09 April 2007

Can I Quote You On That?

My latest WIP is set in Mongolia in 1873. You know what that means? Research! Hurray! (No, I’m not being sarcastic -- I really do love to do research, perhaps that's why I write historical romance and not Chick Lit.)

Going through my stacks and stacks of books and pawing through numerous Google searches, I came across the historical persona of Nikolai Mikhaylovich Przhevalsky, also spelled Przewalski and Prjevalsky, for those playing along at home. Colonel Przhevalsky was a Russian explorer and geographer in central and eastern Asia, and the man for whom an Asiatic wild horse was named after he discovered them in southern Mongolia. He continues to remain a fascinating figure to study, both in terms of what he discovered and his larger-than-life personality. But my interest wasn't in Przhevalsky himself, but rather, the land that he studied.

I was thrilled when I learned that he had written a book, which was later translated into English, in 1875, entitled Mongolia, the Tangut Country, which described his travels throughout the precise part of the world that I was writing about, and in almost the exact same year. I did the happy researcher dance, having hit the proverbial jackpot. A primary source! That has to be even better than reading modern books about Mongolian history, right? How much more accurate can you get?

With a cup of tea and a notebook (it was a library book that I'd checked out of my local university library), I settled in to be transported to Mongolia in the 1870s. I took copious notes. How did the Chinese traders who lived in Ulanbataar (then called Urga) travel? What was the layout of the city, since there were no permanent structures other than Buddhist temples? There was so much to learn.

But then a weird thing started to happen as I read. My first clue that something was awry was when I read about burial customs in Urga. It was a Mongolian belief (which I'd read about elsewhere), that bodies weren't interred but rather taken to the top of a mountain or a distant, isolated place, and left to the elements where they would return to nature. The practice was called "sky burial." This isn't a disputed fact. However, according to Przhevalsky, in Urga, bodies were thrown into a common area not far from the city, and that stray dogs fell upon the corpses and ate them within moments. He records being disgusted by the filth of the city, and the plague of dogs gnawing on human remains, or even beggars before they had died.


I knew for certain that there were problems with Przhevalsky when he started to describe the customs of the Mongol nomads. I don't have the book in front of me (it's since been returned to the library), but I was flat out appalled when I read his accounts of the lack of chastity of Mongol women, the laziness and shiftlessness of the men, their careless work ethic. This was flat out wrong! Everything else I have read about the people of Mongolia suggested the complete opposite, including the strength of familial bonds and the hard but rewarding life of tending livestock on the open steppes.

I put Przhevalsky's book down and looked at my notes. Could I trust them now? How much of what he said was true, and how much was pure ethnic prejudice or even complete fabrication? There was no way to know. All the notes I had taken had to be put aside. I try very hard to be as accurate as I can in my work, and now everything that I had learned from the Russian explorer couldn’t be trusted. My primary source had failed me.

I did learn a valuable lesson with my experience with Przhevalsky. Personal bias or perception will always shape even the most mundane experiences. No matter how hard I or other authors try, there's simply no way for a book to be 100% truthful.