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Literature / The Green-Eyed Lama

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The Green-Eyed Lama is a 2008 novel from Mongolia by Oyngerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey Falt.

It is set in Mongolia from 1937 to 1945, specifically in the northern part of the country near Lake Khovsgol. Baasan is a lama at the Dayan Deerkh monastery, as are two of his brothers; his oldest brother Bold is a nomadic herder like everyone else in the area. Baasan falls in love with Sendmaa, a beautiful, spirited young lady. They make love and Baasan elects to leave religious life and marry Sendmaa. What he doesn't know is that his brother is also in love with Sendmaa. As Sendmaa and Baasan are making their plans, Bold is going the more traditional way and approaching Sendmaa's parents for her hand.

However, greater events will interfere with this love triangle. The new Mongolian ruler, Marshal Choibalsan, is an authoritarian Stalinist who unleashes a brutal, violent purge of Mongolian Buddhism. Almost all the monasteries in the country are burned to the ground and thousand of lamas are murdered. Baasan is thrown into a brutal prison, while Sendmaa and Bold struggle to survive while the nation suffers under communist oppression.

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A rare example of a Mongolian novel translated into English. For another Mongolian work that deals with the wave of repression in this era, see the feature film A Pearl in the Forest.


Tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The English translation of the novel starts with both a Distant Prologue set in the 18th century and a How We Got Here epilogue set in 2003. The Mongolian version has neither and starts with the story proper in 1937.
  • As You Know: A lot of this. When someone mentions that the name of the capital has been changed from Ikh Khuree to Ulaanbaatar, Tserennadmid feels the need to explicate that Ikh Khuree means "big monastery" and that the capital was also called "Urga" during the reign of the Bogd Khan, so in the 1910s and 1920s.
  • Blind Seer: Agvaan's father Od, the old shaman, who is blind but has visions of the future and psychic powers. In one scene he communicates telepathically with Agvaan from hundreds of miles away.
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  • Book Burning: Communist goon squads burn the ancient Buddhist texts they find in the monasteries.
  • The Cavalry: The Mongolian People's Army unit that shows up just in the nick of time to save Tserennadmid and the rest of his party from the bandits.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Agvaan is brutally tortured by Balkan and what is basically the Mongolian secret police. Eventually his will to resist is broken and he agrees to serve the Communists.
  • Day of the Jackboot: The Communists have actually been in charge in Mongolia since 1921, but as the novel starts, Khorloogiin Choibalsan has taken power. Choibalsan, a mini-Stalin, unleashes a brutal wave of repression that includes the wholesale massacre of thousands of lamas.
  • Dig Your Own Grave: A horrified Agvaan watches a Communist goon squad force a group of lamas to dig a trench, before shooting the lamas and dumping them in the trench. The head goon screams "Dig your graves!".
  • Distant Prologue: The English version of the novel starts with a prologue chapter set in 1726, in which the descendants of Genghis Khan's bodyguard swear a blood oath to protect Mongolia from invaders either from the north (Russians) or south (Chinese). The main characters in the 20th century story all come from guardian families.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Natsag has a tough time concentrating on Cyrillic lessons, because he keeps looking at the legs of the young lady teacher. She's a hardcore commie and she yells at him.
  • A Dog Named "Dog": Bold has a dog named "Nohoi"—which is the Mongolian for "dog".
  • Dramatic Drop: Baasan drops his bowl of soup after finding out his girlfriend, Sendmaa, has been betrothed to his brother Bold.
  • Historical Domain Character
    • Marshal Cholibalsan, the brutal despot who rules Mongolia, pops up in a few scenes. Baasan has to paint his portrait.
    • Agvaan is briefly jailed in the same cell as scholar Renchin Byambaev. The Real Life author and intellectual gives Agvaan a pep talk.
    • None other than Henry Wallace, Vice President of the United States, pops up in one chapter, conducting a state visit to Mongolia. When Wallace asks to see a monastery, Choibalsan, who has destroyed all the monasteries, has to release Baasan and other lamas from prison to staff up Gandan Monastery in the capital. (This actually happened.)
  • How We Got Here: The English version of the novel has, after the Distant Prologue, a second chapter set in 2003. Agvaan, an elderly lama, is brought to a mass grave containing the bodies of 600 murdered lamas, killed in the purges. When the main story starts up in 1937, Agvaan is a teenaged novice lama.
  • Letting Her Hair Down: Sendmaa unpinning her long, thick hair accidentally sets a romantic mood for when Baasan enters the yurt moments later. Sex follows.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: "Her wet cotton garments concealed nothing" after Sendmaa runs through the rain to the monastery, to protect the tapestry she left near an open window. Baasan, who was already there, is very turned on by this.
  • Sibling Triangle: Baasan, Bold, and Sendmaa. Sendmaa spends years fantasizing about Baasan even after having a bunch of children with Bold, while Baasan is jealous of his brother. Bold, for his part, never does find out that he's even in a love triangle.
  • Tempting Fate: Balgan, now a young NCO, is leading some old soldiers across the hills of Inner Mongolia in August 1945. He tells his men to stay alert, but with the war almost over and no Japanese having been seen for days, the men laugh at him and one says "Our very important corporal still wants to play soldier." In the very next paragraph his squad comes under shell fire from the Japanese.
  • Thirsty Desert: Tserennadmid has to lead his little community on a desperate trek across the Gobi when they find out that they are on the wrong side of the newly-drawn border between Mongolia and China. They cut it close but they've just about made it, when they're waylaid by bandits.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The disinterring of some 600 murdered lamas in 2003, portrayed in the How We Got Here chapter 2, actually happened. And some of the names of characters, including Baasan, were taken from the names of real lamas actually arrested in 1938 and either executed or imprisoned.
  • Vow of Celibacy: Baasan, as a lama, has taken one. When he falls in love with Sendmaa he elects to leave religious life, but other events intervene.
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