer technology for 7 years in Germany, but now he can't find work, so he drives a cab and goes home at midday to feed his hundred pigs. The meeting I had with Baigal Caixan is encapsulated by the above paragraph (plus a really funny moment where he insisted I try his tobacco and it made my head ring and I sneezed violently and he laughed), as is the following meeting I had with Chilaajav, wherein his stubbornness surprised me. I'd never seen him puff up like that. Good grief. Once again, people: you don't have to agree on anything but the fact that Mongolian literature deserves to do well. Chilajav protested, "We do things differently than America here." "There are 140 PEN centers in 104 different countries and I suspect the millions of writers associated with those centers bicker too," I told him, "so don't give me that."
Naturally it was a wonderful thing to speak with Dr. Akim, the head of the Mongolian National Library. He's a very kind, spritely man with white hair, spectacles, and a bowler hat, and he could not agree with me more about the need for Mongolian writers at this point in time to bickering at least long enough to promote Mongolian literature. I was sick, of course, and he insisted on pouring vodka in my tea and also drinking some himself. We went to lunch, and he hailed a taxi. "I am sorry," he told me, "I have a car but I am drink." Akim gets along with everyone I met before him, and he also is the author of, among other things, a short book about wolf myths whose English translation--clearly that of a Mongolian non-native English speaker--is audaciously bad. I'll be taking on the project of doing a "second translation" for that manuscript. Should be a fun winter project, especially if the writers all kill each other at the meeting and I have no one to work for.