Monday, June 16, 2008

Genghis: Birth of an Empire: Book Review

Genghis Khan seems to be the rehabilitated man of the new century. In the past few years, a series of historians (Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World), cinematists (Sergei Bodrov's Russian-Kazakh-Mongolian film Mongol), and novelists have re-written (or re-ridden) the story of Temujin, the steppe prince-done-wrong who grew to become an adept political warrior and the creator of a multi-continental empire. Wasn't it not too long ago that we were supposed to fear and revile the bloodthirsty Mongol hordes?

Sergei Bodrov's Oscar-nominated Mongol, released last week in New York and Los Angeles and nationwide on June 20, has gotten positive reviews for its epic storytelling and gorgeous vistas. As far as I can tell (not yet having seen it), Mongol follows the same basic storyline as Conn Iggulden's excellent historical novel Genghis: Birth of an Empire, which in turn is heavily based on Genghis Khan's own Secret History of the Mongols. Temujin is the second son of Yesugei, khan of the Wolves, a powerful nomadic tribe. After Yesugei is murdered by Tatars, his bondsman seizes power and turns 12-year-old Temujin, his mother, brothers and infant sister out of the tribe to die in the brutal steppe winter. Denied his birthright of influence and comfort, Temujin's experiences in sheer survival harden him into a man of unflinching practicality and unwavering purpose. Criticism of both film and novel lie in the ways each artist has shaped and turned the facts to suit his storytelling purposes, abandoning strict history whenever necessary. And that is why this medium is called "historical fiction."

The reality is that historical fiction (whether visual or written) is as much a reflection of the society in which and for which it was created, as much as it tells the historical truth of its subject. The contemporary reality going here is nation-building, the Central Asian re-creation of self. As in last year's Kazakh cinema epic Nomad, which pushes the idea of a single Kazakh identity forged by a visionary leader, Iggulden's Temujin has a vision of uniting the multitude of steppe tribes and solitary outsiders into a single people. After his escape from captivity and certain death by the treacherous leader of his former clan, Temujin has a recurring dream:
"There was only one tribe on the plains. Whether they called themselves Wolves or Olkhun'ut or even tribeless wanderers, they spoke the same language and they were bound in blood. Still, he knew it would be easier to sling a rope around a winter mist than to bring the tribes together after a thousand years of warfare."
Later he proclaims, "I tell you we are one people. We are Mongols . . . We are the silver people, and one khan can lead us all."

This Temujin kills and conquers, yet every act has a practical motive. As a child, he murders his own brother, who isn't very admirable anyway, because Bekter's greed threatens the survival of the entire family. He slaughters and eats the flesh of Tatars who had violated his wife, because he had vowed such vengeance to his mother. He is an original thinker, open to new and better ideas, not bound by the way things have always been done. He sees a new kind of body armor, copies it and creates an army of invincible mounted warriors. He is quick to recognize, respect and learn from superior skill. He absorbs former enemies into his Mongol nation, prizing new loyalty and talent over former allegiances. He creates a united Central Asian empire, including all of current Kazakhstan, whose enemies are the Tatars to the north (Russia) and the Chin to the east (China). And if recent DNA studies are accurate, he is the progenitor of 1/12 of the all the men in Asia. After 2 centuries of Russian domination, what's not to like about a genuine homegrown, fabulously successful Central Asian steppe warrior?

The beauty of an historical novel is the author's Afterword, where he can explain his sources and tell where strict historical accuracy got sacrificed for the sake of a good story. Iggulden based his novel on the Waley translation of The Secret History of the Mongols. The original Mongolian version has been lost, but a Chinese transcription has survived, and translations of this work provide the earliest written record of Genghis Khan and his exploits. Supposedly commissioned by by Genghis himself, the Secret History is history in the way that the Iliad is a history of the Trojan War -- a mythic epic of larger-than-life heroes, grounded in real people and events.

Coincidentally (or not?), Sergei Bodrov plans a film trilogy, and Genghis: Birth of an Empire is Conn Iggulden's first in a trilogy on the life and empire of the "king of the sea of grass." Genghis: Lords of the Bow was published this spring to starred reviews, continuing the saga as Temujin turns his attention to the empire of the Chin. Bones of the Hills, the final entry in the Conqueror series, is scheduled for U.K. release in the fall (no word on the American publication date). Birth of an Empire was published in the U.K. as Wolf of the Plains. Quite a different image, isn't it?

Some folks fuss that historical fiction, with all its inaccuracies, shouldn't be a first experience with important events and lives. I say that, in the hands of a good writer, historical fiction will intrigue and motivate readers to learn beyond the confines of the novel in a way that straight history can't often do. Birth of an Empire is a captivating, thrilling page-turner for teens and adults alike (and a best-seller to boot). How many other books related to Central Asia can claim that??

Genghis Khan . . . good guy or bad guy? It's all up to the the writer, and to you, the reader.

Recent reviews of
New York Times
Christian Science Monitor
Los Angeles Times

Review of Genghis: Birth of an Empire
Christian Science Monitor

Excerpt from Chapter One

Author Interview (video)
Author Interview (mp3 audio)


Rod said...

Genghis Khan was the progenitor of 1/12 of all men in Asia? Really??

Good review. I enjoyed reading it.

Nyura said...

Apparently so. According to the results of a study published in 2003, up to 8% of the men in Asia carry a chromosomal marker tied to the Mongol conqueror. That report was covered in many newspapers and magazines (I think I read about it in Smithsonian) -- here's link to an article in the New York Times - A Prolific Genghis Khan, It Seems, Helped People the World