Petra Hulova: a rising star of the young generation of Czech writers

Petra Hulova

This edition of Czech Books comes from a café just off the Old Town Square, where I have come to talk to a novelist who has become a phenomenon of the Czech literary scene in the last few years. Petra Hulova shot to fame in the Czech Republic in 2002 when her first novel, Pamet moji babicce (In Memory of My Grandmother) was published. It surprised many by instantly becoming a bestseller, and it has been one of the most successful and most widely read books in this country over the last ten to fifteen years.

Petra Hulova
Were you surprised by the sudden interest in your writing?

"Of course I was very surprised and I think nobody really expected such a success. Even up to now I meet people who ask me how I did it and why I became so successful, and I really don't know actually. I think that the success of the book was partly caused by its exotic setting, because it takes place in Mongolia, partly because I was a good-looking young woman, partly it was a coincidence in a way. I think these things, like the success of a particular artwork, you can hardly predict."

The book has not yet been published in English, but parts have already appeared in a translation by Alex Zucker. So I would like to ask you to read a short extract in English from his translation.

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.

In that extract you are describing a moment in the life of a Mongolian family, narrating the story from the point of view of a member of that family. They are living in a world that is far away from Prague, in terms of distance and of the way that people live. How did you manage to get under the surface of life in a Mongolian family and narrate the story from - in the course of the book - several members of that family?

"I graduated in Mongolian Studies, so I spent one year in Mongolia, in Ulan Bator, in the university, and before that I had already been learning the Mongolian language for two years, so I was able to speak Mongolian when I came there. I was actually writing something there, and after I came back to Prague I realized it was not very interesting, and I started up again. While writing it I realized how much of Mongolia got into me during that stay and how many things I actually discovered there."

A lot has been said about the way you wrote the book. You chose very deliberately to write in spoken Czech rather than literary Czech. So you have transferred this Czech colloquial idiom into a Mongolian context. Your literary style has been both widely praised and sometimes criticized. What was going through your mind when you decided to write in that very specifically Czech colloquial style?

"Again it was just something I began to do without any explanation to myself. It somehow came naturally to me to write in such a language. Actually I tried later on to write in 'proper' Czech for a couple of paragraphs, but it felt so unnatural to me that I stopped."

Could you tell us a bit more about the plot of the story? To start with, it is interesting that you chose to write from the point of view of five separate narrators, five different women. What made you make that decision, and how does the story develop?

"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, and 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 Dzaja, 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."

You are still only 27 years old, but you have already had four novels published. The latest came out towards the end of last year with an intriguing title that could be translated as "Artificial Triple Room". In this book you return to the theme of prostitution, but in a very different context.

"Yes, I return to the topic of prostitution in a way, but the book itself is very different and it was also described as shocking in reviews. My family was afraid that it might hurt me in a way that this book has the topic of prostitution, and sex is described there in a very rude and open way."

In this book and in other books you have written, people have sometimes detected a rather bleak sense of emptiness - with the characters trying to fill that emptiness. This does seem to be a recurring theme in your writing, whether you are writing about Mongolia or the life of a prostitute in Prague. Do you think this is part of the condition of our time?

"It is very interesting that you point it out, because I think for me it really is a big topic, because I feel this emptiness myself when I don't write. So I am trying to fill this emptiness I feel by my writings. It is sometimes said that writing is a sort of therapy for writers, so for me it is a way to fill this emptiness I feel, and this emptiness also penetrates into my writing and becomes a topic of it too in a way."

I would like to end the programme with another short extract from your first book "In Memory of My Grandmother". Could you put this extract into context?

"Dzaja, 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 Hulova
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.

When can we expect to see "In Memory of My Grandmother" come out in English?

"It's now being translated by Alex Zucker, who is working on the text, and I'm in contact with him, so I know he's translating. I know it will definitely be published in the United States by Northwestern University Press, and as for the date, I hope the second half of this year or the end of this year."