Petra Hůlová's first novel, which tells the imaginary life stories of three generations of twentieth-century Mongolian women, caused a sensation when it was first published in the Czech Republic in 2002. The author, then a twenty-three-year-old student of Mongolian Studies, attributed the book's popularity partly to her youth and good looks, but also, more interestingly, to its unusual setting within a Euro-Asian culture, poised between Russia and the East.
The novel's appeal does not lie in Hůlová's provision of colourful snapshots of a remote foreign landscape. Her bleak depictions of life spent on Mongolia's rural steppe in the longed-for capital, Ulan Bator, are far from picturesque. Even the moments when the book briefly lightens are grounded in a gritty realism: the yielding of a love-starved kitchen girl in a cheap city guanz to the touch of a greasy maternal hand in her hair; an ostracized old lady's proud self-enthroning "like a khan princess" outside her yurt, where she may finally find rest. These five bitter narratives of female abuse, exploitation and loss — often enacted by women on women — are, like the lives of the novel's protagonists, monotonous, and at times hard to endure.
Alex Zucker's English title draws attention to the Mongolian characters' need to belong to — and be able to claim ownership of — a home place, powerfully symbolized here by the family yurt or ger. It also highlights one of the novel's central ironies: that while the story may take the reader into the heart of the traditional Mongolian home, the tale that is told is one of estrangement from that sheltering centre. Hůlová's main narrator, Zaya, and her younger sister, Nara, are the illegitimate products of their mother's sexual encounters with Chinese and Russian men, and are rejected as erliz or half-breeds by their clan. Sent to the city by their mother, the two girls are recruited as prostitutes in their aunt's brothel, thus losing ownership of their bodies. Both bear illegitimate children. Zaya keeps her baby and becomes a single mother; Nara gives hers up, and remains childless. As a result they are further isolated from their pure-blooded Mongol sister and excluded by their xenophobic tribe.
The poetic passages which frame the novel's start and close, lyrically translated by Zucker, offer a poignant illustration of Zaya's status as "other" in her society. We are aware of this throughout the narrative, but she and her sister barely acknowledge it, either to themselves or to one another. We first meet Zaya as a stolid little girl, seated "at home" in front of her parents' ger in a dust storm, childishly confident in spite of growing doubts about her Khalkha purity. At the end of the novel, having returned to her home town of Bashkgan somon, she takes up her stance as an old woman before the dilapidated ger she has on temporary loan from her sister. When her fantasies of ownership and citizenship are stripped away, what "belongs" to Zaya is immaterial: her knowledge of the harsh landscape she surveys, and the colour and scent of old memories.
The novel may leave the reader with a feeling of emptiness, but All This Belongs to Me is an acutely observed account — compelling despite its grimness — of the lives of its semi-nomadic subjects. Yet, while this European author's novel may seem to reinforce Western assumptions about the oppressed lives of women in developing countries, the representations here are not straightforward. Hůlová has said that her characters and the realities they face were modelled on Czech subjects, transported in fiction to a distant setting, where their emotions and relationships might be pursued in a purer form uncluttered by European ephemera. The seemingly authentic Mongolian characters, European projections onto an Asian landscape, are in fact ambiguous cultural hybrids. Their experiences of racism and sexism reflect not only on the Mongolian society Hůlová appears to scrutinize, but also on the Czech one that informs her subject matter. While the original Czech title, Paměť mojí babičce or "Memory for My Grandmother," hints at an intimate relationship between the author and the women of the novel, the connection is severed in the English version. One hopes that the complex dual perspectives such contemporary "writings from an unbound Europe" can offer are not overlooked as a result.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
All This Belongs to Me reviewed in TLS!
Here it is — from the most prestigious literary review in the English language, published in the edition of January 8, 2010, on page 21, under the title "What belongs," by Madeline Clements: