25) Petra Hůlová’s Mongolian family saga ‘All This Belongs to Me’
Petra Hůlová was fresh out of university when she burst onto the Czech literary scene in 2002, with her debut novel Paměť mojí babičce, or All This Belongs to Me, chronicling the lives of three generations of women in a Mongolian family. A surprise bestseller at the time, the poetic but often bleak family saga remains among the most widely read Czech books of recent decades. While set in the Mongolian steppes and capital of Ulaanbaatar, it is also a universal story of family secrets, betrayal, shame and resilience.
The Mongolian girls and women in Petra Hůlová’s novel largely fall into one of two groups: those who venture into the capital and those who remain in the Red Mountains, living in traditional round tents called “ger” in their language, but known to much of the world as “yurts”.
The characters’ overlapping stories are narrated in the first person, in a highly colloquial language. The text is peppered with Mongolian words, often without immediate context. It was a deliberate choice on Hůlová’s part, she says, to give readers a sense of mystery and alienation – “otherness” – along with intimacy.
Here is an excerpt, read by the author herself:
When the shoro hits, plastic sacks go whipping round and round the ger. Sometimes I sit outside and watch the sand swirl as the horizon turns golden-brown and through the whirl of yellow dust the sun is dim and trembly. My shoes turn gray under the buildup of dust, a dust that stings people's eyes and crunches under the horses’ hoofs, setting the whole herd on edge and making it hard on the yelping nochoi whose job it is to separate the in-foal mares with young from the rest.
When the shoro hits and there's nothing to do, since I can't see a step ahead and I'd choke to death outside, or not be able to find my way back, I sit out in front of the entrance to our ger, on the right, and wonder what it used to look like here in the days before there were plastic sacks, when families like us didn't have even a decent knife and couldn't improve their lot by selling crackers and cigarettes, the way our father did whenever someone happened to stumble across us.
The “occasional incomprehensibility”, as Hůlová puts it, becomes understandable in another context. Through these flowing narratives, she weaves a complex picture of a traditional nomadic family in modern times. While each woman offers her own truths of shared experiences, a prominent undercurrent is the discrimination faced by racially mixed Mongolians – “erliiz” – in a deeply, even suffocating, patriarchal society.
The main character, the half-Chinese Zaya, is among those who leaves the steppe, at age 16, for Ulaanbaatar, where both her labour and body are exploited. The novel begins and ends with her voice (and the title of Alex Zucker’s award-winning 2009 English translation, All This Belongs to Me, comes from Zaya’s reflections on her life, as an old woman). Like Naya, her half-Russian sister and most “foreign” in appearance, Zaya was born out of wedlock, while the youngest daughter, Oyuna, is born to their common mother Alta and her husband, both “pure-blooded” Mongols.
“The story is told by five different women from one family. These women are of three generations - sisters, their mother and then a granddaughter. In the beginning, I wanted to tell just one story. But in the end, I told five different stories that overlap.
“There are many moments in the lives of these women that are told in a different way, so you don’t know who is telling the truth and who was right and who wasn’t. I think it gives this book a special atmosphere in a way. You can build up your own story of all these characters.”
And any reader who might be expecting a romantic picture of distant Mongolia will be disappointed, because there is quite a lot of gritty realism in the story, there are elements of prostitution, of children being abandoned by their parents, and it's not always a pretty story, is it?
“Yes, I think it’s pretty tough because life is tough, and life in Mongolia especially. It is sad, because I think life is sad. I mean the main character, the woman called Zaja, is a failure in a way. She leaves her village and she goes to the city hoping she will find happiness there and love, but she doesn’t.
“She becomes a prostitute and she gets very poor, and she has a child with a man she doesn't know, and then returns to her village as an old woman, who is ridiculous, who is nothing. She doesn’t have any dignity, but she is also wise in a way. She takes all that happens in her life with a certain generosity.”
Petra Hůlová studied culturology – an interdisciplinary branch of the social sciences – as well as Mongolian Studies, at Charles University in Prague. She had spent a year as an exchange student in the capital of that landlocked East Asian country, sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south, and found it a fascinating mix of cultures.
“Mongolia is a kind of state in the ‘middle of nowhere’; it’s far from any other culture centre, on the one hand very isolated but on the other hand it’s a place where European – I mean Russian – and eastern culture somehow meets and mixes, and the nature of the nomadic culture, I think, is to include lots of elements of other cultures – it was always like that in Mongolian history. So, there are some Chinese elements and then the mixture of Buddhist and shaman religions, also very interesting, and now the trend to become somehow a Western country and to modernise, these things, these mixes, are what attract me most.”
Petra Hůlová wrote Paměť mojí babičce upon her return home from her year abroad Mongolia, over the course of a Prague winter. The novel transports the reader from the particular daily rhythms of nomadic life on the Mongolian steppe to the harsh realities of alcoholism and prostitution in Ulaanbaatar. But in fact, while the setting is decidedly in that country, the characters were not based on people she met or came to know there – but, in fact, on Czechs.
“This book is my opinion in a certain time [in 2002], how the life is, how the world is. And for me it is about relations, about love, about disappointment, about bitterness, about such feelings, basic feelings for me. And in Mongolia, I think life isn’t polluted – maybe it’s not the proper word – polluted by artificial phenomena like in Europe. Media, advertising, career maybe, so, if I set the story in a Czech setting I couldn’t avoid writing about such things. But, I’m not interested in that, and I wanted somehow to write a rough, simple story about what life means to me.”
Here is another extract from the novel, as narrated by Zaya, and read by the author:
That spring, when the strange man who wasn’t a Mongol appeared, we had lots of little lambs, and then never again after that. Grandma said later that it was his fault, he’d put a curse on our sheep, and that if he’d taken me instead, it wouldn’t have been nearly as great a loss, since I was only five then, which isn’t even a Mongol yet, just a little baby goatling. Plus Mother and Father had three more still. Now there are only three of us, Maggi died, but that’s still enough for our clan to flourish, even if some get stuck in a snowstorm, catch a disease, or get lost.
“Zaja, the girl who tells her story at the beginning of the book, is a child born out of wedlock. From her childhood, she felt quite neglected in her family and always felt she had to fight to be somebody. Maybe you can feel this in this paragraph too. Also there is something perhaps very Mongolian – the fact that Mongols don’t really accept little children – I don't want to say as human beings - but they definitely don’t consider them to be as important as adults. Up to the age of three or four even the name might be changed, or might not really be developed.”
Petra Hůlová was only twenty-two years old when she wrote the novel, which was not without controversy. At the time, she says, some Mongolians objected to a European “daring to pretend to be one of us” by writing in the first person, while others felt her family saga represented “a kind of story missing in Mongolian literature.”
Paměť mojí babičce has been translated into a dozen languages. The 2009 English translation by Alex Zucker, under the title All This Belongs to Me, received a national award from the American Association of Literary Translators.