Fritz Mühlenweg is one of those authors who wrote incredible stories but somehow never got the credit he deserved. Fortunately for many thousands of children, Mühlenweg's books were classified as books for children and teenagers. However, this was unfortunate for the many thousands of adults who never read his stories about life in the far away Gobi desert as a result.
Life in Constance
Fritz Mühlenweg was born in 1898 in Constance, Germany. Since his father had a chemist's shop, it was only logical for his son to go to Bielefeld and learn the same trade. After working for a wholesaler in Mannheim he took over the family shop after his father died. But Mühlenweg was never a chemist at heart, and so he left Constance in 1926 and went to Berlin. Once there, he started to work for the newly-founded airline, Lufthansa.
In 1927, Lufthansa financed an expedition to Eastern and Central Asia, conducted by the well-known Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin. The objective of this journey was to observe the meteorological conditions in said area, because Lufthansa planned an airline connection between Berlin and Beijing. Fritz Mühlenweg joined the expedition as the one responsible for the material and the finances.
In the winter of 1929-30, Mühlenweg took a second journey to Central Asia. He was sent to pick up a German working at Lufthansa's meteorological observation station in Inner Mongolia, where a murder and a suicide had taken place. In 1931, Mühlenweg made his longest and his last journey to Central Asia. Once again, he and a German meteorologist were sent by Lufthansa to observe the weather conditions in the Gobi desert.
Unlike his colleagues, Mühlenweg never exhibited the arrogance of colonialism towards the Chinese and Mongolian people he met during his journeys. Instead, he was very interested in the culture and everyday life of the people there. As he found out about the way in which they lived, he told them about life in Europe. He even learned to speak Mongolian, a language so unlike most European languages that it is not easy for a European to learn1.
Back in Europe
In 1932, Mühlenweg returned to Europe to make yet another unexpected career move. After thinking of emigrating to New Zealand, he instead registered at the college of art in Vienna. There he met his wife-to-be, Elisabeth Kopriva, who also studied arts. They married and, after Elisabeth Mühlenweg finished her studies, they moved to Allensbach, a small town near Lake Constance. While he painted lonely landscapes and surreal mythology - not very successfully at first - his wife supported their family by writing religious books and doing book illustrations.
Mühlenweg never sympathized with the Nazi regime in Germany, but since he saw himself as a non-political person, he choose inner emigration instead of voicing his opinion in public. Despite this, he was forced to serve as an interpreter in the customs office in Bordeaux during World War II.
Later he said that the only thing making these six years in Bordeaux worthwhile, had been the work on his first book Tausendjähriger Bambus, meaning 'Thousand-year-old Bamboo', which was first published in 1946.
A Chinese student had sent him a Chinese-English copy of the Schi-King, an anthology of ancient Chinese poems put together by Confucius. Mühlenweg basically translated the poems in this book, but since he had to mainly rely on the English version because his Chinese wasn't good enough, he called what he did 'copying'. Still, he did manage to capture the beauty of a foreign language, the strangeness of a time long passed, and the familiarity of human problems, which obviously hadn't changed much in the previous 3000 years.
Tausendjähriger Bambus was the beginning of his career as a writer. Already fascinated by the Asian culture and literature, it was his seven children who inspired him to write down his own experiences in Central Asia, by asking him again and again to tell them just one more story, one more adventure from his journeys2.
So, when he was asked to write a short story for a periodical in 1948, he agreed. When he had read through the letters he had sent his family, while he had been in Central Asia, and also the trip journal he had kept, he not only wrote the short story, but also an entire novel inspired by his own experiences, particularly those in the Gobi desert3.
The novel, which he called In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi, or 'On a Secret Mission through the Gobi Desert', tells the story of two boys, a Chinese boy called Großer-Tiger - 'Big Tiger' - and his German friend Christian, who just wanted to fly their kite. But then they get caught up in the political struggles in China at the beginning of the 20th Century, and are sent on a secret mission through the Gobi desert.
Throughout the whole book Mühlenweg's love for Mongolia and the Mongolian people, and his respect for their culture and their customs, can be clearly felt. He tried to pass on the lessons he had learned himself from his Mongolian friends to the reader. For example, he explained that time is a gift of Heaven for humans to be lavish with - and not something to be wasted by always being hasty. But just as he never tried to persuade the people he met on his journeys that the European way of life is the best possible, he didn't try to persuade the reader that the Mongolian way is the best. He simply shows the reader and lets them come to their own conclusion.
Besides this, Mühlenweg also managed to transport his love for the Mongolian language, which he learned not in a school but by listening and talking to people. In his books he either used the Mongolian words, for very short phrases, or for longer phrases he translated the expressions literally. While such a method is normally one of the most basic mistakes a translator can make, Mühlenweg used this technique to successfully show the European reader not only the strangeness, but also the beauty of the Mongolian language.
When he tried to find a publisher for his novel, he couldn't find one. Nobody was interested in a story about two boys on an adventure in Mongolia. It was by sheer coincidence that he finally did find a publisher - but only as a book for children and teenagers. That was not what Fritz Mühlenweg had had in mind for his first novel, but by then he had reached the point where he just wanted to get it published, and so he agreed.
And so it was that In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi was finally published just in time for Christmas in 1950. It could be bought as one thick book, or in two parts called Großer-Tiger und Kompaß-Berg ('Big Tiger and Compass Mountain') and Null Uhr fünf in Urumtschi ('Five Past Midnight in Urumtschi').
The book was a success. Unfortunately, soon after publication someone had the mildly lunatic idea that it had to be shortened, worried that young people would be deterred from reading a book of such a length4. This abridged version was published under the title Großer-Tiger und Christian, or 'Big Tiger and Christian', under which name it was also translated into English.
The insensitive shortening of the text, and the fact that it was considered to be a children's book, meant that neither the writer nor the novel ever got the credit they deserved. In 1955, Mühlenweg did win the Friedrich-Gerstäcker-Award for his book, and with it 1000DM, while another author got double that for his book, which was considered a book for adults and therefore 'real literature'.
Two years after In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi, Fritz Mühlenweg published another book. The title, Das Tal ohne Wiederkehr, 'The Valley of no Return', was chosen by the publisher, to lure the same readership that read books by writers such as Karl May. The original title that Mühlenweg had in mind, and under which it is now published,is Fremde auf dem Pfad der Nachdenklichkeit, or 'Strangers on the Path of Pensiveness', which refers to a caravan trail of the same name.
Fremde auf dem Pfad der Nachdenklichkeit is the book which remains the closest to Mühlenweg's actual experiences in Central Asia. It is essentially a trip journal, although he did add some fictional elements. As in In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi, the author's love and respect for Mongolia, its people and its language can be felt in every word of the novel.
Fritz Mühlenweg died in 1961 in Allensbach.
Mühlenweg's books - above all In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi - always had a tremendous impact on those who read them. They are the kind of books you just have to read through to the end, no matter how long it takes. His loving and detailed description of Mongolia and the Mongolian people, also made his books very valuable for the scientists who worked about Mongolia. The Mongolian expressions he quotes in his books not only prove that he indeed had mastered the language, but are also of linguistic value, demonstrating the way the Mongolian language was spoken at the time of his travels.
In recent years German literary critics and Germanists have re-discovered Fritz Mühlenweg's books, and at long last he is beginning to receive the credit he deserves - as one of the most brilliant authors ever to write about the encounter of two distinct cultures.