All This Belongs to Me (Paměť mojí babičce), Petra Hůlová, 2002
“Wow. Wow. That was so good. W-o-w.” This morning, I was co-hosting a radio show and finished All This Belongs to Me during a song; the preceding utterances were my exact reactions to the end of this stellar novel. When my c0-host, Jackson, politely asked what the book was about, I stumbled through the plot, and probably sounded quite jumbled. But with a book this good, how can I begin to explain the story that ran me over and spit me out, slightly changed from the person I was before opening it?
Essentially, the novel follows a series of narrations by Zaya, a Mongolian woman, and her female relatives. The stories of Zaya, her grandmother, mother, daughter, and sisters provide a cobbled together oral history of a family on the Mongolian steppes near the capital city of Ulan Bator, at some point in the late twentieth century (Zaya mentions “Soviet prefab” apartments cluttering Ulan Bator’s skyline). She and her sister Nara are marked by their mother’s infedility as erliiz, or biracial. Hůlová’s choice to make Zaya Mongolian-Chinese and Nara Mongolian-Russian illustrates nicely the unique position Mongolia occupies between its two regional historical hegemons.
Zaya occupies a dual role as a woman raised on the steppes who makes a life at a brothel in the capital city; her life and the lives of her female kin are marked by boundaries. There is a strict demarcation between life in the ger (yurt) and life in the somon center (village), and an even starker demarcation between the steppes and life in the City. Cultural separations of Mongols, Russians, and Chinese are visible and kept wide. Gender roles, too, are sharply opposed in the Mongolian culture Hůlová depicts. For the women in Zaya’s family there are roles a woman fulfills: she must make her hands busy from morning to night with chores, cooking, sewing, childrearing, and tending to the needs of her husband. She must be chaste or be scorned by suitors. Conversely, men in Hůlová’s novel are herders and strongmen often likened to Ghengis Khan. To myself and probably many readers, these gender roles sound all too familiar. It is these lines that the women in All This Belongs to Me must walk along or bear the consequences of straying.
There is one thing about this novel that makes me balk. This is a Czech novel by an author who is not Mongolian. Although Petra Hůlová extensively studied Mongolia and its language and culture in college,she does not identify as the culture and perspective that this novel presents. In an interview, Hůlová has said she based this novel on Czech persons and situations but set it in Mongolia to avoid “artificial phenomena.” Apparently to Hůlová, Mongolia is a land more untouched by technology and the career-based societies of Western culture. I’m uncomfortable with this sentiment. It comes off casually imperialistic. I think that as a state that has been laid claim to by foreign powers in its history, Mongolia and the perspectives of its people are somewhat marginalized. I mean, how many novels have you read that are from or about Mongolia? So it makes me uneasy when a Western, white author writes a narrative from a marginalized perspective they cannot identify as. Certainly, Hůlová is more than knowledgeable about the culture and language of Mongolia and this book is a work of genius, but I think it important to note this disconnect between reality and narrative.
This book was translated from Czech to English by Alex Zucker. The language is so engrossing and the descriptions so stark and beautiful that either Zucker did a beautiful job in translating, or the original Czech was just that good. I’d wager on both. I’ve become very interested recently in trying my hand at translating (for now, just poems), so this was a cool experience to read a contemporary translation of a Slavic text. All This Belongs to Me is one of those books that you plan on reading before you go to bed for a little while, but end up reading late into the night. It’s been a while since I have read something so sparse in its language that packs this much of a punch. Let this book knock you over the head, please! You won’t finish the same person you started.