Fritz Mühlenweg is one of those authors who wrote incredible stories but somehow never got the credit they deserved.
Fortunately for hundreds, thousands of children Mühlenweg's books were classified as books for children and teenagers - unfortunately for the hundred, thousands of adults who therefore never read his stories about life in the far away Gobi desert.
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 where, 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 the everyday life of the people there. In exchange he told them about life in Europe. He even learned the Mongolian language, a language which is very hard for a European to learn, because it's so unlike most European languages1.
Back in Europe
In 1932 Mühlenweg returned to Europe, to make yet another unexpected career move: After thinking about 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.
Still 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" ("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 last 3000 years.
"Thousand-year-old bamboo" 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 journeys.2
So when in 1948 he was asked to write a short story for a periodical, he consented to it. And when he read through the letters he had sent his family, while he had been in Central Asia, and 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 desert.3
This book, which he called "In geheimer Mission durch die Wüste Gobi" (The English translation would be: "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 clearly be felt. And he tried to pass on the lessons he had learned himself from his Mongolian friends to the reader. For example, that time is a gift of Heaven for humans to be lavish with - and not to waste it 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 just shows you and let's you come to your own conclusion.
And Mühlenweg also manages 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, when it is a very short phrase, or he translated the expressions literally. While that normally is 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.
And still, 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 now he was at a point where he just wanted it published, and so he agreed.
And so it was published just in time for Christmas in 1950. It could be bought as one thick book, with the already mentioned title "On a Secret Mission through the Gobi Desert", or in two parts called "Großer-Tiger und Kompaß-Berg" and "Null Uhr fünf in Urumtschi" (In English that would be "Big-Tiger and Compass-Mountain" and "Five Past Midnight at Urumtschi").
It was a success. But unfortunately pretty soon someone had the not so great idea, that it had to be shortened, because young people wouldn't read a book this long.4 This shortened version was published under the title "Großer-Tiger und Christian" - "Big-Tiger and Christian", under which it was also translated into English.
The not so sensitive shortening of the text, and the fact that it was considered to be a children's book, meant that neither the writer or the novel ever got the credit they deserved. In 1955 Mühlenweg did win the Friedrich-Gerstäcker-Award for his book, and with that 1000 DM - while another author got 2000 DM for his book, which was considered as a book for adults and therefore "real literature".
Two years after "On a Secret Mission through the Gobi Desert", Fritz Mühlenweg published another book . The title "Das Tal ohne Wiederkehr" (In English: "The Valley of no Return") was chosen by the publisher, to lure the same readership that read books by Karl May, or by similar authors. The original title Mühlenweg had in mind and under which it is now published is "Fremde auf dem Pfad der Nachdenklichkeit"(In English that would be "Strangers on the Path of Pensiveness"), which refers to a caravan way of the same name.
"Strangers on the Path of Pensiveness" is the book by Fritz Mühlenweg which remains the closest to his actual experiences in Central Asia. It is essentially a trip journal, although he did put fictional elements in it.
Like in "On a Secret Mission through the Gobi Desert", you can feel the author's love and respect for Mongolia, its people and its language, in every word of the novel.
Fritz Mühlenweg died in 1961 in Allensbach.
Mühlenweg's books - above all "On a Secret Mission through the Gobi Desert" - always had a tremendous impact on those who read them. They are the kind of books you just have to read through, 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 is also of linguistic value, since it shows the way the Mongolian language was spoken a hundred years ago.
In recent years German literary critics and Germanists have re-discovered Fritz Mühlenweg's books, and at long last he is receiving the credit he deserves - as one of the most brilliant authors who ever wrote about the encounter of two cultures.